By Peter Schwartz
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October 24, 2012.
That was a bittersweet day for Islanders fans, who will always remember when the franchise announced it would be leaving Nassau Coliseum for Barclays Center in Brooklyn, beginning with the 2015-16 season.
Goodbye, Long Island. Hello, Brooklyn.
Islanders Country couldn't believe it, and neither could its legendary television voice.
"Disbelief," said Hall of Fame broadcaster Jiggs McDonald. "My reaction basically centered around the fan base and the folks that have been so loyal."
After broadcasting for the Los Angeles Kings and Atlanta Flames, McDonald joined the Islanders for the 1980-81 season and would be the team's TV voice for 15 seasons before moving on to broadcast for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Florida Panthers.
Owner Charles Wang tried for years to get the Islanders a new arena on Long Island. Whether it was the Lighthouse Project that would have included a renovated Coliseum or the failed referendum for a new arena next to the existing one, Wang kept hitting roadblock after roadblock.
Wang didn't want the team to leave, but he wasn't about to let the Islanders play in a substandard building any longer than necessary.
Despite inquiries from ownership groups in other markets, Wang received a local offer he couldn't refuse. The team would stay in the area, but not on Long Island. Instead, Islanders fans will have to drive to Brooklyn or take the LIRR.
I remember being both angry and relieved that day. I was angry that my 10-minute drive to Islanders games would soon come to an end, but relieved that I could still go to games.
While a lot of fans pointed their angry fingers at Wang, what was he supposed to do? The man tried everything to give the Islanders a new home. But he was constantly at odds with many Nassau County politicians, including Town of Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray.
Even from a distance, McDonald could see that Wang was not the villain.
"I recognize just how committed he has been to this hockey team and this community in everything that he has tried to do to keep that team on Long Island," said McDonald. "I know a lot of people look at (the move to Brooklyn) as a business grab, but in reality it's nothing different than practically every other franchise in the league, and that is real-estate driven."
McDonald was referring to places like Columbus, where a new arena was built as part of a destination point with surrounding restaurants, movie theatres and apartments.
You can't blame Wang for the move, but the reality of the situation still hurts.
"It just didn't seem right," said McDonald, the 1990 winner of the Foster Hewitt Award from the Hockey Hall of Fame. "A team that had won four Stanley Cups and had been such a competitive team -- and had been so good for the county and Long Island in general -- was being forced out."
Let's be honest here: Nassau Coliseum has been a dump for quite some time. But speaking as an Islanders fan, it's our dump, just like how Mets fans felt about Shea Stadium. Leaving the Coliseum behind for a new arena on Long Island would have made the final season in the old barn a little easier to accept.
But the fact that it's goodbye, Nassau County, makes this a tough pill to swallow.
Despite its many shortcomings, the Coliseum rocks when it's full. It has been a special place when the Islanders are good and has been as loud as any building in the NHL. Anybody who was at any of the playoff games against the Penguins two seasons ago would attest to that.
The building is far from modern and lacks the amenities of new arenas around the NHL, but there isn't a bad seat in the house that Bossy, Trottier, Smith, Potvin, Nystrom, Gillies, Arbour and Torrey built.
"When you spend more time in the building you begin to realize just how great the sightlines are," said McDonald. "It's a compact building. It went through a lot of renovation with the addition of an upstairs press box and luxury suites."
The Coliseum opened in 1972 and was probably outdated when the first customer came through the turnstiles. It's a simple arena with an upper bowl and a lower bowl.
The original seating capacity was 14,665 for hockey, but that number went up as the Islanders got better. It seemed like they stuck a seat in every possible nook and cranny. From 1987 to 2001, the Coliseum had its highest seating capacity at 16,297 and is now at 16,170.
McDonald experienced the Coliseum as a visiting broadcaster, but truly came to appreciate what the place was all about when he joined the Islanders.
"It's easy to get to and everybody had such a good time in that building," said McDonald, who marveled at how the team was treated by its fan base.
"It was amazing. With the Islanders, it was just the pride of the community."
McDonald was behind the Islanders television microphone for the final three Stanley Cups of their dynasty run. After that, he called memorable moments like Ken Morrow's overtime goal in Game 5 that knocked out the Rangers in 1984, Pat Lafontaine's goal in the fourth overtime of the Easter Epic in 1987, and David Volek's overtime goal in Game 7 against the Penguins in 1993 that ended Pittsburgh's Stanley Cup run.
But after an 11-year absence, McDonald returned to the Islanders television booth in 2006 to fill in for Howie Rose, who was on WFAN Mets duty for the NLCS against the Cardinals. So, the Islanders went back to the future and gave Jiggs a call.
Eight years later, McDonald still fills in for Rose, a thrill for Islanders fans young and old. It's also an even bigger thrill for the man who used to call the Coliseum his home office.
"It's been so much fun and just a great ride," said McDonald. "It's been an amazing feeling to reconnect to not only be around the team but to reconnect with the fan base and create a different fan base for myself for younger people who had no idea who I was or what I had done in the past."
As the Islanders head into their 43rd and final season at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, it's logical to think that many of the empty seats that have commonplace in recent years will be occupied during the 2014-15 season.
With just 41 regular season games remaining, Islanders fans are likely to get very emotional and nostalgic this season. The final season on Hempstead Turnpike will certainly tug at the heartstrings of Islanders Country.
"I agree," said McDonald. "So many memories. Those (championship and retired number) banners up there … do they stay or come down and move to Brooklyn? The night that they do come down, if that's the case, how emotional is that going to be? It's going to be an emotional roller coaster."
A roller coaster that could very well come to a halt with the Islanders' final regular season home game on Saturday, April 11, 2015 against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
There could be playoff home games, but there's no guarantee. That final regular-season home game will be a highly sought after ticket by Islanders fans, just like it was for Mets and Yankees fans in 2008 with the closing of Shea and the old Yankee Stadium.
I plan on being at that final Nassau Coliseum game with my family. Since my wife fully expects me to be a basket case that night, she'll likely have a box of tissues at the ready.
If you think I'll be the only one, think again!
"I'll probably need more than that," said McDonald. "My plan is to be there for the last game, whether I'm working or not. I doubt that I would be."
I think it would be appropriate for Jiggs to have some sort of role on MSG Plus that night. In fact, I think it should be a big one.
Most of Jiggs' fill-in assignments over the last eight years have been on the road. No disrespect toward Rose, who has been an outstanding broadcaster for the Islanders, but on April 11, it would be so appropriate to have Jiggs call that final regular-season home game.
And how great would it be to have Jiggs do one final Coliseum game with his longtime partner Eddie Westfall?
"That would be so special to do one more together," said McDonald. "I know 18 would be up for it and I'm certainly ready to go. Who do we convince that that would be the thing to do?"
If anyone from MSG is reading this, make it happen!
Saying goodbye to the Nassau Coliseum won't be easy for a lot of people, including myself. But the Islanders are planning to give it a proper sendoff this season. and there will be plenty of nights when attendance will be a must.
Jiggs McDonald was behind the mike for so many great Coliseum moments in Islanders history. It would be fitting if he were to be around for a few more in the old barn's final season.
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