NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s fondest memory at Nassau Coliseum took place May 24, 1980. That’s when Bob Nystrom’s overtime winner against the Flyers marked the beginning of a legendary dynasty, as the Islanders won their first of four straight Stanley Cups.
Bettman, a young lawyer at the time, recalled feeling overwhelmed as he watched then-league president John Ziegler hand the Cup over to Islanders captain Denis Potvin, as the rest of the team swarmed around them.
Back then, the NHL was the only sports league that had such a ceremony, in which the trophy was presented to the championship team in front of the fans. To Bettman, it was spectacular.
Standing outside of the Islanders’ nearly completed new home on Wednesday, the $1 billion dollar-plus UBS Arena next to the Belmont Park race track, it was difficult for Bettman to fathom that it took 41 years since that storied moment at the Coliseum for the team he grew up around to move on from “Fort Neverlose.”
There were great memories at the Coliseum, he said, but the due date for the arena that opened in 1972 had long expired.
The Isles will take the ice for a potential second-round, series-clinching Game 6 against the Bruins on Wednesday night at the Old Barn, a building that has been eroding for years and whose welcome signs read, “DANGER: ASBESTOS – may cause cancer.”
So 1255 Hempstead Turnpike’s days as the Islanders’ home base are numbered as soon as this postseason run ends in defeat — or another Cup presentation. However, those who had a hand in building UBS Arena made sure to incorporate the little details that made the Coliseum the one-of-a-kind building that it is.
“The Islanders have always had a great fan base, not just on Long Island, but in the metropolitan area,” Bettman told The Post Wednesday while touring the new building’s construction site.
“They’ve needed, for as long as anybody can remember, a first-class state-of-the-art home. And now they’re going to have it. The confluence of events couldn’t be more fortuitous.”
Through all the tours he has taken of NHL arenas over his 28-year tenure as commissioner, Bettman has noticed that each project takes the most recent top-notch standard and expands upon it.
“Everyone seems to find a way to elevate it to the next level,” he said. “Based on the level of investment that they’ve made, they’ve spared no cost. That’s why you get what you’re seeing, which is simply incredible.”
The idea was to replicate the environment and culture of the Coliseum into the new-and-improved arena. It had to have that intimate feeling fans get when their cheers reverberate throughout the concourses.
To ensure that, the structure was built so that the distance from the ice to the roof was nearly the exact same as the Coliseum, along with the largest lower-bowl in the tri-state area. Yet, the arena will be able to seat roughly 17,500 fans, which is over 3,500 more than The Barn.
“For a year, I walked around when we were doing the design of the building, I walked around Barclays, I walked around the Coliseum,” Islanders co-owner Jon Ledecky said. “I tried to meet 400 to 500 fans a night. I’d say, ‘What do you want in a new building, you’re the stockholders, what do you want in your building?’ And the number one thing they said was the intimacy of the experience. They want to be a part of the experience.
“Looking to [Wednesday night], I don’t think there’s been a higher get-in price on ticket websites and that’s because everybody in New York wants to be a part of this experience.”
With the Islanders’ emergence as a consistent playoff contender the past three years under the Lou Lamoriello-Barry Trotz regime, the demand has exceeded expectations.
The Islanders are already nearly sold out (over 95 percent) of its season tickets for UBS Arena’s inaugural season in 2021-22. Premium seating, which is a little over 80 percent sold out, and season tickets is expected to account for approximately 15,000 of the 17,500 seats.
For comparison, when the Islanders were at Barclays Center from 2015 to last year, premium and general admission season tickets amounted to just 3,500.
Out of 56 suites, there are only seven left. They even had to convert a storage room into two more suites in order to keep up with the demand. The timeliness of the Islanders’ current success and the projected opening of their shiny new arena will have that effect.
But, at least until the end of the Islanders’ current playoff run, there will be one last hoorah at the Coliseum.
“We’ve taken the best of Nassau Coliseum,” Ledecky said, “and we’ve dropped it into this wonderful arena.”