When you think about the NY Islanders there are several distinct eras in the franchise’s history that immediately come to mind. And beyond a shadow of a doubt, the most successful one is The Dynasty Years of 1980-1984.
From 1980-1984, the Islanders won 19-straight playoff series (a professional sports record) and four-straight Stanley Cups (1980, 1981, 1982 and 1983).
Everybody knows the Islanders called Nassau Coliseum “Home” during much of their history, including during the dynasty. But many people have no idea where the team held its practices, which is a major component of the team’s success.
Currently, the team calls the state-of-the-art Northwell Health Ice Center its practice facility. But during the dynasty it was a much different story. From 1979-1992, the Nassaumen held a vast majority of their practices at Cantiague Rink in Hicksville, Long Island.
Cantiague Rink stands firmly in Cantiague Park where there are many activities one can participate in. From walking trails to a golf center, a pool and more, Cantiague Park has a lot to offer and the ice rink is just one of the attractions. COVID-19 notwithstanding, the rink has been used by a variety of groups. There are public skate sessions, junior hockey teams, alumni games and more that visitors can enjoy. While touring the facilities, a former rink employee named Jerry , who worked at Cantiague when the Boys from Long Island would practice there, recounted some of his dealings with the team from his youthful playing days.
And even though the Isles no longer call the facility home, their presence is still felt throughout the rink.
During the Isles’ dynasty the physical ice rink was much smaller than a standard NHL sheet of ice. A normal NHL rink measures 200 feet by 85 feet, but Cantiague was much smaller than that in the 1980s. According to Nassau County Executive, Laura Curran, at that time, the ice was a scant 185 feet by 85 feet. That meant the Isles were practicing on a rink where they needed to make faster decisions with the puck than they would during a normal game. Everything from their stickhandling to their passing, shooting and skating had to be honed to precision in order to adjust to the lack of space on the ice during practices.
Who knows, maybe those adjustments are why the Islanders were so good during games? And if that’s the case, perhaps other teams should follow the lead of those Islanders teams — just food for thought.
Of course, those dimensions were later changed to conform to the NHL standard and when the Isles left Nassau Coliseum for Barclays Center in Brooklyn after the 2014-15 season, as a parting gift of sorts — even though it had been years since the team regularly practiced at Cantiague — the Islanders franchise gave Cantiague Rink some of the boards and glass from The Coliseum. Those boards and glass are still in use at Cantiague to this day.
If you look closely, especially in the penalty boxes and scorer’s area, you can see the different shades of blue that differentiate which boards are from Cantiague and which are from The Coliseum.
But beyond the boards and glass, there is a tunnel that one can travel through to get from one side of the arena to another that is decorated with the logos of every NHL team, as well as images of several NHL players; including Isles’ star, Mathew Barzal. A gentleman by the name of Mark, who runs the rink, explained that each logo is the original version from when each team came into the National Hockey League.
And in addition to all that, the Isles’ old dressing room is still in use to this day. It is used by the coaches who currently have teams who use the facilities. And that dressing room is adorned with Islanders’ blue, orange and white. The lockers in the room are the same as when the Nassaumen would get changed there. And Al Arbour’s old office is still intact to boot.
Currently, there are several Islanders alum who come back to the rink from time to time to show their families and friends around and to revisit old memories.
Speaking of old memories, I chatted with former team broadcaster, Jiggs McDonald about what it was like going to Cantiague back in the Isles heyday.
Although, according to Jiggs, it wasn’t exactly sunshine and daisies for the Boys from Long Island when they used to practice at Cantiague. McDonald referred to the facility as being in the “Dark Ages” as a practice facility, even compared to other teams in the league at that time. McDonald also explained that many players needed to take folding chairs and set up shop outside the dressing room in order to get changed due to the cramped conditions inside the room.
Former Newsday Islanders beat writer Pat Calabria echoed McDonald’s sentiment. When reached for a comment, Calabria told me about one funny incident at practice that he remembered writing about.
“I recall one day at practice, Al Arbour was going over the power-play with the top two PP units,” said Calabria. “They were all cramped together in this tiny room looking at videotape. When the session was over, they tumbled out of the room, ‘like circus clowns out of a car’ I wrote.”
Not that any of that matters nowadays. As I mentioned before, several alum still come back to visit Cantiague Rink with friends and family to take a walk down memory lane. So, clearly, whatever issues existed at the time, have since subsided and turned into nostalgia.
And even though the team doesn’t have much involvement with the rink anymore, there are those who would like to see some sort of reunion between the team and the rink.
Nassau County Executive, Laura Curran explained how she hopes the team’s current ownership group of Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin will consider having the franchise return to Cantiague for special events when the COVID-19 pandemic is over. From alumni games (which the team has done at Cantiague several times in the past) to ice-sessions, open practices (like in the 1980s), banner ceremonies, meet and greets and more there are a multitude of ways for the reunion to take place. And I’m sure County Executive Curran will be front and center in the effort to convince Ledecky, Malkin and Co. to return to Cantiague Rink.
The historic nature of the rink is one that should be celebrated by The Long Island Faithful and one that should be made widely known; if it isn’t already.
The arena has a homely feel to it and once fans are able to pack the rink, what better way to relive the Islanders’ glory days than to visit the place where they were once able to build themselves into one of the NHL’s preeminent teams.
I’m sure the fans will have no problem getting a “CAN-TIA-GUE” chant followed by a chant of “LET’S GO ISLANDERS” going from the stands as the team takes to the ice to celebrate Cantiague’s history.
Matt Blittner has some fun at the vistors bench at the rink