Anyone going to Canada in the winter needs to bundle up. The brisk cold air is no joke.
But years later, New York Islanders co-owner Jon Ledecky and Tim Leiweke, CEO of the Oak View Group, are laughing about their experience in Montreal.
“I was in Toronto,” Leiweke said, recalling the experience a year or so after Ledecky and Scott Malkin became majority owners of the Islanders. “They made me come out to Montreal. I went from freezing cold to freaking freezing cold. To this day, I’ve never let him down on that story and how they made me go to Montreal in the middle of the dead of winter to freeze with them.”
The trio spent a night in a boutique hotel, when it was roughly negative 20 degrees. Yeah, it was cold.
“Not only was it like 20 degrees below zero when Tim showed up, but he pulled up to this room where he had to wear his overcoat for the entire meeting,” Ledecky said. “It was one of those great moments.”
This is the start of what would eventually be coined the UBS Arena at Belmont Park, a multi-year, multi-million dollar project that will essentially turn Belmont into a one-of-a-kind area. It also marked the start of Leiweke’s organization, which now has more than 300 employees who are working on several arena projects.
UBS recently signed a 20-year deal to be the official title sponsor of the 19,000-seat arena, reportedly worth an estimated $17.5-18 million annually.
“UBS is one of the largest naming right deals ever done for an arena, in particular, for an NHL arena,” Leiweke said. “It’s an international brand, which was important to us because we plan on being one of the busiest arenas in the world.”
Leiweke, Ledecky and Malkin are determined to create a one-of-a-kind fan experience at UBS Arena at Belmont Park. The trio are combining the old with the new, paying homage to Belmont’s first years, as well as to the beloved Nassau Coliseum.
“It’s a great design exercise, and the Islanders fans deserve their own home,” Ledecky said. “In terms of the design, we wanted to have all of the elements of Nassau Coliseum, with the intimacy of the ice and the bowl. When Alexander Ovechkin and I were at a wedding together, he said, ‘Wow, I love playing in your building because the fans are right on top of it. I love the noise of them cheering at me or yelling at me. It inspires me.’ We want to have part of that brought over from Nassau to the UBS Arena.”
Ledecky rolled out the UBS Arena Preview Club in Manhattan to show sponsors, executives and suite owners what life will be like in Belmont. It is indeed spectacular. The club is designed to be nearly identical to what it will look like in Belmont, except the Belmont experience will be bigger and even better.
From endless memorabilia to 24-inch seats, a scale model version of the arena and, of course, four Stanley Cups for everyone to take pictures with, it feels like an out-of-body experience. And the host? Well, it’s Ledecky himself, alongside a group of dedicated Islanders employees.
“We want to make the place unique,” Ledecky said. “Externally, as you can see in our Preview Club, it’s a salute to the beginnings and origins of Belmont Park all the way through to the bar area, which is a salute to the King Cole Bar at The St. Regis Hotel.”
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the ownership group is already brainstorming ways to keep fans safe in 2021, when the UBS Arena at Belmont Park will see its firsts guests.
“The management and construction team have done a phenomenal job as to sanitization for our workers,” Leiweke said of the ongoing construction. “We’re extremely focused on the 600 people we have on site now to protect their wellness, health and safety. We’re very geared with our architects, construction folks, Sterling, our project management team, as well as outside consultant groups as to what we’re going to do for health and wellness when it comes to operating the building.”
The Islanders joined the Wellness Academy, which will create a set of minimum standards for the arena in terms of sanitization.
“You’ll see some technology, for example, Amazon built a concept where people can grab and go and never have to go to a point of purchase or a register to check out,” Leiweke, who also created the Staples Center in Los Angeles, said. “We’re thinking of how to have better purification of our air for the purpose of sanitization. Clearly, in addition to having a janitorial company come in and clean after every event, we’ll have a sanitization crew come in and sanitize after every event. If you listen to the smart people, what we’ll probably see when we open this building is sanitization and the convenience of the customer in using technology, thinking about air circulation.”
With safety enhancements in mind, the arena is still on pace to open for the 2021 NHL season. However, what makes this group extremely excited is the potential UBS Arena has outside of the Islanders.
In addition to creating a home for Long Island’s hockey club, the UBS Arena is set to take center stage for plenty of concerts, just like Nassau Coliseum. For the performers heading over to Belmont, they’ll have their own locker room and so much more right next to their entrance. It’s all about creating a one-stop-shop for hockey and entertainment.
“We took those two cultures — that’s the uniqueness of this partnership — and it’s the only arena in the history of New York that’s designed by a music company and a sports team together, and it’s owned collectively,” Leiweke said. “We took the best from Nassau Coliseum and brought it to a brand-new home the Islanders fans deserve.”
The arena project is ultimately the culmination of Ledecky’s many walks around Nassau Coliseum, where he meets fans and interacts with them. He’ll even head over to tailgates sometimes, making sure the ultimate stakeholder is involved in the team’s decisions.
“Being out and about with them, I get to solicit feedback and there’s things you learn that you don’t realize are important,” Ledecky said. “There are little details fans will tell you, whether it’s there aren’t enough gluten free food stands or there’s an issue with the way bathrooms are working or a parking problem. You don’t get that feedback as an owner if you’re sitting up in the sky box. You get instant feedback. Now, they’ll give you opinions about trading players or signing a guy, or what about retiring a number.”
The creation of a new stadium, combined with a team in the heart of the NHL playoffs, is leading the Islanders’ ticket sales to reach all-new highs.
The demand for tickets at UBS Arena is increasing as the Islanders’ success on the ice, led by head coach Barry Trotz and general manager Lou Lamoriello, means less than 20 percent of season tickets are still available for the 2021-22 season. The team expects premium inventory to be sold out by early 2021.
No matter how successful the Islanders are, fans will certainly see Ledecky on the Long Island Rail Road and walking around the UBS Arena for years to come. With input from players, the coaching staff, music executives and fans, the UBS Arena is poised to become one of the most popular venues in the nation.
“The great thing for me on Long Island is you go to a game and you meet a grandfather, his son and his grandchild,” he said. “On some occasions, I’ve met four generations. You don’t get to feel that emotion if you sit up high.”