UNIONDALE, N.Y. — The Islanders came home on Saturday night, to the arena on Long Island where they played for 43 seasons before moving to Brooklyn three years ago, and fans celebrated in the most appropriate way possible: with a tailgate and a raucous comeback victory.
“I have been a fan since I was in the Cub Scouts, “ said Leon Bassen, 34, of Lindenhurst, who was enjoying the scene in the parking lot of Nassau Coliseum with friends, hours before the puck dropped for the game, which the Islanders rallied to win, 3-2, over the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“Going to Barclays Center, you feel like a stranger in someone’s house,” Bassen said. “Here, even before you walk in that building, you’re home.”
The Islanders announced in January that the team would split this season’s home schedule between Barclays Center in Brooklyn — where they moved at the start of the 2015-16 season — and Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale. The plan is for the team to move to a not-yet-built modern arena at Belmont Park, previously known for horse racing, for the 2021-22 season.
Dedicated fans could not wait for Saturday night’s game and a new — albeit temporary — era at Nassau Coliseum to commence.
“We are waiting for Belmont but loving every second of this,” Bassen said. “I was here for the last game ever. I never thought I would be here again.”
Once inside, the crowd sang the national anthem after a moment of silence for former President George Bush, who died on Friday, and then resumed their loud chants of “Let’s Go, Islanders!”
And the Islanders started their physical line of Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck, all of whom played in the Islanders’ final meaningful game at the Coliseum, a playoff win against the Washington Capitals in April 2015.
Cizikas sent Blue Jackets forward Boone Jenner flying behind the Columbus net 13 seconds into the contest, and the Islanders faithful went wild.
The capacity crowd of 13,917 raised its cadence even higher when Cizikas put the Islanders ahead with a goal at 7 minutes 9 seconds of the third period.
After a scoreless first period, Columbus scored twice early in the second before the Islanders’ captain, Anders Lee, and Anthony Beauvillier scored to tie the score heading into the third, leading to Cizikas’s heroics. Islanders goaltender Thomas Greiss made 28 saves.
“You see people in the parking lot at 11:30 in the morning,” Cizikas said. “And coming out for warmups, that was a different atmosphere. We fed off that. These points are as much theirs as ours. We are a family here.”
The Islanders are also expected to split games over the next two seasons before they move to an 18,000-seat arena adjacent to the Belmont Park grandstand. Saturday’s game against Columbus is the first of 21 contests on Long Island this season. The Islanders have nine home games remaining in Brooklyn.
Lee, who played part of three seasons at the Coliseum before the shift to Barclays, said he did not expect his squad to miss a beat despite playing in two home rinks. He relished the chance to return to the Coliseum, now officially called NYCB Live, for New York Community Bank.
“You get used to it in about five seconds,” said Lee, who scored in his first game with the Islanders at home in April 2013. “It feels like nothing has really changed and the time in between happened pretty quickly.”
Nassau Coliseum has undergone a $165 million renovation and now accommodates a league smallest of about 13,900 hockey fans, compared with 16,234 before the Islanders left.
New York State also committed $6 million in infrastructure improvements so the building could meet league requirements for ice production and broadcasting amenities.
The locker rooms have been refurbished, with the Islanders now using the former visitors’ dressing area. The arena’s exterior has the appearance of a silvery spaceship, and the modernized interior has rows of fresh black seats, each with a clear view of the ice surface — which is not the case at Barclays Center, where obstructed-view seats in the basketball-designed arena have frustrated fans.
Martin has returned this season after two years with Toronto.
“Our fan base was a big reason why we were able to come back,” he said. “We were able to use them to our advantage the whole night.
”It’s just a rambunctious group and this was awesome. There’s no better building in the league to play in and fans to play in front of.”
The Islanders moved to Brooklyn after their previous majority owner, Charles Wang, could not persuade Nassau County voters to approve a major development project that included plans for a new arena.
The shift to Barclays Center has not been easy, and attendance has suffered; the Islanders are last in the N.H.L. through their first 11 home games this season, with an average of 10,447 fans.
They were also last in the 31-team league last season, with an average of a little more than 12,000 fans in 41 home dates.
That promises to change with home games back in Nassau County. Many fans said they preferred driving to games and commiserating hours before the puck dropped. That has been a Long Island tradition for more than four decades.
“Most of us live a few miles from this place,” said Bassen, who was wearing a blue Islanders sweater adorned by a white “NY” on the front. “We can drive here, we can tailgate.”
The Islanders also practice five minutes from the Coliseum at Eisenhower Park, and most of the players live in nearby Garden City or Manhasset.
“Everyone is excited to go back there and play,” said defenseman Johnny Boychuk, who is in his fifth season with the team. “When I first got traded here, that was home for us. It will be like old times.”
For alumni who have remained on Long Island since the Islanders won their four straight Stanley Cups from 1980 to 1983, the return is to be savored.
“Everybody I have talked to is excited for the team to be out here again,” said Clark Gillies, the rugged left wing who was the captain of the Islanders in the late 1970s and a key contributor to all four Cup championships. “People will go crazy.”
The former Islander Bob Nystrom — who scored the Cup-winning overtime goal in 1980 — echoed his teammate.
“There is a relationship there,” he said. “We carried the Cup around in that building. You can’t beat it.”