The crowd’s starting to get fuzzy here at this Applebee’s in Brooklyn, where happy hour has entered its back half. The “I shouldn’t” drinks have been ordered. The jalapeño poppers are being popped with relish, not guilt. Beneath the peals of laughter and hump day chatter, one can barely make out the sound of the game.
By “the game,” I mean a first-round matchup between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics. By “the game,” I do not mean hockey. Namely, I do not mean the New York Islanders. The who? The NHL team that’s in the playoffs for just the third time in a decade and that is, at this very instant, playing the Washington Capitals. Those Islanders, the ones that are about to move to the new sports arena in town. The one about 100 yards from this restaurant.
In other words, the home team is playing. And of a dozen or so TVs at this bar, not a single one is showing it.
It’s one night, it’s one bar, it’s one game. Maybe it’s the clientele tonight: mostly black, women, 40-something. Maybe the barkeep is a Cavs fan. Maybe Applebee’s shouldn’t be confused for a sports bar, let alone a hockey bar.
Or maybe it’s something else, something the New York Islanders have risked a lot of money on. What if no one cares about hockey here?
When the Islanders begin their first season at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center tonight, they will officially turn to face all those maybes.
They will leave Nassau County, Long Island, their home of 40-odd years, where they reached dynastic heights, then sank to their most wretched lows: poor, losing, and a league laughingstock.
They will embark on a new story in Brooklyn, which is technically on Long Island but isn’t Long Island, if you know what I mean. They will trade their stable, mostly white, passionately suburban world for the biggest city in America, where a swirl of races and classes and nationalities is bound by the thin thread of gentrification. They will try to draw fans in a borough that has 172 outdoor basketball courts, hundreds of baseball diamonds, even 16 cricket pitches, but no more than a dozen hockey rinks.
They will leave a historic, but slowly sinking hockey market for what, exactly? Something better than drowning, surely. But not something that anyone yet knows to be dry land.
During the 2012-13 NHL season, 92 percent of hockey fans were white, according to the research group Nielsen. Among the major sports, only NASCAR had a whiter fan base: 94 percent. Hockey’s fans also profiled as some of the wealthiest, with a third earning over $100,000 a year. Even golf fans couldn’t match that.
Sometimes numbers complicate or obfuscate a deeper truth, but in this case, they illuminate it perfectly. Hockey, for as entertaining as it is and as warm-hearted as its Canadian character is, has never gained great traction in America outside of white audiences. For richer or poorer, in warm climates or icy ones, American hockey fans and participants have been, and still are, overwhelmingly white. It’s an unpleasant truth, especially for minority hockey fans like me who can rattle off the game’s few stars-of-color – Grant Fuhr, Paul Kariya, Jarome Iginla, P.K. Subban – but also know how seldom that list lengthens.
With this in mind, Nassau County looks like a perfect home for the Islanders. The county was estimated at 77 percent white in 2013, according to the last census. While 6 percent of the county lived below poverty level, half of residents earned $98,000 or more.
Compare that to Kings County, which has the same borders as Brooklyn. The Census had it at 50 percent white in 2013, 35 percent black, and 20 percent Latino. Median income is about half of Nassau’s: some $46,000 a year. But money doesn’t go as far in the city, and nearly a quarter of Brooklynites live below the poverty line.
I cherry-pick a few of these stats to share with Elisa Padilla, the Barclays Center’s chief marketing officer, and then I ask her directly: Has anyone successfully brought hockey to a place like this?
I can tell you that we will be the first,” she says.
“When we think of hockey being such a niche sport and it doesn’t transcend across multiple races, our goal is to educate the consumers in Brooklyn about hockey, and to present them with an opportunity, our community, to sample this product,” she says.
Padilla and I come from different angles. I’m a puckhead of the oddest sort: I became a fan in 1994, when my hometown club, the San Jose Sharks, electrified the Bay Area by upsetting the best team in the league from the 8th seed. I then became the weird guy, among my group of friends, who was still playing hockey a year later. At the hockey rink, I was a weirdo yet again: the brown guy whose name no one could say. There I was, nobody’s idea of a perfect customer: a minority kid from a non-traditional, warm-weather market.
Padilla admits she’s newer to the game. But Padilla doesn’t claim to be a puckhead. She’s an expert in what sells, particularly to people of color. She’s made Spanish-language ads for HBO Sports and targeted the Latino market for AT&T. And, of course, she orchestrated the “Hello Brooklyn” campaign that sewed the Brooklyn Nets into the cultural fabric of their new home.
If you live in Brooklyn like I do, you know that it worked. Even before the Nets took the court, Jay-Z–arguably the most famous Brooklynite alive today–was strategically given control of the team’s look. Black and white: normally monochrome, but expressive and powerful as rendered by Jay’s music. Then, with the Nets just days from starting anew, Jay and Kanye coronated the Barclays Center with eight shows. Their album, Watch the Throne, had just gone platinum. Nets gear has since become as common as Yankees logos around here. Product, market, timing: All had converged magically.
Now, for her next trick, Padilla will attempt to rebrand the New York Islanders. The contrast is not lost on her.
“There’s a very distinct difference between basketball and hockey. We know that hockey is a niche sport,” she said. “So while the blueprint, if you will, for relocating a franchise is the same, we had to take a step back and say, ‘OK, this is very, very different than when we moved the Nets.’ ”
In March, I drove 27 miles east of Brooklyn to see what the Islanders had left. Nassau Coliseum: an arena that’s been around long enough to earn some nicknames. The Old Barn. Fort Neverlose, so appropriate when the team was winning Stanley Cups. Most wryly: Nassau Mausoleum.
At first glance, Nassau Coliseum can be mistaken for a giant, taupe Roomba roaming a ratty, 70-acre concrete expanse. Come closer, and you may see giant HVAC tubes that snake out of the roof and plug into mobile air units outside. This thought crossed my mind: Nassau Coliseum is effectively on a ventilator.
Age catches up with all of us. The mausoleum was built in 1972, on the land of a former Air Force base that’s served military purposes as far back as the War of 1812. The Islanders were one of its first occupants. But by the time the Isles left last year, it had become the 2nd-oldest arena in the league.
Fans of Nassau – or people who feel forced to defend its honor – blurt back, “it has character.” Agreed, but what is that character? To me, it fell somewhere between that of a high school gym, a county fair, and that last plucky movie theater still running reel-to-reel. There were grand, bristly mustaches, and beefy “Lwong Eyle-inde” accents sounding out from beneath them. There was a guy selling discounts on home heating oil. At one point, the Jumbotron showed an ad with nothing but a phone number and the words “Bagel Master.”
If the game is sold out – which it should’ve been, as this was the 6th-to-last regular-season game the Islanders would ever play at Nassau – then a lot of people didn’t come. I get a good look at the seats, which were presumably blue during the Ford presidency but have now aged into wan shades of blue-green.
You can see what has made the Old Barn a target for cheap criticism for Rangers fans in the city, or Devils fans in Jersey, or professional writers who don’t get out much. But when the commissioner of your own league takes a shot, there might be something wrong.
“There is probably no worse major-league facility right now in North America than the Nassau Coliseum,” the NHL’s commissioner, Gary Bettman, said in 2009.
“It’s the land that time forgot over there,” Patrick Flatley, a former Islanders captain, said in the NHL’s recent documentary Fort Neverlose. “It’s all the same ushers, it’s the same people working there. To me, it feels like I stepped back through a portal to 1984.”
But to focus on these quirks is to miss the point (albeit with great enjoyment). What sanctified the Barn, what made it beloved to Islanders fans despite all the evidence, had to do with those banners that once hung from the rafters.
Four Stanley Cups in a row, an age of supremacy from 1980 to 1983, halted only by Wayne Gretzky’s Oilers. In all of sporting history, only four teams have achieved a four-peat, and the Islanders are one of them. Some count them as only one of two New York sports dynasties, next to the Yankees.
Beside those banners hung the retired numbers of Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, Denis Potvin; the Hall-of-Famers who made those teams great. Nassau Coliseum, in that sense, was as much a museum as a mausoleum. For Isles fans, “glory days” are not some delusion. They’re a palpable thing, like those fading blue seats. They actually happened. And then they were lost.
By the time I became a hockey fan in the mid-90s, those glory days had faded. This was the team that missed the playoffs every season from 1995 to 2001. This was the team that, in 1996, tried to refresh the team brand with this, only to face league-wide ridicule for using a character that looked the Gorton’s Fisherman. “We want fish sticks!” Rangers fans would jeer at Madison Square Garden, as Long Island did a collective facepalm.
More humiliations were in store. This was the team that was miraculously bought by a Dallas businessman in 1996, but then learned he was a forger who didn’t actually have the net worth to make the buy. For someone just coming to hockey consciousness in the 1990s, these were the Islanders. Hearing about the teams of yore was a bit like hearing that Alexander the Great once invaded India.
The Islanders were the sick man of professional hockey. It wasn’t exactly national news when, in 2000, they were sold to a software mogul named Charles Wang (and a business partner who eventually did jail time) for a humble $130 million.
“Let’s face it, the Coliseum is a dump, and the team, well, they’re losers. It’s a real shame,” he told The New York Times. “We want to see it change because this is our home. We all deserve better.”
SAQIB RAHIM | @SaqibSansU
Like many fans, Saqib Rahim is the product of his sports traumas. Saqib is a 2015 Dat Winning fellow.