The Islanders finally removed all doubt about their move to Belmont Park, putting shovels into the ground on Monday, almost two years after vowing to return full time to Long Island with a new arena on the racetrack grounds.
The 19,000-seat arena (about 17,000 for hockey) is expected to be in use for the 2021-22 hockey season, ending the team’s stay in Brooklyn, which began in the 2015-16 season.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who pressed for development of the arena, participated in the groundbreaking ceremony, along with members of the team; Jon Ledecky, one of the Islanders’ majority owners; N.H.L. Commissioner Gary Bettman; and construction workers.
“The Islanders are more than a hockey team. They were a Long Island identity,” said Cuomo, who was flanked by Ledecky and Islanders captain Anders Lee as they moved ceremonial scoops of dirt with shovels that had hockey sticks for handles. “They said to Long Island, ‘You are special, you have your own team.’ There’s no place like the Islanders playing on Long Island, period.”
Bettman announced that seven more games — including both regular-season contests against the Rangers — would be added to the Nassau Coliseum schedule for this season, which starts Oct. 4 for the Islanders with a game against the Washington Capitals. That means 28 of the Islanders’ 41 home games will be played on Long Island and only 13 at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. The team split last season between Barclays Center and Nassau Coliseum, the Islanders’ original home in Uniondale starting in 1972.
The governor, Ledecky and Bettman originally announced the proposed Belmont redevelopment in December 2017, putting the arena on the site of parking lots near the racetrack grandstand.
The $1.3 billion construction project is expected to add Long Island Railroad access both eastbound (by 2021) and westbound (in late 2022) to Belmont Park — home of the Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown. The park opened in 1905.
“People can take the Long Island Railroad to the games,” Cuomo said. “That is a game changer. It’s long overdue.”
Ledecky said the new home rink would bring stability to the franchise after several seasons of splitting time between Uniondale and Brooklyn, not to mention many years of uncertainty before the Islanders moved to Brooklyn.
“Our fans have been wandering for a while. They haven’t had the right type of facility,” Ledecky said. “As stewards of this franchise, we have brought fans an arena they deserve.”
There remains local opposition to the project, which will include about 350,000 square feet of retail space and a 250-room hotel.
A lawsuit filed this month in state Supreme Court in Mineola contends New York State does not have full authority to designate land at Belmont for private development. And the village of Floral Park near the racetrack filed a lawsuit on Sept. 9 that challenges the state’s environmental review process.
State Senator Anna Kaplan, whose district includes Floral Park and nearby Elmont, said she would work to unite residents opposed to such a large-scale construction project in what is essentially a residential neighborhood.
“We’re going to see how we can actually help out,” she said, “try to really help the communities that will be impacted closely.”