There's this moment when you get off the Meadowbrook Parkway and merge onto Charles Lindbergh Boulevard that you catch your first glimpse of the Nassau Coliseum on the horizon. At this point in my life, I have seen it so many times that it had become old hat. But on Sunday, as it appeared in the distance, the modern new steel slats created such a stark contrast against a bright September sky that it caught me off guard.
I hadn't been to the Nassau Coliseum since Game 6 of the first round of the 2015 playoffs, when I left it in my rearview mirror, tears in my eyes, after the Islanders' 3-1 win over the Washington Capitals. I hadn't even seen it since. So when the gussied up exterior initially shocked my system, I wasn't sure what to expect.
But as I'd learn throughout the day, this was the same Old Barn I left 27 months earlier. No amount of steel or paint could change that.
Pulling into the parking lot, all familiar sights were there. Tailgaters were out in full force by the time I arrived at 10:00 AM. Street hockey was being played. Generations of families congregated over charcoal grills. Horns blared to the tune of, "Let's go Islanders!" Like nothing had changed.
Once I entered through the main entrance, the Barclays Center influence in the Coliseum's redevelopment was clear. For all its hockey shortcomings, Barclays Center is a state-of-the-art building, and the refurbished Coliseum is meant to draw on its best to bring that to a more intimate setting. The big opening -- at what is now Gate 1 -- that overlooks the arena mimics the grand entrance in Brooklyn. The signs that directed fans were in Barclays Center's trademark font, and the color schemes evoked the same feeling.
But while the aesthetics told a story of the present, habit took over and brought me right to the past.
After all, you can move out of your house, and a new family can tear it down to the studs to make it their own. But you still know where all the best hide-and-go-seek places were. Or can point out the spot where the Christmas tree always went. It's theirs now, but it will always be yours. Because no one can take away the memories. No one can take what you had.
And that's what Sunday was all about.
The concourse, still as narrow as ever, is refreshed. The concessions are updated (and edible!), and the staff is a sea of new faces. To the right of the main entrance, where the Islanders team store used to reside, now is an eatery that looked perfectly designed for the corner of an airport in Any City, USA. Nothing seems to be leaking, and presumably, there is no asbestos lurking in the ceiling. But once I made my way down to my seat, it was the same place, frozen in time.
Sure, there are less seats, and the ones that are there are wider and more comfortable. Some natural daylight leaked into the arena through the brighter concourse. The scoreboard is new, and the section numbering is different (that didn't stop the Blue and Orange Army from hanging a '3' over the '2' to make their Section 229 resemble their old 329 haunts). But if you put the Islanders title and retired numbers banner up there, it would have felt like any point from 1972-2015.
That's because what hasn't changed is this fan base, one of the most abused ever in all of sports, and the love it has for this franchise. And the minute they hit the ice for warm-ups, the outpouring of that love echoed off the building's low ceiling that makes the place an acoustics dream during the postseason.
Chants of "Bring them back" started as early as before the National Anthem, and hit a fever pitch prior to overtime. John Tavares opened the Islanders' scoring in the second, and finished it in overtime, too, because of course he did.
The goal horn fired, and the, "Woos" and, "Yeses" rained down in excess. And as they did, I'd look around and catch someone else doing exactly what I was doing: staring out at a capacity crowd of nearly 14,000 people for a preseason game on the second football Sunday of the year and whimsically wondering to themselves, "How did they ever leave?"
We, of course, know why they left, and why they'll never come back. That's a 30 for 30 for another day. Outside of some rogue preseason games, or -- best case -- a temporary home while a new area is built at Belmont Park, the team's days inside those walls are numbered.
But for one final day, the universe was as it was supposed to be. For a moment, NHL hockey was back in Uniondale, and the Islanders walked away with a 3-2 overtime victory.
"How'd it feel to be back," my dad asked me as we walked to the car, like we had countless other nights, in sleet, in driving rain, and even after a few playoff victories.
"Like we never left," I answered back. "Like home."