Islanders fans finally get their cathartic homecoming

It’s hard to argue that a traffic jam four hours before puck drop means much. But a sign on the Cross Island Parkway around 3 p.m. blared: “Game Tonight at Belmont Arena. Expect Delays.” 

Never before has pregame traffic felt so cathartic. 

Saturday’s opener at UBS Arena has been years in the making. How long exactly? That depends on how you count. 

Five weeks since the start of the season. Four years since the Islanders won a bid to build an arena at Belmont Park. Six years since a failed move to the Barclays Center. Twelve years since the Lighthouse Project was proposed amid rumors of the franchise moving to Kansas City. 

Nobody is thinking about a move now. The Island has its franchise. The franchise has a building. 

Islanders fans enter UBS Arena prior to the team's first game at the new arena Saturday night.
Islanders fans enter UBS Arena prior to the team’s first game at the new arena Saturday night.
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The mood was dampened by the pregame news of three more Islanders — Adam Pelech, Andy Greene and Anthony Beauvillier — testing positive for COVID-19, but general manager Lou Lamoriello said that spirits remained positive. 

“I think that without question, the morale has been exceptional,” Lamoriello said. “As I said yesterday, this group is a special group. Adversity hits all of us. Sometimes, [more] often than not, it makes us stronger, so their focus right now is on the game.” 

Nothing could ruin this night. At least not completely. 

“Obviously an exciting atmosphere tonight,” Flames forward Blake Coleman told reporters pregame. “Having just been here for a playoff series [with the Tampa Bay Lightning], I know how rowdy those fans can get and expect it’ll be just a ton of fun. I’m sure it’ll be a loud, passionate group here. Anytime you can open a new building and be part of history, it’s pretty sweet.” 

Coleman was part of the Lightning team that ended the Islanders’ season last June, breaking their hearts in Game 7 at Tampa Bay just two days after Beauvillier’s overtime winner gave Nassau Coliseum a final moment to remember. Saturday, in some ways, feels like a bookend to that night — a new memory to buttress the bittersweet feelings of last summer. 

The Islanders are used to playing second fiddle in these parts. On Saturday, they were the center of attention, the Empire State Building bathed in blue and orange to commemorate the occasion. 

Everything else — including the team’s struggles coming into the game itself — could be shoved aside. This was the culmination of something bigger. 

“The Coliseum served us well, Barclays has served us well,” coach Barry Trotz said Thursday. “The guys that have been part of this team, at least the last four or five years, they built this.” 

Lip service aside, the Islanders are so accustomed to playing in misfit arenas that this place might take some getting used to. 

“Absolutely blew me away,” Mat Barzal said Thursday. 

“It’s pretty surreal,” Anders Lee also said. 

Lee wasn’t there on Saturday after being placed in COVID-19 protocols. He’ll have to wait even longer to play in the new digs, to hear the noise designed to replicate that of the Old Barn. 

But if it was worth the wait for the Islanders, it will be worth the wait for their captain, too.