History Of Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum

History Of Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum

Feature Photo: Katherine Welles / Shutterstock.com

The History Of Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum is one loaded with great success for a while as a sports arena and former home of the New York Islanders and New York Nets as well as what used to be a vibrant center for legendary concerts and more. However, all that has changed in recent years. Located in Uniondale’s town of Hempstead, east of New York City is Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. More commonly referred to as Nassau Coliseum, this venue opened for the first time in 1972 on Long Island, seven miles east of the eastern limits of the Queens Borough. It also happens to sit beside Meadowbrook Parkway on sixty-three acres of land belonging to Mitchel Field.

This multi-purpose facility is situated on a former military airfield base. The main floor space has forty-four thousand square feet while its Expo Center has sixty thousand. From 2015 until 2017, the coliseum’s arena was closed for major renovations.

When the Coliseum was originally built it was able to seat up to fifteen thousand spectators before it was expanded in 1980 to accommodate up to eighteen thousand. The seating availability depended greatly on what the event was. Usually, more seating was available for events that included using the floor for space while hockey games allowed no more than 16,170 seats as the floor space became an iced playing surface.

Basketball Legacy

The first event to take place inside Nassau Coliseum was a basketball game between the New York Nets and the Pittsburgh Condors on February 11, 1972. Until 1977, this American Basketball Association team was a mainstay after relocating to it from New Jersey. While at the Coliseum, it won two ABA Championships that featured Julius Erving as the team’s star player. The first of the two wins came at the end of the 1973-74 season as the Nets defeated the Utah Stars in five games. The second championship occurred after the end of the 1975-76 season when they played against the Denver Nuggets.

Shortly after the ABA merged with the National Basketball Association in 1976, the team moved back to its original New Jersey location where it once upon a time played as the New Jersey Americans. While in the NBA, the New York Nets played only one season inside Nassau Coliseum before spending the next four seasons at the Rutgers Athletic Center while waiting for the Meadowlands Arena in New Jersey. Until 2012, they played as the New Jersey Nets before moving to Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The team also changed its name again, this time to the Brooklyn Nets and it has been that way ever since. For the Borough of Brooklyn, this was the first major sports team since the departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1957.

Upon the departure of the Nets, the NCAA Division I men’s college basketball held its ECAC Metro Region Tournament inside the Coliseum. Organized by the Eastern College Athletic Conference, it hosted the tournament four years in a row from 1978 until 1981. It also hosted the first-round and second-round games of the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament on three different occasions. The first was in 1982. 1994 and 2001 were the other two.

After the newly developed NBA D-League was formed, it was announced on November 5, 2015, that the Long Island Nets would play at Nassau Coliseum once its renovations were completed in 2017. In the meantime, the Nets played their first season at Barclays Center while the Coliseum’s renovations continued. The Long Island Nets are the development team affiliated with the Brooklyn Nets.

Hockey Dynasty

From 1972 until 2015, the National Hockey League’s expansion team, the New York Islanders played their home games there before moving to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center However, the move met with commercial complications that resulted in the home games split between Barclays and the newly renovated Coliseum for the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons.

The 2020-21 season had the team play their home games in the Coliseum before moving just over seven miles west on the Hempstead Turnpike to the newly developed UBS Arena in Belmont Park. That was the season the Islanders made it to the 2021 Stanley Cup Semifinals, going up against the Tama Bay Lightning. It was the final major sporting event that took place in the Coliseum, witnessing Anthony Beauvillier score an overtime goal against Tampa to force a seventh game of the series. Unfortunately for the Islanders, the seventh game in Tampa resulted in the team’s elimination from the series.

Before the New York Islanders was the New York Raiders, a team that was intended by the World Hockey Association to become its flagship team. The idea was to begin its inaugural season in Nassau for the 1972-73 season. As it turned out, Nassau County didn’t recognize WHA’s professional league status and refused to accept the Raiders as a legitimate pro-level hockey team.

Instead of going with WHA’s proposal, Nassau County turned to William Shea to get them an NHL team to play in its brand-new venue. This brought forth a team to Long Island, the New York Islanders, who displaced the Raiders to play in Madison Square Garden instead. Since the New York Rangers were already there, the Raiders went from a flagship team to barely noticeable.

October 7, 1972, marked the first game the Islanders played in Nassau Coliseum as they hosted the Atlanta Flames. The team’s first game in the NHL against the Flames resulted in a 3-2 loss. Five days later, the Islanders redeemed themselves with a 3-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings.

On April 22, 1976, the four-year-old team earned its first Stanley Cup after defeating the Buffalo Sabres in the fourth and deciding game of their seven-game final. Four years later, the Islanders won four of the NHL’s most coveted team trophies four seasons in a row. By this time, the Islanders were already considered the seventh of eight teams in the history of the NHL to be recognized as a dynasty. From 1980 until 1984, the Islanders had nineteen straight playoff series wins and were the last team in any major North American professional sports league to achieve four consecutive championship titles.

When the NHL held its All-Star game in Nassau Coliseum on February 8, 1983, Wayne Gretzky scored four goals in the third period, an unheard-of feat by what became one of the greatest hockey players of all time. At the time, Gretzky was the captain of the Edmonton Oilers, the very same team that put an end to the Islanders’ winning streak as Stanley Cup champions. While in the Coliseum, the Islanders had an 11-1 record of winning games in the NHL final, instrumentally giving the arena the nickname “Fort Neverlose.”

In addition to the NHL Islanders was its affiliated team, Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the American Hockey League. When the 2004-05 NHL season lockout occurred, the minor league hockey team played two of its home games in the Coliseum. Bridgeport’s home arena is technically at the Arena at Harbor Yard, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. During the 2009 AHL playoff season, the Sound Tigers had to play two of their home games in the Coliseum again due to scheduling issues that took place in their hometown.

Let There Be Light

When it was announced in 2004 about The Lighthouse Project to renovate Nassau Coliseum, the idea was to develop a sixty-story tower that would resemble a lighthouse. This development also had new housing in mind, as well as a hotel, minor league baseball stadium, athletic facilities, and restaurants. There was also a plan to add trees and other environmentally favorable elements as part of the site’s landscape. In 2006, Nassau County granted its approval to proceed.

At the time, Islanders owner at the time, Charles Wang, liked the idea. On August 14, 2007, he teamed up with Lighthouse Development Group and Rexcorp to turn this concept into reality. In the process, the sixty-story lighthouse proposal turned into two buildings that would each stand thirty-one stories high would feature a footbridge connection at the top. What started out as a simple renovation project intended for the Coliseum wound up becoming a transformation of 150 acres of land. The projected cost of this was slated at $3.75 billion.

The idea was to commence construction in 2009. However, the project still needed to receive approval from the Town of Hempstead when it came to making land zone changes. When the approval wasn’t granted, the deadlocked project wound up passing the October 2009 deadline, it was reported by Long Island Press that the Lighthouse Project was canceled.

When there was an announcement during the summer of 2010 to create an alternate zone for the Nassau Coliseum’s property, this downsized the Lighthouse Project to have its originally proposed size. Because of this, the interest to continue pursuing this ambitious project was lost. This led to the 2011 referendum that had the county residents vote on a $400 million public bond issue to replace the Coliseum. For the Islanders’ owner at the time, Wang was desperately seeking to find a way to keep his team in Long Island. However, when the voters voted against the idea of an arena replacement, this was followed by an October 24, 2012 announcement that the New York Islanders were set to move to Barclays Center in Brooklyn as soon as the lease expired. The final game the team played was on April 25, 2015, against the Washington Capitals in what was a 3-1 win during the sixth game of its playoff season. Even though this forced the series to reach the seventh game, the Islanders were still bested in the end by their opponents.

We’re Moving Out

When it was announced the Islanders were heading to Brooklyn, the owner of Barclays Center chose to perform a study on developmental possibilities for the Nassau Coliseum site. A proposal was then issued to transform the arena into a smaller-sized venue that would allow its surrounding parking lot to cater to a hub of retail and entertainment activity. During the summer of 2013, it was Forest City Ratner, the same owner of Barclays, that beat out the other three proposals that focused on the future of the Coliseum. What secured the win was the agreement for the New York Islanders would play six games per season in the arena, as well as the Brooklyn Nets playing an exhibition game. It would also serve as the home arena for a minor league hockey team.

After the renovations were completed in 2017, the seating availability was reduced to 13,917 for hockey and 14,500 for basketball. However, over the stretch of time, it was regarded as one of the smallest arenas to host an NHL team. Until the Winnipeg Jets returned to Canada Life Center, it was technically the smallest. In age, it was the second oldest arena in operation with the NHL, right behind Madison Square Garden. This all changed after the Islanders left Nassau as their home turf for good. This came about only after the owners of the Islanders tried to replace it without success. Instead of trying to replace Nassau Coliseum anymore, the new owners of the Islanders simply relocated the team to a location that would be more accommodating.

We’re Back, Sorta

Although Barclays Center had more seating availability, the New York Islanders had a poor attendance rating according to the January 2017 report issued by Bloomberg News. Because of this, the venue in Brooklyn looked into dropping the Islanders as tenants. Part of the problem was the site didn’t quite measure up as a hockey arena. The sight lines were bad, as well as the ice conditions. Barclays Center was designed to cater to basketball, not ice hockey. Because of this, the Islanders looked to return to the newly renovated Nassau Coliseum. On September 17, 2017, the Islanders returned to the Coliseum for the first time in a preseason game against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Unfortunately, the renovations had a reduced seating capacity from what it was in 1980. This posed a problem as this was considered unsustainable by NHL standards. While at Barclays, the Islanders had about twelve thousand live spectators, which was the lowest in the NHL at the time. Barclays’ seating capacity was 15,795 while the one in Nassau was 13,900. In order to appease the NHL, the new owner of the Islanders, Jon Ledecky, had his team split their home games between Nassau Coliseum and Barclays Center until a brand new arena could properly host the Islanders.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, both Nassau Coliseum and the New York Islanders encountered an awkward situation. The majority of the playoff games the team played during the 2020-21 season were played in Toronto, Ontario’s Scotiabank Arena before going to Edmonton, Alberta’s Rogers Place for the Eastern Conference finals.

Proud Host

Aside from the New York Nets, the Long Island Nets, and the New York Islanders, Nassau Coliseum has also hosted the New York Arrows, one of the teams belonging to the original Major Indoor Soccer League. The first four MISL championships were won by the Arrows before the team changed its name to New York Express. Due to financial issues, the team was unable to complete the 1986-87 season, one which had the team earn only three wins in the twenty-six games it played.

On May 7, 1974, the New York Sets, a World Tennis Team organization, played their first match at the Coliseum. It later won a championship in 1976. Going into the 1977 season, this tennis team changed its name to New York Apples. It also began to play some home games at Madison Square Garden. By the time the season was over, instead of returning to Nassau Coliseum, it remained at the Garden.

From 1989 until 2003, the Coliseum hosted the home games for the New York Saints of the National Lacross League. It also hosted the New York Titans of the same league in 2007 with four of its eight home games. Since 2019, it has become home of the league’s New York Riptide.

When the New York State Public High School Athletic Association hosted its wrestling championship at Nassau Coliseum in February 2006, it broke the organization’s attendance record at 17,755. Upon the writing of this article, it’s a record that still stands.

As a sporting venue, Nassau Coliseum continues to proudly serve New Yorkers from its Long Island location. However, there’s so much more to this facility than hosting a series of sporting events. It was built as a multi-purpose complex and that’s exactly how it did business.

Rockin’ Bootleggers

Not long after Nassau Coliseum opened up its doors as a brand new venue to host events as a multi-purpose facility, bookings were already underway to host a series of concerts performed by some of the music industry’s greatest. Throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, it was a major hub of activity that kept the arena packed as it rocked Long Island.

Among the first was the iconic Elvis Presley as he performed at Nassau Coliseum in a three-night concert performance on June 22, 23, and 24, 1973. They were sold-out shows that had the venue packed with adoring fans. His final concert there was held on July 19, 1975. There was a concert scheduled on August 22, 1977, that would have launched Presley’s summer tour but his untimely death wound up having the tickets that were printed for the show become rare collectors’ items.

While on their North American tour in 1975, Led Zeppelin played at the Coliseum three times. The second time the group performed there also featured Ronnie Wood and The Rolling Stones as they performed a rendition of “Communication Breakdown.” This has appeared on a series of bootleg releases since then.

In 1976, David Bowie did a radio broadcast from the Coliseum during his Isolar Tour while supporting his latest album at the time, Station to Station. This later resulted in a bootleg release of the concert in 2010 as part of the album’s reissue that took place that year. In 2017, there was also a separate release of the broadcast titled Live Nassau Coliseum ’76.

Queen also made its mark at the Coliseum on February 6, 1977, as the group embarked on its American tour. The footage of “Tie Your Mother Down” was the same featured in the song’s promotional video. On November 19, 1978, Queen returned on yet another one of the group’s big tours.

On August 19, 1973, The Beach Boys performed a series of songs at the Coliseum that would be included in the group’s second live album, which was released in November. Then on June 14, 1943, they performed before a sold-out crowd that would also witness Elton John and Paul Simon join the group on stage as part of their encore performance. This was the tour that promoted the group’s new album at the time, Holland.

After Pink Floyd performed in Nassau Coliseum for the first time in 1975, it made such an impression on the group that it was only one of two venues during its 1980 The Wall Tour. The live concert performances ran from February 24 until February 28, 1980. One of the five concerts was filmed, then the leader appeared in an underground recording. When the group returned during the summer of 1988, this time it was a four-night run as they recorded and filmed Delicate Sound of Thunder.

Going into the 1980s, Blue Oyster Cult recorded its live version of “Dr. Music” while performing in Nassau on December 30, 1981. It was one of the tracks featured in the 1982 release of Extraterrestrial Live. This was also the venue Tommy Caldwell from The Marshall Tucker Band made his final appearance as the founding member sustained a fatal injury ten days later in a car accident. Live on Lone Island 04-18-80 was an album that featured Caldwell on its cover upon release. Although this recording was the first complete concert album to come from the Coliseum, it wasn’t officially released until August 22, 2006.

For three nights in December 1980, Bruce Springsteen performed in a concert series that featured some of its recordings featured in his 1986 live album, Live/1975-85. Released in full for the first time in 2015, Nassau Coliseum, New York was regarded by scores of fans who felt his New Year’s Eve concert was one of the man’s best yet. (Editors Note: I was there that night on Dec 31, 1981. It was freezing. Bruce Springsteen played the longest show of his career up to that point that night. One of the greatest concerts I have ever experienced)

Billy Joel Legacy

Normally, when a jersey number is retired this is to honor an athlete whose accomplishments have made an everlasting impression on either the team or city represented. In the case of Billy Joel, he earned this honor as 69 was the number that was featured on a banner that hangs from Nassau Coliseum’s rafters.

He’s in good company with the Islander greats. Joel, who has repeatedly performed before the sold-out crowd of the Coliseum, had a December 29, 1982 concert he performed there that was recorded for the 1983 HBO concert special, Billy Joel: Live From Long Island. He was also the last musician to perform in Nassau Coliseum before it commenced with major renovations. That concert was held on August 4, 2015.

On April 5, 2017, it was Billy Joel who was the newly renovated Nassau Coliseum’s first event. Since him, the Coliseum continues to rock it with music industry legends such as Marc Anthony, Mariah Carey, Stevie Nicks, Lionel Richie, and The Pretenders.

Rockin’ & Wrestlin’

Clean into the 1990s, Nassau Coliseum was a favorite venue that hosted one world-class concert after another. In the meantime, World Wrestling Entertainment and the now-defunct World Championship Wrestling have been featuring their roster of athletes before a live audience since the 1990s. On April 10, 2017, the WWE hosted its first Raw episode since the Coliseum’s much-needed renovations were completed. This series, as well as SmackDown, have frequently booked their shows at the Coliseum. This even includes the 2018 pay-per-view event, Evolution, which was the first of its kind as it strictly featured women wrestlers.

While Madison Square Garden was the venue of choice to hold the WWE’s first Wrestlemania, it was Nassau Coliseum that hosted WrestleMania 2. On April 7, 1986, this pay-per-view event was actually a three-city event that included Chicago’s Rosemont Horizon and the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena. From the Coliseum, the 16,585 fans that attended witnessed four live matches while the rest of the Supercard was shown to the audience via closed-circuit television. The main event held inside Nassau Coliseum was a mocked boxing match between Rowdy Roddy Piper and the actor, Mr. T.

Nassau Coliseum Today

Going into June 2020 it was announced Nassau Coliseum was to be closed indefinitely until new investors could be found to take it over and assume the debts it incurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Two months later, NYCB withdrew its naming rights contract it had regarding the facility. Since then, the lease of the Coliseum has been taken over by Nassau Live Center, LLC. It is a Florida-based company owned by Nick Mastroianni II, who was responsible for the loan to help with the renovation of Nassau. The new lease agreement allows the Islanders to continue playing their home games in the arena instead of having it shut down.

Currently, Nassau Coliseum is still just as busy now as a venue as it ever was. The Long Island Nets continue to play basketball there and it continues to host a series of concerts and other shows. New York Riptide still plays there as well, keeping ice hockey alive and well in its arena. Also, the WWE has returned to keep laying the smackdown inside (and sometimes outside) the squared circle. It appears the days of Nassau Coliseum are far from over as it seems to take Billy Joel’s “My Life” to heart.

History Of Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum

Feature Photo: Leonard Zhukovsky / Shutterstock.com

Resources:

https://www.nassaucoliseum.com/

https://www.onefinalserenade.com/live-from-long-island-1982.html

Jackson, Kenneth T. The Encyclopedia of New York City. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.

Haskell, David. The Encyclopedia of New York. New York: Avid Reader Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2020.

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