They’re around the final turn and into the homestretch at Belmont Park, which is opening its doors to a brand-new venue in UBS Arena — the home of the New York Islanders beginning in the 2021-22 NHL season.
And it could not have been more of a convoluted journey over the past few decades for the organization and its fan base, going from the rejection of the Lighthouse Project and the revitalization of Nassau Coliseum to the uncertainty of whether or not the team would stay in the area, to an unsuccessful move to Brooklyn and a return back to its downsized original home for a temporary stay.
“These fans and these players have gone 30 years in the desert without a home,” Tim Leiweke, CEO of Oak View Group, who is overseeing the building of UBS Arena in Elmont, said. “They’ve gone longer than any fan base in the National Hockey League. They deserve a permanent home, and they deserve a permanent home that is the best NHL rink in the city.”
The $1.5 billion project is certainly being billed up to such lofty expectations as amNewYork Metro received a tour of the building in progress where Islanders fans might experience culture shock upon attending their first game at UBS Arena next season.
Gone will be the days of cramped concourses, limited amenities, and even fewer restrooms. UBS Arena will feature seven bars, multiple levels of concessions and facilities, lavish designs that include 94-different types of tile from all over the world, and an homage to where the venue calls home.
“We wanted to honor the history and tradition of Belmont Park and everything from the Wright brothers, [Charles] Lindbergh, the great horse races and sporting events, and the history of New York,” Leiweke said. “You’ll see throughout the whole building, a design-oriented feel to the last 100 years of culture and entertainment in New York.”
‘This was built for the Islanders fans’
“How do we build this arena to be the best in the country for artists, but how do we protect sightlines, sounds, and noise, for Islanders fans?” Leiweke said describing the initial designs of the building. “That was a priority.”
Panache aside, the main concern for many Islanders fans regarding UBS Arena is the preservation of a pure hockey-watching experience that came with Nassau Coliseum: the near-flawless sightlines added with low ceilings that created an intimate, intimidating, and deafening environment when the building was full.
While this will be a multi-purpose venue, a steeper upper bowl allowed the arena to stay compact while a hydraulics system ensures no extra space had to be added to ensure proper hosting of non-sporting events — most notably concerts.
The ceiling was also kept low to not only ensure brilliant acoustics but to amplify the sound of Islanders fans just like the Nassau Coliseum did for its nearly-50-year run as the team’s home.
“I won’t use the word ‘exceptionally’ when describing how low the ceiling is,” Michael Sciortino, senior vice president of UBS Arena operations told amNewYork Metro. “But, for example, the highest point of the ceiling at Barclays Center [the Islanders’ temporary home from 2015-2020] was 128 feet from event level. Here [at UBS Arena] it’s 93 feet.”
A centerpiece hanging down from the low ceiling will be a 42-foot-square, centered, scoreboard to catapult fans into the 21st century.
Islanders president of hockey operations, general manager, and good friend of Leiweke, Lou Lamoriello, also had a sizable say in helping design the building.
“Lou has been personally leading the charge on the ice, airflow, our capacity of the building, the design of our locker room,” Leiweke said. “Lou and I don’t talk about this much, professionally, he’s the closest person I have in the industry. Lou wouldn’t have been here without this [project] and I wouldn’t have been here without Lou. We don’t do anything without each other. We see the world exactly the same.”
UBS Arena will feature dehumidifying machines known as Munters — an industry leader in NHL arenas — to provide 80% more airflow compared to Nassau Coliseum while the locker rooms mirror the team’s facilities at Northwell Health Ice Center in East Meadow.
“This was built for the Islanders fans to reward them for 30 years worth of patience,” Leiweke said. “There’s no one better to try and protect those interests of Islanders fans, and the way this building has been designed than Lou Lamoriello.”
‘The hard 25%’
The clock is ticking on UBS Arena to wrap things up over the next seven months, which seems like a daunting task when walking through the unfinished arenas.
The facade that is laid out painstakingly brick-by-brick is incomplete, the walls are exposed, and the event level is very much a skeleton.
“When you look at our 27-month schedule, we’re in the last seven months,” Leiweke said. “We have about 25% of the building left to do. It’s the hard 25% because we need the finishers now. So that’s all of our subcontractors that are the finishers.
“What keeps us up at night is that [open walls]. We have to get fully enclosed to get the finishers done. All those subcontractors are waiting for us… that’s the highest priority for us right now.”
Leiweke admitted that the walls will be closed in the next “two-to-three weeks” while the project expands to six-day-a-week shifts.
The crown jewel of the arena, the ice, will be poured out and cured on Thursday; the start of a 60-day process in which it will remain covered.
“The key to the floor, everything else we have to put in our room: scoreboard, sound system… I need the floor to do that. We need to get that done because then the rest of the bowl and the roof can get done once we get the floor done.”
Plenty to do, yes, but Leiweke remained confident that UBS Arena will be ready to go for the start of the 2021-22 season this fall, adding that the promising trend in COVID-19 vaccinations will allow for the venue to be at 100% capacity.
That would truly be the cherry to top off one of the more challenging, auspicious arena projects this area has ever seen.
“We’re spending a billion dollars privately and we’re proud of that,” Leiweke said. “We did it in the greatest crisis of the last generation and last century and didn’t blink. In fact, we added money to it. We did it for a fan base that deserves this more than any fan base in sports.”
This story first appeared on amNY.com.