Long Island’s asbestos may send hockey to Barclays Center

UPDATE: Islanders to play in Brooklyn!
AP / Kathy Kmonicek

Nassau Coliseum’s asbestos problem could be the Barclays Center’s biggest coup.

A state investigation into claims that the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum — where the New York Islanders’ hockey team plays its home games — is filled with the cancer-causing fiber could bring the team to the $1-billion, asbestos-free Prospect Heights arena if the lethal substance isn’t removed by the start of next season.

The state Department of Labor launched a probe of the Long Island sports complex on March 30, after more than 75 workers alleged the facility was filled with asbestos in a bombshell lawsuit filed against Nassau County, which owns the Coliseum.

“The whole place is covered in it,” said Joseph Dell, the plaintiffs’ attorney. “The county is responsible for keeping Nassau Coliseum safe but it never renovated it or did an asbestos abatement.”

The Islanders have been in the hunt for a new arena on Long Island, but Nassau County voters shot down a plans for a new hockey hub.

If a cleanup of the Nassau Coliseum stretches beyond the start of the hockey season this fall — or if the asbestos problem forces county officials to close the arena — the Islanders would be forced to find a new home, and the Barclays Center is an easy option. A deal with the National Hockey League requires the Islanders play on Long Island, which, surprisingly to some, includes Brooklyn at its western tip.

An asbestos-abetted move to Brooklyn is all but inevitable according to sports talking heads including Mike Francesa.

State labor officials did not return calls seeking comment, but county officials said they conducted a study last month that found small amounts of asbestos in areas of the Coliseum that are off-limits to the public.

The county investigators determined the building was safe, but Dell says test results he commissioned from three separate labs show asbestos — an outdated fireproofing material that can cause mesothelioma, lung cancer, and other series illnesses after prolonged exposure — in several seating sections, hallways, catwalks, and other areas of the 16,000-seat arena, making a building that has employed more than 1,000 people since it opened in 1972 a danger for workers.

Hockey was originally considered a possible attraction at the Brooklyn Nets’ future home on the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues, but the plans were scuttled after Barclays Center’s starchitect Frank Gehry was fired in 2009 and his proposed arena was scrapped to cut costs.

The 18,000-seat hoops arena could only fit 14,500 fans during hockey games, which would make it the smallest arena in the league. Last season, the Islanders averaged just 11,000 spectators per game.

The arena might be small, but by coming to Brooklyn, the team could move into a finished stadium and start playing without taking on any debt or spending any cash to build their ice rink, sports writers have surmised.

In January, the team agreed to play a preseason game against the New Jersey Devils at Barclays, sparking rumors the club was eyeing a long-term move to the borough.

At the time, Barclays Center officials said they’d welcome the Islanders with open arms.

“Brooklyn is an untapped hockey market that offers the Islanders with an exciting opportunity to grow its fan base,” said Barclays Center CEO Brett Yormark.

In a television appearance last year, the arena’s developer Bruce Ratner said he hopes the Islanders make the move, and repeated his wish to the New York Times in an interview just last month.

“We’d love to have the Islanders,” Ratner said.

The team’s current lease at the Nassau Coliseum expires in 2015.

A spokesman for the team declined to comment.

Asbestos experts said even if the current mess is cleaned up quickly, many fans will be scared away from the arena for good.

“When people know there’s asbestos involved they tend to stay away,” said Jordan Fox, an asbestos law specialist who’s not involved with the case. “Even if the government says its okay, fans won’t want to come back.”

Reach reporter Daniel Bush at dbush@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-8310. Follow him at twitter.com/dan_bush.