Mathew Barzal looked like a kid on Christmas when he was asked about fans being back in the Nassau Coliseum on Thursday for the New York Islanders showdown with the New Jersey Devils.
But it wasn’t just any old fans that were in the seats, it was 1,000 frontline workers from Northwell Health in the stands as a way for the team to thank them for everything they’ve done to fight the COVID-19 Pandemic this past year. For the Islanders star player, the gesture only seemed right.
“It’s super special that they’re the first ones coming to our game,” Barzal said. “They’re so deserving. The last year they’ve been just grinding this pandemic and making sure everyone is safe. That’s exciting for us. We’re pretty excited to have them be the first ones tonight.”
Thursday marked the first time since March 7, 2020, that fans had been inside the Nassau Coliseum for an Islanders game. The NHL paused the season while the Islanders were on the road last year and their first 13 home games of the 2020-21 season have been closed to the public.
The New York Islanders got a small taste of playing in front of fans on March 2 in New Jersey when they faced the Devils at Prudential Center.
HERE COME THE HEROES 🏒🏥. The first @NorthwellHealth workers are lining up to re-open the Coliseum. One nurse said it’s her first hockey game! #Isles @Bluelinedeli719 @rdel76 @RTaub_ @islessignguy pic.twitter.com/js6TscJ8yN
— Kevin Maher (@KMaherNews12) March 11, 2021
“Whether it’s 10 fans or 1,000 fans or 15,000 fans it’s just nice to have some people in the building,” Barzal said. “And hear some voices. I was joking around, when we were in New Jersey and they had the cardboard cutouts with 2,000 fans it really did feel like there was 8,000 or 9,000 people in there.”
The New York Islanders are the last of the five active professional sports franchises in the area to allow fans back inside the building. The NBA’s Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks both opened back up to fans on Feb. 23 and the New York Rangers followed suit a few days later.
New Jersey reopened their arena to the public a week later.
Thursday’s game was limited to frontline workers only and season ticket holders do not return to the building until next Thursday when the Islanders play the Philadelphia Flyers. Roughly 1,300 fans are expected to be allowed in and the Islanders announced on Wednesday they had already sold out the first seven games that tickets had been available for.
Alex Anthony just introduced the New..York … Islanders to a round of applause from the 1000 frontline workers.
Welcome back! pic.twitter.com/tdDiZlT4oj
— Eric Hornick (@ehornick) March 12, 2021
“Tonight we are taking a big step towards some kind of normal on Long Island,” Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said in a statement on Thursday. “The return of fans to the Coliseum means so much for Nassau, and It’s only fitting that we kick off by honoring the frontline workers who helped get us to this point. We are ready to do this safely and smoothly, and I look forward to further increasing the number of fans in the stands soon.”
Coincidentally, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman expressed similar optimism about seeing an increase in the number of fans inside NHL arenas. Bettman was speaking with the media on Thursday during a look back at what has gone on with the league since it paused the season last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As we look forward more than 10 of our clubs have fans in the building in limited numbers,” Bettman said. “We see that number continuing to increase as long as the Pandemic cooperates and there is more and more vaccinations going on. We are optimistic as we get towards the playoffs the number of clubs and the number of people will continue to increase. We’ll continue to adjust to complete the regular season and conduct the playoffs.
“And we remain optimistic that we can be pretty darn close if not fully at normal for the start of next season.”
— Kevin Maher (@KMaherNews12) March 11, 2021
Back on Long Island, Thursday’s game did give the small sense of normalcy in what has been a year in which nothing could be described as normal.
Had restrictions not begun to be rolled back then the Nassau Coliseum would have quietly closed its doors without fans being able to say one final goodbye before the Islanders moved down the road to their new digs at Belmont Park.
That just wouldn’t have sat right with Islanders head coach Barry Trotz.
“I think our building deserves to have people in it,” Trotz said. “Last year of it and it would only be fitting that we have someone in there because it’s an iconic building and it has a lot of memories for everybody. Having the health care workers in there tonight is extra special.”