In 2014, the Islanders “hosted” the Rangers in a Stadium Series game at Yankee Stadium.
The Islanders will, once again, be the home team on Feb. 18 when they have another outdoor game with the Rangers at MetLife Stadium. The Islanders had to be the home team in both of those games because the Rangers are not permitted to play a home game anywhere. That’s because Madison Square Garden has a New York State property tax exemption that calls for all Rangers and Knicks home games to be played at MSG.
Being the “home” team for an outdoor game in the Bronx and New Jersey doesn’t give the Islanders a chance to showcase Long Island like other teams get to do when they host games like the Winter Classic or Stadium Series. But now, the perfect storm is being created that could see the Islanders host the NHL Winter Classic right next door to their home UBS Arena.
The vision for Belmont Park and NHL events
With plans in place for a new Belmont Park racetrack, conversations with the New York Racing Association and the NHL are already underway that could bring the marquee New Year’s Day event to Long Island.
“I’ve seen the vision and the ambitions of (NYRA CEO) David O’Rorke and what they’re going to do with Belmont Park raceway,” said Islanders’ operating partner John Collins this past Friday at the grand opening of “The Park,” a season-long outdoor ice experience featuring two pond rinks outside of UBS.
Collins was the NHL’s chief operator officer for more than nine years and joined the Islanders’ ownership group this past summer while also serving as alternate governor and he heads up the business operations for the team and UBS Arena.
“Our first conversation was David pressing me to say how can we get the Winter Classic here?” said Collins. “I said we’ll work with you on that. Let’s see what we can do around pond hockey. This campus, at the moment, is probably the best-kept secret in New York but probably not for long.”
The Park is located just outside the main entrance of UBS Arena and resides on the space that had been the paddock for the Belmont Park racetrack. But with the track down shut down for renovations that will see the grandstand torn down and replaced with a new structure, the Islanders have partnered with NYRA, Northwell Health, UBS, and USA Hockey to create the gathering spot for Islanders fans that includes two outdoor pond hockey rinks.
And even when the Islanders aren’t playing a game at UBS Arena, the rinks will be open for public skates.
What the Islanders are doing with The Park has caught the attention of the NHL because these are types of activations needed to host big events like an outdoor game or even for UBS Arena to host the NHL All-Star Game and the NHL Draft.
John Collins: A key player in Islanders’ ambitious plans
“We know what the league really would like for its big tentpole events,” said Collins. “We’re in the Stadium Series and it was important for us to show the league that we could really activate like this. This is a Super Bowl/Winter Classic-esque fan festival what we’re doing out here in Belmont Park. They’ve been to the building. We’re having active conversations about how we can be partners for them and by the way…they want to showcase hockey in New York.”
Collins is credited with creating the Winter Classic and the other outdoor NHL games during his time with the league. He’s was also the senior vice president of marketing, sales and programming for the NFL and was the chief executive officer for on location experiences. But when the opportunity came up to join the Islanders franchise, the Long Island native had no choice but to say “YES YES YES!”
“I love the people here,” said Collins. “I have a great relationship, and always have, with (Islanders president and general manager) Lou (Lamoriello) so it was an easy conversation when (Islanders co-owner) Scott (Malkin) asked me to get involved. I said I feel like I can contribute and I’d like to be part of the team.”
And the Islanders, who have come a long way with their prior ownership fiascos and the seemingly never-ending quest to find a new home on Long Island, are excited to have Collins because he could be exactly what the franchise needs to host the NHL’s major events.
Just like Butch Goring was acquired as the “missing link” before the Islanders went on a run of four straight Stanley Cups from 1980 to 1983, Collins has a clear understanding of what it will take for the Islanders to bring the North American hockey world to Long Island.
“John’s resume speaks for itself,” said Ledecky. “To have a chance to re-imagine this campus and re-imagine hockey in New York is a great opportunity. I think Mr. O’Rourke from NYRA saw that (Friday) and I think he walked away saying wow we really could do some great events with UBS Arena and New York Islanders hockey at this campus.”
The new Belmont Park
And the campus is about to grow.
NYRA is expected to unveil the plans for the new Belmont Park racetrack in the next weeks and construction is well under across Hempstead Turnpike from UBS Arena on the Belmont Park Village, a massive retail complex that is expected to open prior to the 2024-25 NHL season. There are also plans for a hotel, something that the NHL will likely want to see before the Islanders can host a major NHL event.
Being a major player in the NHL is not a pipedream for the Islanders anymore.
“Everything is already here,” said Collins. “It’s not a dream that you’re going to build an arena one day. The arena is here and it’s pretty nice and there’s a lot more still to go. Belmont Park Village…I’ve been to some of the luxury retail villages in Europe. New York doesn’t know what’s coming. It’s going to be an incredible experience and it’s going to draw a lot of people to this campus and a lot of attention.”
In recent years, Islanders Country has seen the addition of a new ownership group with the vision of restoring the Islanders as a world-class sports franchise. Scott Malkin, Jon Ledecky and Dewey Shay brought in Lou Lamoriello to run the hockey operations and they delivered the Islanders a new home on Long Island with UBS Arena. And now, they’ve brought in John Collins who could very well take the Islanders to unchartered waters on Long Island.
“I’m happy to be part of this group,” said Collins. “I think it’s among the best in the league. The ambition is there.”
The NHL Winter Classic. The NHL All-Star Game. The NHL Draft. All three are in the works for the Islanders and Long Island.
Top: John Collins at the opening of The Park at UBS Arena. (GLI Photo/ Andrew Theodorakis)