Inside the Islanders’ new arena, built for the COVID-19 era


ELMONT, N.Y. — New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz surveyed the skeletal confines of UBS Arena, scheduled to open in November as his team’s new home.

He could tell the sight lines around the rink would be good. His suggestions on how to make the arena more player-friendly had been implemented. But it was a large terrace in the upper deck, located behind one of the goals, that caught his attention.

“They’ve got the end zone there that’s going to have a European [stadium] touch. Hopefully they’ll have the flags [surrounding] the big bar where the fans can stand and watch,” Trotz said.

That terrace overlooking the ice is one of 10 bars planned for UBS Arena, the centerpiece of a $1.5 billion construction project that’s ongoing in Elmont, New York. Anyone with a ticket to an Islanders game can stand, mingle and cavort as the players skate below them. Another bar terrace has a view of an entirely different sports terrain: the grassy paddock area at Belmont Park racetrack, which is located directly next to the Islanders’ new arena and inspired many of its aesthetics.

“Everything that you see at the UBS Arena is designed to fit into the historic facade of the Belmont Park racetrack,” said Tim Leiweke, CEO of Oak View Group, the firm that’s overseeing construction of the arena. “We wanted to honor the history and tradition of it, and the last 100 years of sports and culture in New York.

“[NHL commissioner] Gary Bettman’s fondest dream is to have a Stanley Cup game in the afternoon, and then have the Belmont Stakes after it.”

The facilities will share a Long Island Railroad stop, a picturesque campus filled with retail stores and parking lots, and a common goal: to finally give Islanders fans the home for which they’ve yearned, through so many stops and starts on the road out of the moribund Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

After touring the new arena recently, it appears the wait will have been worth it. Even while under construction, UBS Arena screams “hockey,” from the rink being the clear focal point to the Islanders logos on each seat; and unlike another recent home for the team, there are no obstructed views from those seats.

It’s state-of-the-art in many ways, including the fact that UBS Arena is one of first sporting venues built during the COVID-19 pandemic that adjusted its plans accordingly.

But to hear Leiweke describe the new arena, it’s also very much in keeping with the Islanders’ vibe. They are the perpetual underdog team in New York City, too often overlooked and underappreciated. Islanders fans have waited decades for a building they could proudly call home, knowing that their team would do the same for years to come. Now they have one.

“This was built for the Islanders’ fans, to reward them for 30 years worth of patience,” Leiweke said. “These fans deserve a permanent home, and they deserve a home that’s the best rink in New York City. Everyone counted us out, because they said we can’t compete with the other buildings in the marketplace. But this building will be spectacular, and it will be iconic.”

Jump ahead:
False starts
Building in COVID-19 times
Barry and Lou’s input

Brick by brick

The brick facade of Belmont Park carries over to UBS Arena, which is highlighted by splashes of tiling on the outside of the building. Leiweke proudly boasts that 94 different kinds of tile were handpicked for the arena, imported from places like Spain.

There will be more tile inside the arena’s cavernous main entrance. “This will look like the 1920s and Grand Central Station. Murals on the wall. Beautiful tile around the floor. A grand, central staircase that brings everyone to the main level,” Leiweke said.

The outside of the arena is expansive. Islanders co-owner Scott Malkin is leading the retail effort around the campus, which will include 350,000 square feet of stores and restaurants. There will be 5,500 parking spaces available for UBS and Belmont Park, an allotment that Leiweke said “makes us fairly unique for an arena on the East Coast.”

Fans can also access the arena via LIRR. The Islanders contributed over $50 million to the cost of the first new LIRR station in nearly 50 years. The team expects 20-30% of its fans to arrive for games via rail.

Inside the building, the Islanders’ new home feels intimate. The roof hangs lower than most arenas. The highest deck has only around nine rows. The official “upper deck” is split into two sections to make it feel smaller.

“You see how steep the building is, “Leiweke said. “We don’t have a huge upper bowl, so we don’t have a huge ceiling. So the noise doesn’t get lost in the roof, which is critical.”

The sound quality is key, as the arena is competing with several other buildings to hold concerts. So UBS has other innovations: a sliding stage that emerges from one of the end zones and a hospitality area that’s meant to mimic a five-star hotel — no more getting ready in the hockey locker room for artists.

(For the record, Leiweke said that Billy Joel has three more dates to make up at Madison Square Garden before Long Island’s favorite son can play in the new arena.)

The arena will host college basketball and will bid on NCAA tournament games. It’s expected to host UFC events as well. If the Islanders are using the arena during the Belmont Stakes, it will be used to hold special events during that Triple Crown race.

The fan experience at UBS Arena is best described with one word: well-lubricated.

There will be 10 bars in the building. The team recently announced that Heineken USA has become the “exclusive marketer of the entire beer category at the arena, including alcohol-free beer, cider and hard seltzer.”

Many of the bars will be open to all ticket holders, while others are premium experiences for fans paying a premium for tickets: such as the Loft Club, which is inspired by loft spaces in SoHo, and the UBS Club, which is meant to feel like a classic New York cocktail bar with boxes that hang over the ice, opera-house-style. Like all new arenas, UBS will have a dedicated food-and-drink area for season-ticket holders under the lower bowl, with a view of players as they enter and leave the ice.

The Islanders expect to sell out of their premium club inventory this summer, and “we will be fully sold out on sponsorships when we open the building,” Leiweke said.

One thing Islanders games won’t have, at least not yet: in-arena sports wagering. There won’t be betting windows for horse racing at the arena, according to Michael Sciortino, SVP of operations for UBS Arena. But Leiweke said the arena has been built with an eye toward legalized sports wagering, including 5G technology inside the building. Other arenas such as Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C., have integrated sportsbooks into their buildings.

“Since the governor is my landlord, we never get ahead of the state,” Sciortino said. “So I’ll let them get the legislation passed, and then we’ll follow their lead. But from a technology standpoint, you’re going to hear an announcement soon about the kind of technology and partners we have in this building. We know where we’d put everything. But we’ve learned never to get ahead of the state.”

As the Islanders have found out, assuming anything about the politics of New York can lead to headaches.

False starts

The Islanders played their first game at the Coliseum on Oct. 7, 1972, roughly eight months after the arena opened its doors. The New York Times called it “the nation’s newest big league indoor sports arena.” They would win three of their four straight Stanley Cups on Coliseum ice, going an incredible 11-1 at home during those Stanley Cup Final series from 1980-83. The fans christened the place “Fort Neverlose.”

But just like those glory years faded from memory, so did the Coliseum’s time as a state-of-the-art facility. Its dilapidated nature had old-hockey-barn charm to the loyalists, but the Coliseum was a relic compared to the NHL’s new swath of tricked-out arenas, many of which arrived with expansion franchises in the 1990s and early 2000s. Those arenas put a premium on fan comfort and quality of life for players; four decades into its existence, Nassau Coliseum had a leaky roof, broken seats and a refrigeration system that created mushy ice that was consistently rated by players as one of the worst surfaces in the NHL.

The 1990s saw the first attempts at building a new Islanders arena, which fell short. In 2007, Islanders owner Charles Wang sought to renovate Nassau Coliseum while constructing a mixed-use combination of retail, housing and recreation areas around it — a plan that even included a minor league baseball stadium.

It was dubbed The Lighthouse Project, which made sense: It was a beacon of light that Islanders fans optimistically followed for over a decade. Alas, it would crash into the rocks of local politics: Both the Town of Hempstead and Nassau County forced the constant downsizing of Wang’s vision, and in 2011, county voters rejected a taxpayer-funded plan to build a new arena where the Coliseum stood.

Wang had threatened to relocate the Islanders during the intense negotiations on The Lighthouse Project, including playing a preseason game in Kansas City, a community previously exploited by the Pittsburgh Penguins for arena leverage. In 2012, the Islanders would in fact relocate — leaving Nassau County for Brooklyn and the new Barclays Center.

Which, it turns out, would be one of the best worst things to happen to the franchise.

The Barclays Center itself was a gold-standard facility … for concerts and basketball. It wasn’t built for hockey, and it showed. The giant video screen wasn’t centered over the ice. There were odd gaps between the rink and the stands, including one infamously filled by a white SUV sponsored by Honda that inspired its own Twitter feed. There were seats in Section 201 that were called “the worst in American professional sports” by Business Insider, in which fans could only see three-quarters of the ice.

But as the Islanders moved on, so did Wang. He eventually sold minority shares of the team to former Washington Capitals co-owner Jon Ledecky and investor Scott Malkin in 2014; they would buy out all of Wang’s shares from his estate in December 2020. (Wang died in 2018.) The Islanders had started splitting time between Barclays and Nassau in the ensuing years, but the new owners had another vision for the team’s new home — one they shared with Wang.

“Charles Wang took us to Belmont Park and explained how he could imagine that this location could someday be the permanent home of the New York Islanders,” Ledecky said.

That home will open its doors in November for the Islanders. Leiweke said the games will be at capacity — over 17,000 fans for hockey. That is admittedly an odd thing to hear at a time when teams are restricted to a small percentage of capacity because of a pandemic.

Building in COVID-19 times

On the shoulders of Tim Leiweke’s jacket are a New York Islanders logo and that of the Seattle Kraken, the NHL expansion team starting in 2021-22. Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, also being constructed by Oak View Group, joins UBS Arena as two of the only major arena facilities being built during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leiweke vividly remembers a conversation he had a year ago with Michael Dowling, CEO of Northwell Health, who gave him his theory on the growing pandemic: “It’s in the air. They’re all missing it.”

Leiweke immediately called Ed Bosco of ME Engineers and said, “I think we have a problem.”

Bosco’s group worked with Oak View on both UBS and Climate Pledge arenas. While older arenas can be retrofitted for better filtration systems, Oak View was able to change on the fly as these two buildings were being constructed.

“The filtration system on this is the most technically advanced filtration system built in any arena, in conjunction with Climate Pledge Arena,” Leiweke said.

UBS Arena is built for increased air flow and has top-of-the-line Munters air-handling units that can process 50,000 cubic feet per minute. These devices have a MERV-13 (minimum efficiency reporting value) rating, which is the kind of air filtration one finds in a hospital.

“It’s really important during the COVID era to be able to ventilate at a much higher rate but still maintain dewpoint and temperature where we need it to be,” said Joe Flannigan, senior director of engineering and maintenance for UBS Arena.

The NHL needs a consistent temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit in the building with 40-45% relative humidity.

“There’s no other arena being built that has anything close to what we have. We have probably 80% more air flow than Nassau Coliseum,” Flannigan said.

“That’s a major, major step forward for arenas. Not only in dealing with COVID-19, but in what comes later,” Leiweke said.

Construction at the arena “didn’t miss a beat” despite two months of state-mandated lockdown. “When we started the project, a lot of people wondered if we would have to slow down due to the virus. We didn’t cut anything off [our budget]. We plowed straight ahead,” Leiweke said.

The team made other COVID-influenced decisions in building UBS Arena. For example, concessions. Many sporting venues are rethinking the way in which fans order and acquire food and drinks during games. UBS will have cashless options for all sales. It will use the latest technology for grab-and-go concession areas, using a special card or a mobile app to order and pick up food inside the arena without “having to interact with another human being,” Leiweke said.

“That makes this a very unique concept that we reactivated after COVID-19 hit. The technology is all driven by cameras. That’s why you see the high roof,” he said, adding that it will cut down on lines in the concourse as well.

It’s hard to imagine a concourse full of fans at this point in the pandemic. The neighboring Rangers and Devils have only a small fraction of fans at games. But Leiweke is confident that through vaccinations and continued vigilance, the Islanders will have a packed house in November.

“I have great admiration for this administration’s commitment to getting everyone focused on [masks] and vaccines,” he said. “We believe eventually that will get us to a point where we can reopen and get us back to our lives. We think by the fall, when we open the building, we’ll be at full capacity.”

Which would be a sight Lou Lamoriello wouldn’t mind seeing.

“Playing without fans is very difficult,” said Lamoriello, the team’s president and general manager, at a virtual event in March. “There’s nothing like a player making a big play and the crowd getting excited. That’s why you say the sixth man in hockey is a crowd. Without them, there is no [home-ice] advantage.”

Barry’s and Lou’s input

This isn’t the first time Trotz has helped open an arena. He had a similar experience in Nashville when he signed on as that franchise’s first head coach in 1998, although he admits his decisions were more on a micro level.

“We started at ground zero. I was picking out carpet colors and wall colors,” he said.

This also isn’t the first time Lamoriello has been an influential part of a long-awaited arena opening, having previously taken the Devils from the Meadowlands to the Prudential Center in Newark, after years of advocating for a city-based arena for the franchise.

Their input was valuable in helping to craft UBS Arena, too. “Barry and Lou helped us design the entire building. They designed the entire back of the house,” Leiweke said.

What suggestions did they make?

“To be able to tilt the ice during intermission. But that isn’t going to work,” he said with a laugh.

Joking aside, Lamoriello was a driving force behind making the Islanders’ locker room resemble that of their practice facility, Northwell Health Ice Center in Syosset. He also suggested improvements to the areas of the arena designated for players’ partners and children.

Was there ever a conflict between Leiweke’s designs for a multi-event venue and Lamoriello’s desires to keep hockey at the forefront?

“Lou and I don’t talk about this much but, professionally, the person I’m closest to in the industry is Lou Lamoriello,” Leiweke said. “He’s here because of me, and I’m here because of him. Lou wouldn’t have been here without this [arena]. I wouldn’t have been here without Lou. We see the world exactly the same.”

“Now, even if that was all B.S., I’d say it anyway. But it’s not.”

Trotz said he appreciated having a chance to add his input into the building process. “I just think that arena is going to be spectacular,” he said.

It’ll be spectacular for the players, too, especially since they’ve had a nomadic existence the past few seasons. For 31-year-old Josh Bailey, it’ll technically be the third move he’ll have made as an Islander: Starting at the old Nassau Coliseum as a rookie; moving to the unfriendly confines of Barclays Center; splitting time and eventually moving back to a renovated, lower-capacity Nassau Coliseum; and now, setting into UBS Arena this fall.

He’s looking forward to opening the fancy new home. But Bailey and the rest of the playoff-bound Islanders are also looking to send the old barn out in style.

“I’ve enjoyed my time in the Coliseum through the years. Great energy. Now we’re trying to do something special here,” he said, “for the last ride at the Coli.”

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