It’ll never be Nassau, but Islanders fans warming up to new home

Ryan Miller made 47 saves and Radim Vrbata scored in the shootout to help the Vancouver Canucks defeat the New York Islanders.

The New York Islanders’ transition from the nostalgic, outdated confines of Nassau Coliseum to the more modern, but not-hockey-friendly Barclays Center has been messy at times.

It certainly got off to a rough start.

As the Islanders were inundated with negative headlines in October and November about lagging attendance – the club still ranks 25th in the NHL by percentage of tickets sold, according to ESPN – the game experience at Barclays Center drew ferocious criticism from long-time (and now-displaced) Islanders fans, and the team struggled in the early stages to draw new fans from Brooklyn.

Now, several months into the team’s big move, the new arrangement seems to be more functional. There are legitimate signs of progress.

In mid-October, the obstructed-view seats in section 201 at Barclays Center were described as "the worst" seats in professional sports by Business Insider. I watched the first period of Sunday afternoon’s 2-1 Islanders shootout loss to the Vancouver Canucks from these seats, and they’re not conducive to giving fans a sense of the speed and flow of the NHL product.

Some fans I spoke with in the obstructed-view seats had bought their tickets inexpensively through group-buys coordinated at their workplace. Others, like Maureen, were there to experience live hockey for the very first time.

In Maureen’s case, she was mostly there to watch her eight-year-old nephew Jack participate in an intermission shootout with his youth team. Maureen's brother had ensured that Jack would be shooting at the home side’s net before purchasing the obstructed-view tickets for seven of Jack’s family members.

Beyond odd sight lines, the frustration of hardcore Islanders backers could be felt everywhere early in the year — from declining attendance to a variety of tense incidents between fans and arena security.

It didn’t help matters that some Barclays Center policies – a change in the sound of the goal horn; forbidding fans from going to the glass during the warmup skate; the banishment of Islanders mascot Sparky – only alienated established Islanders fans further.

“I think that policy they enacted to try and limit fans from going to the glass to see warmups could be the most daft, tin-eared thing the team has done,” Yahoo! Sports’ Greg Wyshynski, who has covered the Islanders' move at length over at Puck Daddy, wrote to Sportsnet in an email this week.

Many of these early mistakes have since been rectified. Sparky is back, fans crowd the glass during warmups, and the old Nassau Coliseum horn is used whenever the Islanders score. And tickets sales are on the upswing.

On Sunday, the Islanders announced a sellout for a second straight home date and Barclays Center expects a third consecutive sellout next weekend against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Up at the glass, fans were lined up three rows deep during the warmup skate. They held arms and children aloft, as players occasionally lobbed pucks into the crowd.

The atmosphere was friendly. Security in the area indicated to me that policing the fans at the glass wasn’t much of an issue, and fans who had purchased seats up front seemed patient and accommodating.

Barclays Center CEO Brett Yormark admits that the restriction on fans being at the glass for the warmup skate was an example of an early misstep.

“The more we listen to the fans and the more we can understand what they’re looking for, the more we can infuse the overall Islanders brand into the overall environment, I think the more comfortable the fanbase gets,” Yormark told Sportsnet this weekend.

“Now initially, operationally, my team was concerned about it,” Yormark continued. “But (we eventually) realized ‘hey let’s give it a shot and see if we can make it work.’ We took one step where we limited the number of people who could go down for warmups, and then we finally opened it up and we haven’t had any issues.

“So that was a lesson learned and obviously fans are enjoying that greater access and engagement with their team.”

Yormark admits that this has been a learning experience for him. The CEO is not a hockey guy, and he’s still learning the sport and figuring out how to navigate through some of the unique tribalism inherent in hockey’s most fervent fans.

To that end, the Barclays Center team conducts site audits every five games. They’ve gone to watch hockey live in Chicago, Montreal and Toronto to get a feel for the experience in more traditional hockey markets. They’ve invited teams to peer review their in-arena experience. They’ve even taken tips from the commissioner.

At two access points in the lower bowl, tarps that were jet black two weeks ago are now draped with the Islanders logo.

“Gary Bettman, in a game he came to a couple weeks ago, he said ‘Brett, see what you can do to increase the Islanders imagery in the bowl and let the fans feel like it’s home,’” Yormark explained. “So we had our graphics team reproduce those areas with an amplified Islanders logo in both those places, and in fact we also added some imagery in our loge box areas."

It’s a small touch, but it’s the sort of thing fans appreciate and have picked up on.

“They’re trying,” said Marty, a lifelong Islanders fan based in Long Island. “They put two giant Islanders symbols over (access points) and they're doing things to try and make it feel like home.”

Though ticket sales are up and the atmosphere was more boisterous on Sunday than I was led to expect, some fissures remain.

Yormark was frank, honest and forthcoming in a lengthy one-on-one telephone conversation with Sportsnet on Friday, but he remains something of a controversial figure among Islanders fans.

“He makes situations worse because he isn't personable,” opined Marty.

“It's just because of the way he comes across,” Marty later elaborated. “Like he doesn't care.”

It’s an opinion that’s evident online, but isn’t necessarily shared by all of the Islanders fans I spoke with on Sunday.

“He’s a really nice guy, and he wanted to make sure we transitioned well (to the new arena),” says Tom of Yormark.

Tom is a season ticket holder and the defacto leader of the colourful, loud boosters section that calls themselves the Blue and Orange army.

The Blue and Orange Army chant in concert like European soccer fans and play a drum throughout Islanders home games. Their drum is audible throughout the building.

“It’s really cool that the CEO of the building is coming up to us and asking how they can accommodate us,” Tom says of his interactions with Yormark, whom he says he’s met face-to-face. The Blue and Orange Army came up with a list of requests, and Barclays was clear with them about what would be permitted and what wouldn’t be.

As for Yormark, he suggests that he can’t afford to worry about what some fans think of him.

“Absolutely not,” he responded when asked point blank if bad blood between him and Islanders fans bothers him. “I mean that, not at all.

“I have to look at myself in the mirror every night and determine if I’m doing the best that I can do. And I am. I’m working tirelessly at making this better.”

As the Barclays Center crowds get louder, and begin to make new memories at the Islanders’ new home, the flood of negative press has become a trickle. There are genuine signs of progress.

“Since the first nine games of the season attendance is up 23 per cent,” Yormark said, adding that Islanders ticket revenue is up 34 per cent because of higher price points. “It’s really starting to pick up.”

Barclays is hoping to keep the positive momentum going by launching a marketing campaign called “See it Live” later this month. The emphasis of the campaign will be to get first-time hockey fans in the door and to see if the Islanders can get a new generation of fans hooked on the NHL product.

Even Islanders players are noticing that the atmosphere is improving.

“We've had some bumps along the way, figuring out the routine and how to feel comfortable, but we're settling into it,” said Islanders star Kyle Okposo.

“Everything is definitely getting smoother as the year has gone on.”

With attendance rebounding and the atmosphere normalizing, a majority of Islanders fans I spoke to just seem to just be happy that the team hasn’t relocated to Kansas or Quebec City. Barclays still doesn’t quite feel like home though.

This sentiment was a common opinion, and one echoed by another fan, Matt.

On Sunday, Matt was dressed in a luche libre Islanders mask, further adorned with star-shaped sunglasses. He’s perhaps the loudest of the Blue and Orange Army at puck drop, and happily poses for photos with children and other Islanders fans as he walks the concourse.

“I like it,” Matt said of Barclays Center, “but it’ll never be home.”