Posted by: emmaharger | June 19, 2011

Guest post! “I swear there’s a curse: The story of the New York Islanders”

Editor’s note: This is a guest post (yes, we accept those!! Feel free to pitch me an idea, preferably via email) by my good friend Vicky, who is a diehard Islanders fan. The Islanders are currently going through some drama that could potentially end very badly for the team–we’re talking the possibility of relocation, folks. Vicky, also a journalist by trade, gives a really good lowdown of what exactly is happening up on Long Island. Without further ado, take it away, Vicky!

The New York Islanders have been playing in the same arena for the entire franchise history. The Islanders’ first-ever home opener was at the Nassau Coliseum in 1972, and they still play there. It’s been touched up over the years, but it’s still the same dinky little arena. My college [Boston University -ed] has a better hockey arena than the Islanders do. It’s a dump – it’s small, there’s just one concourse that clogs up in between periods to the point where there’s total gridlock if you want to walk over to the next gate to buy an ice cream, lines for the bathrooms stretch down the concourse, the bathrooms themselves are pretty small (though usually clean, I’ll give them that), the stairs in the nosebleed section are at such a steep incline you have to be extra careful when going up or down (I’ve fallen down those stairs and boy, does it hurt) and the whole place smells like a freezer.

The Nassau Coliseum. It smells like a freezer. Picture by Vicky.

[May I also add that the Coliseum is set up so that the visiting team’s bench is very small? As in, too small for the visiting backup goaltender to even sit with his teammates? Vicky went to and I watched an Islanders/Thrashers game in which Mason was in the net for my guys, so my dear sweet Pavelec had to sit…in the hallway. -Ed]

To explain EVERYTHING, we have to go back to 1996. The past 15 years have been nothing but ridiculous, and it does make for an interesting story. Or, a story that leaves you wondering “How could all of this happen to ONE team?”

So the Islanders’ owner at the time, John Pickett, had grown tired of owning the team and was moving to Florida, and had been trying to sell the Islanders since the early 90s [Gee, that sounds familiar…*cough Atlanta Spirit cough* -ed]. A guy from Texas named John Spano shows up at the start of the 96-97 season and says he’s interested in buying the team. Morale was pretty damn low at the time – the team stunk, the fanbase was dwindling, those who did stick around were pretty jaded, and then there’s the whole Fishstick Incident. But that’s another story for another day. Long story short: Don’t mess around with sports logos. Anyway, a billionaire stepping forward and saying he wanted to buy the team was the news everyone wanted to hear. The team needed something fresh, and a new owner provided hope and optimism. Gary Bettman was thrilled, and the league unanimously approved the sale in January. It sounded too good to be true, and well, it was.

John Spano: "Look, ma, I got me a hockey team!" Picture from ESPN.

Spano was a con artist. He racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in charges on the Islanders’ tab, and lied about his fortune and the company he claimed to own. Everything became exposed near the end of the season, when Spano failed to send Pickett $16.5 million he owed him. Spano led Pickett, the NHL, and an FBI investigator on a wild goose chase that culminated in July 1997. Bettman ordered him to cease all operations with the Islanders, and Spano was arrested for bank and wire fraud. Not only had he forged documents from banks, he also bilked Mario Lemieux and the Penguins’ former owner out of millions of dollars in shady investments. He was sentenced to 61 months in federal prison and the Islanders were left without an owner again. Bettman also learned his lesson, and the Spano ordeal changed the way the NHL investigates and approves new owners.

This is the segue into the arena fiasco. So Pickett regained control of the team and put them up for sale again. Bettman found a new group, New York Sports Ventures, and they bought the team in February 1998 (I remember this – I was in 6th grade, and it was right after the NHL shut down for the Olympic Break). They were led by Howard Milstein, a real estate developer, and Steve Gluckstern, co-owner of the Phoenix Coyotes (one of the guys who moved the team from Winnipeg). SEEMS LEGIT. Milstein was up-front with his plans that he wanted to develop the Coliseum and its surrounding land (the Coliseum was built on Mitchel Field, which is an old airspace, and the Coliseum looks like it was dumped in the middle of a huge vacant lot. This comes up later). The Coliseum and the surrounding land are owned by Nassau County, and the Coliseum is managed by a group called SMG. The Islanders’ owners and the county and SMG tried to negotiate so they could end SMG’s lease and build a new arena.

That lease, by the way? Was signed in 1985 and it says the Islanders are contractually bound to play EVERY home game at the Coliseum until 2015. So yes, it’s still in effect and that’s one of the things that’s been holding an arena deal back. The lease also calls for the team to hand over about 2/3 of revenue from ticket sales and advertising and such and ALL parking revenue (costs $10 to park at the Coliseum) to SMG and Nassau County. Pickett was counting on the sale of luxury boxes in the Coliseum to pick up the slack and they didn’t, so by the late 90s, it was looking like a real bonehead move on his part.

I googled 1985 to find an image to put here and found this one. I think it to be very appropriate in showing just how far we've come since '85. -ed

The county wasn’t too keen on Milstein’s plans to develop Mitchel Field with office buildings and a convention center and shops and restaurants and when Milstein refused to scrap his plans, negotiations stopped. Milstein tried to buy out the lease, but SMG said no way. So Milstein and his lawyers started to pick apart the lease to find a loophole and EUREKA, did they find one. Upon installing a new scoreboard that summer, an engineer reported there was a crack in one of the hoists in the Coliseum’s ceiling that held up the scoreboard, He said it had to be replaced, and the owners blew the story out of proportion and ran with it.

The Islanders’ owners filed a lawsuit against SMG and Nassau County, claiming the Coliseum was unsafe and that they had been “structurally evicted,” citing the cracked hoist and a list of other problems. All done to publicly humiliate SMG and Nassau County. The team was up at training camp in Lake Placid, and now they had no home and ended up stranded there for about a month. I remember the owners proclaiming that they were afraid the hoists would snap and the scoreboard could collapse during a game. Engineers were brought in to inspect the Coliseum and despite finding problems that had to be fixed, the Coliseum was deemed safe. Negotiations continued again and the Isles’ rep, thinking he had the county by the balls, proclaimed that he wanted SMG out of the picture and the team wanted control of developing the Coliseum and Mitchel Field, or else there would be no deal. *headdesk*

The deal went out the window, and Tom Gulotta, the county executive at the time, called a press conference where he angrily proclaimed the Islanders’ owners to be “pigs at the trough.” With that, the NY State Supreme Court ordered the Islanders to return to the Coliseum. I remember one of the players, Bryan Berard, jokingly telling Newsday “I’ll keep an ear open if I hear a cable snap.” The drama that had dragged on all summer really cast a pall over everything. Fans began holding rallies, calling for the ousting of the owners and the end of the SMG lease (one of the popular chants was “SMG SET US FREE”). And it goes without saying, throughout the whole time period covered in this post, the team was AWFUL. Like, really really bad. 1998 was the year the Islanders lost 8-2 to the Montreal Canadiens and the fans started chanting “WE SUCK!” There was another game where they gave out bright orange, squeezable “stress pucks.” The Islanders ended up getting pounded in that game (think it was the NJ Devils, I don’t remember), and the angry fans rained a shower of stress pucks on the ice LOL. Come to think of it, that’s probably why they started doing give-aways AFTER games for awhile, handing out swag as you left the Coliseum.

A lesson that Tampa Bay didn't learn, or forgot, in game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against Boston this year...which they won. Picture from Bleacher Report.

The Islanders book I’m reading now that details all this, Fish Sticks, really goes into detail about how bad a state the Coliseum was at this time. I honestly don’t remember things being that horrible. Then again, I was around 12-13 when this was going on. I remember the seats being really beaten-up, and the fabric being torn up and the cushions being worn down. I remember paint peeling off the walls, and the floor being incredibly sticky, but that last one’s a given for any sports arena heh. All the other problems I have with the Coliseum continue to this day, and I’ve already mentioned them! Turns out there really was a whole mess of problems to contend with, including a leaky roof and the place not being up to fire safety codes.

All attempts to fix the Coliseum up become embroiled in politics, since the county owns the building. Politicians on both sides have used the Coliseum as a pawn to further their plans, and even with the Coliseum falling apart at the seams in the late 90s, by 2000, Gulotta said it didn’t make any sense to spend money fixing the Coliseum because of all the plans to develop the area. Eleven years later, and the Islanders are still playing in a crappy arena. It has been fixed up since, but it’s still a subpar hockey arena. I’ve been to games in NYC, Boston, and Montreal, and seeing games in those arenas…it’s like night and day. Montreal was practically luxurious, and Boston’s arena makes the Islanders look like your local skating rink where peewee teams play. And as much as I hate the Rangers, seeing a game at the Garden is a real experience.

So back to 1998. Milstein was pissed the deal fell through again, and he refused to put any of his own millions towards getting the team back to a winning franchise, instead of the embarrassment they were. Let me also mention, it was around this time their coach Bill Stewart infamously said to a reporter after a game, “Have you looked at our lineup?” effectively signing his own pink slip, because his ass was fired when the season ended.

So with money being an issue, Milstein ordered the franchise to be run on a strict budget. The team no longer stayed at luxury hotels, instead staying at the Holiday Inn, and they ended up flying commercial sometimes instead of booking chartered flights. Milstein also decided at this point to give up on trying to develop the Coliseum and Mitchel Field, and was really taking a hands-off approach with the team, having set his sights on attempting to purchase the NFL’s Washington Redskins. His bid was eventually voted down.

Whatcha doin'? Nothin', stayin' at the Holiday Inn. Who you with? Me and my team, won't you bring all of your friends?

The Islanders’ GM, the infamous Mike Milbury (you can now see him doing hockey analysis on NBC and NESN) was ordered by Milstein (who had had it with the Islanders) to slash the team’s payroll DEEPLY. The payroll was already at $20 million and a payroll of $5 MILLION was even considered, before Milbury told them the lowest he would go was $15 million. That’s where it was set, and it was the lowest in the league. As a result, the team had to dump anyone making the big bucks, and with that, the fire sale began. Anyone with relatively big salaries was dropped like a hot potato, with big stars getting traded for next-to-nothing (young players, has-beens, draft picks). I remember, as an Islanders fan, being filled with dread, wondering who the next victim would be each day as I opened to the sports section in Newsday. The big prize was our top player, Zigmund Palffy, the last Islander to come anywhere close to scoring 50 goals. Every day, it became a “Please not Ziggy…please don’t trade Ziggy.” By June, he was one of the last to go. The first story was he was going to *GASP* the Rangers! Well that set off a huge storm, and the deal eventually fell apart. Ziggy got sent to the LA Kings, we got Olli “Waste of Space” Jokinen in return. The Islanders ended up with 4 first-round draft picks for 1999 following that fire sale, but morale had now sunk to an all-time low.

Zigmund Palffy, winner of the Coolest Name Award. Picture from Islesinfo.com

I swear, this all comes back to the arena saga. It all comes together in the end! Patience, reader, you’ve already sat through most of it!

So that summer Bob Gutkowski, who used to be president of Madison Square Garden, announced his intent to purchase the team. He even vowed that he would fire Milbury if the deal went through, so that got lots of fans excited. But, as always, the SMG lease proved to be a huge problem, so the deal never advanced past that. By this point, the financial purge on the team was still going on. Players were still getting dumped to shrink the payroll (keep in mind, this is also before the NHL started its salary cap), and the team now only flew commercial, flying Southwest Airlines for some road trips (Fish Sticks calls Southwest the Wal-Mart of air travel, which is so true).

And then…hope! Enter Charles Wang, billionaire and founder of the Computer Associates software company. Wang is your typical “do-gooder rich guy” type. He’s poured millions into organizations and foundations around the Island. He singlehandedly cleaned up parts of my hometown, and was the one who got the ball rolling in developing our waterfront so it’s more than just a muddy, polluted shore and some empty oil tanks. Wang and his business partner Sanjay Kumar (who’s now serving time for fraud…don’t worry, didn’t involve the Islanders) bought the team in 2000, with the main intent of KEEPING the Islanders on Long Island. While Wang was a basketball fan who admittedly knew like nothing about hockey, he was eager to learn, even jokingly bringing a copy of Hockey for Dummies to the big press conference.

The best part? They had MONEY and they were willing to spend what they had to in order to bring good players and glory back to Long Island. I was at the home opener in 2000 and when Wang and Kumar came on the scoreboard screen in a videotaped message, introducing themselves to the fans, the place went NUTS. And their plan worked! Well, sort of. I personally think most players would rather make out with a shark than play for the Islanders, but they still were able to spend money and get SOME decent players here. To the point where the Islanders actually clinched a playoff berth in 2002, the first time in eight years!

Charles Wang (owner), Ed Mangano (Nassau County Executive), and Kate Murray (Town of Hempstead Supervisor). Picture from nassaucountyny.gov

And because this is getting so freaking long, let me jump to 2008 since this is about the arena anyway. Wang, at this point now the sole owner since Kumar’s in prison, announced plans to develop the Coliseum and Mitchel Field. Well, the plans go back to 2004, but this is when he really started to get the ball rolling. His plan was called the Lighthouse Project. And it was HUGE. Office buildings, luxury hotels and condos, restaurants, shopping, a minor league baseball park, A CANAL RUNNING THROUGH THE WHOLE THING. And the center of it all was going to be an actual, modern-looking lighthouse. Because if it’s Long Island, it’s gotta have a lighthouse involved. The actual lighthouse was eventually scrapped because it was too ostentatious. Look, they even had a really corny commercial to go with it!

[Awful, awful song aside, this development looks awesome. Look at the giant screens outside the stadium!! -ed]

Fans seemed interested – if it meant a new home for the Islanders and keeping them HERE, they were all for it, even if the plan was ridiculously over-the-top. Local politicians and residents, however, not so much. Nassau County’s executive, Tom Suozzi, was all for it. And even though the county owns the property, the Town of Hempstead has a say in it too, I don’t know way. Either way, the Town of Hempstead’s supervisor, Kate Murray, was absolutely against it. She said it was too over-the-top (ok, I agree), and it would cause way too much congestion down on Hempstead Turnpike. Wang offered to look into getting a LIRR train station or an MTA bus stop at the Lighthouse to ease things up, but she was still against. Residents also complained of congestion and since the Lighthouse would only be offering luxury condos, accessibility wouldn’t be available for everyone.

They went back and forth the whole year, with the Town of Hempstead still saying no to approving it, and finally, Wang set a deadline for October 2009: Vote or else. To twist the knife a bit, he announced “We’re exploring our options,” and the Islanders played a preseason game at a big, beautiful new arena in KANSAS CITY. Effectively giving heart attacks to all fans, who were terrified that Wang was being serious about considering relocating the team. Especially since Kansas City built the arena and was angling for an NHL team of their own! Wang was obviously just playing hard ball, but he saw it wasn’t doing anything to get the plan approved. He also dragged politics into it, accusing Murray (a Republican) of deliberately being against the project because Suozzi (a Democrat) was all for it. Suozzi said once the Town of Hempstead approved it, he’d give the green light from the county.

Kansas City: after all, nothing says hockey like a small city in the Midwest. By melroserocks.blogspot.com

It was also election time, and Murray’s Democratic opponent hinged on the Islanders, promising she would approve the Lighthouse project if elected, even holding rallies in the Coliseum parking lot during games. Fans joined her cause, saying a vote for her would be a vote for the Islanders. But when the smoke cleared, Murray won in a landslide. Suozzi was also voted out, replaced by Ed Mangano, a Republican. By this point, Wang pulled the plug on the Lighthouse Project, seeing that it was heading nowhere. However, negotiations still continued to figure out a reduced, more manageable idea for what to do with the Coliseum and Mitchel Field. Rumors even started to pop up that Wang was considering moving the team to Suffolk County (further out on the Island), or Brooklyn. Or even Queens, where they would put up an arena near CitiField where the Mets play. And if they did that, I would be pretty peeved because getting to CitiField is a nightmare. Driving’s a pain and the train’s ok, except when you have to wait around for ages after the game for one to arrive, then you pile on in a big heap with all the drunks, then you still have to drive home from the station.

Fast forward to recently when Ed Mangano announces, out of the blue, that a deal has been decided to build a NEW Coliseum and develop Mitchel Field! Fans rejoiced and flocked to the press conference. Mangano, wearing an orange and blue striped tie, unveiled the plans. Construction would start next year to renovate the Coliseum and develop Mitchel Field into a sports and entertainment complex, with everything set to be ready by the time the Islanders open their 2015-2016 season. Joining him at the press conference were Wang and Murray (who got booed by all the Islanders fans there heh). The plan would cost $400 million, but Mangano insisted it wouldn’t cost taxpayers “a dime,” because while the county would borrow the money, the Islanders would pay the county back over the years and everything would break even through the revenue sharing.

Since this is the Islanders, the plan right away hit a snag. Mangano, it seemed, made the announcement without doing his homework. NIFA, the state watchdog group that’s been controlling the county’s finances since last year (did I mention Nassau’s having money problems?) released a statement afterwards, criticizing Mangano for not running the plan past them first. Critics also complained the plan had very little details and left lots of unanswered questions. Other politicians said the idea that the plan won’t cost the taxpayers anything in the end is a bunch of crap.

A hearing was held, and as expected, political nonsense is pouring all over the Coliseum plan. Legislators are going back and forth, fans have been holding rallies, including one at the county offices in Mineola, and basically, the Islanders have their work cut out for them. The pro side is incredibly vocal and have already got their word out. Those against it have been somewhat quiet, and if they want to shoot this plan down, they need to match the fervor on the other side. Nassau’s legislature voted on the plan on May 31 and it is now a referendum that Nassau voters will decide on August 1. If voters say yes, then groundbreaking begins. It’s just going to be a very tense summer as the local pols keep arguing over it.

The big issue at stake is the cost. $400 million, yet Mangano says the taxpayers won’t be paying for it. Politicians are complaining because it WILL make taxes go up, others are saying it isn’t right to be taking on a huge project like this when the county’s finances are unstable. And I’m pretty sure the Lighthouse Project was going to be funded primarily by Wang, since he’s so loaded. So if that had originally been approved, we wouldn’t be caught in this mess about the taxpayers maybe/maybe not footing the bill.

However, Wang said the prospect of the Islanders moving is still up in the air, and that’s making a lot of fans apprehensive. So like I said, this summer will be very tense.


Responses

  1. “Kansas City: after all, nothing says hockey like a small city in the Midwest. By melroserocks.blogspot.com”

    There’s nothing WRONG with Kansas City. A lot of my family members moved there and they’d LOVE to have a hockey team. Considering the way Canadians and Northerners are talking about YOUR team not being legitimate and how the South is an awful place for hockey, I’m surprised you’re saying this.

    • Hey! Although I didn’t write this post, I did pick the photos for it, so I take credit for the selection. I figured that sentiment would fit the way ISLANDERS fans may have felt about that particular shock move of “hey, we’ll just go ahead and play an expo game here to shock you.” I of course do not endorse that particular view because of, well, everything you’ve said!

  2. I just didn’t like reading that at ALL and most definitely not on this site. Several of my family members continue to live in hope that they might some day get a hockey team and I don’t like Kansas City being disparaged like that.

  3. […] note: This is another Islanders-focused post (here is the other one) by Vicky! Today, August 1, the voters of Nassau County are going to the polls to vote on the […]


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