Anders Lee has been with the Islanders a long time. Long enough to have heard a lot of rumors, to have seen a lot of false starts. Long enough to remember Nassau Coliseum closing the first time, the second time and Barclays Center in between.
Probably long enough to have wondered if he would ever see a day like Thursday come to fruition, when the Islanders took the ice to practice for the first time in a new building they can call their own.
“It’s pretty surreal to be honest,” said Lee, the Islanders captain. “Since a lot of guys have been here a long time, lot of talk about a lot of different things. Different arenas and half-seasons in places, it’s always one of those conversation points you have.”
Now, UBS Arena is finally here.
It is not perfect, not yet. The Islanders held their post-practice availability over Zoom on Thursday because the arena’s event level is still being set up. Media members watched practice in hard hats and vests because the place is still considered an active construction zone.
“You sit there and go, ‘There’s not a way in hell they’re gonna finish,’ ” Oak View Group CEO Tim Leiweke said on a tour Wednesday. Owner Jon Ledecky even asked him how they’d be done in time for Friday.
“We have a lot of work to do in the next three days, but we think everything will ultimately be ready to go,” Leiweke said.
The Islanders seemed to have an extra kick in their step as they practiced on Thursday. That’s no coincidence.
It’s nice to be home after a 13-game road trip to open the season. It’s even nicer to be at a new home.
“Absolutely blew me away,” Mathew Barzal said. “Saw the gym, saw our eating area, I couldn’t wait to see more. The entire facility and the rink and how it’s set up. It’s so high end, I can’t even tell you how nice it is down here. We’re a pretty lucky group.”
The arena has a soft opening Friday night with a charity concert. Then on Saturday, it’s the main event — Islanders-Flames at 7 p.m.
Coach Barry Trotz compared the feeling to playing in an NHL Winter Classic or an outdoor game. Which is to say, this isn’t just any other game.
“It’s got a different feel,” Trotz said. “So yeah, there’s a little pep in the step. Getting lost trying to figure out where every office is, every room, so that’s probably what it feels like. Which is good — these are great experiences.”
As a franchise, the Islanders have been building toward this for what feels like forever. Nassau Coliseum originally closed in 2015, but Barclays Center turned out to be an unsuitable hockey venue. Before then, there were numerous plans and rumors for new arenas that never came to fruition — the Lighthouse Project, the Wilpons buying the team and building an arena near Citi Field, and a 2011 plan for a new arena to replace the Coliseum that voters rejected.
That this one worked out feels nothing short of miraculous.
It’s a happy coincidence that the Islanders are enjoying a sustained run of success at the same time they’re moving in. The current four-game losing streak dampens the mood somewhat, but the same core of players have driven the Grand Central Parkway from Uniondale to Brooklyn and back, building the Isles into a contender despite a shambolic arena situation.
“The Coliseum served us well, Barclays has served us well,” Trotz said. “The guys that have been part of this team, at least the last four or five years, they built this.”
And what a reward this place will be for them.