On paper, the New York Islanders don’t look too compelling. Four games into the 2009-2010 season, they have lost four games. All of which by one goal, one in overtime, two in a shootout, with two leads blown. They are coming off the worst record in the league, their worst finish since 2001. They have not won a playoff series since 1993. But the Islanders are a microcosm of the NHL, and many franchises across pro sports in North America, on the ice and off it. While the Islanders try to fortify a foundation of young talent on the rink, ownership and fans are fighting to keep the franchise in the only location it has ever known.
Every pro sport has had to deal with harsh realities in the uncertain economic climate. NASCAR has trimmed Champions Week into Champions Day. The NBA is using replacement refs and is facing a possible work stoppage after the 2010-2011 season. The NFL has had to invoke it’s local TV blackout rule since several teams have not had sellouts, and also faces a potential work stoppage in 2011. Attendance has been down across the board, and teams in every league are slashing payroll and slimming staffs in an effort to save money. Talks of relocation and even contraction are being given serious thought.
The Islanders have been playing in the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum since 1972, their first year in the league. It is now one of the oldest arenas in pro sports. But unlike Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, or Madison Square Garden, the facility is completely cramped, charmless and antiquated. Before and after the game and during intermissions fans have to cram themselves on to one concourse, with limited concession stands and even fewer bathrooms. The Islanders are in desperate need of a new facility, and really have been for the entire decade.
Islanders owner Charles Wang, the former head of Computer Associates who purchased the team in 2000, has been doing everything he can to keep the team competitive while hemorrhaging money. After a seven year playoff drought, the Isles made the playoffs in 2002, and four times over five seasons. Wang spent money and allowed GM’s to bring in big name players (albeit declining players), in the hopes of bringing life back to the franchise. But Wang has also been losing approximately $20 million a year with the Isles.
Wang has an ambitious plan for a new arena to keep the team on Long Island. Aside from renovating the Coliseum, Wang wants to build a complex of housing, commerce, recreation, and tourism called The Lighthouse Project. The expansive project will cost in the billions, all of it privately financed. Nassau County (controlled by the Democrats) has approved the deal with Wang and Lighthouse co-developer Scott Rechler, but the town of Hempstead (lead by Republicans) has yet to approve the deal, despite Wang’s Oct. 3 deadline, the day of the season opener.
If no deal is in place, Wang will look to move the Islanders where ever a new arena a fan base are waiting. Some local options include Suffolk County (the eastern part of Long Island) or Queens, possibly near Citi Field. But the Islanders played exhibition games this season in Kansas City, MO and Saskatoon, SK, Canada, both cities looking for an NHL team to call their own.
As an Islanders fan, I want this project to be approved and for construction to have started last month. Renovating the arena will take two years itself, and the rest of the project could take ten years to complete. The longer it takes for a new arena to be built, the further the Islanders will sink into oblivion and increase the likelihood of them moving to another city. Give Wang all the credit in the world for giving the Islanders some respectability this decade even while he was burning through money for so many years. A lot of owners would have threatened to move sooner (as the previous owners did as soon as they bought the team) or sold it to someone who would.
This is a franchise with a rich history. They won four Stanley Cups in a row (1980-1983), and have an unbeatable record of 19 consecutive playoff series victories. They have eight Hall-of-Famers, including the General Manager (Bill Torrey) and coach (Al Arbour) that built and led the team to all it’s titles. The Isles have had some of the greatest playoff moments in league history. Bobby Nystrom’s 1980 Cup winner in overtime of game six to start the dynasty. Pat LaFontaine’s goal in the fourth overtime in game seven against the Washington Capitals in 1987, known as “The Easter Classic.” Dave Volek’s overtime goal in game seven in the 1993 Division Finals against the two-time defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins. They were only the second team to come back from an 0-3 deficit against the Penguins in 1975, the franchise’s first trip into the playoffs (and came back from an 0-3 deficit in the next round against the Flyers before falling short in game seven) a feat that wouldn’t happen again for almost 30 years. More accomplished franchises have relocated before, and it is always a tragedy when they do.
Recent history has not been kind to the Islanders, but there is hope for the future (sorry Isles fans, I know this is a sentence we’ve read dozens of times over the past 20 years, but it is true this time). First overall pick John Tavares has impressed so far, and could be the legit franchise player the Islanders can build around. Flanked by first round picks like Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey, the Isles have the beginnings of a solid foundation built through the draft, similar to how Bill Torrey stockpiled Dennis Potvin, Bryan Trottier, and Mike Bossy through the draft en route to four straight Stanley Cups.
The Islanders are also an indelible part of Long Island that can not be replaced. They are the area’s only pro sports team, and they will be the only pro team Long Island ever sees. The Mets and Jets have most of their fan bases on LI, but the Jets have abandoned their Long Island home to be closer to their New Jersey stadium and all the Mets operations are in Queens. It would be a devastating blow to Long Island to lose the Islanders. It’s not just a sports issue. Long Island has been in a period of stagnation for a long time. If a project that will bring this much money, labor, business, and tourism to Long Island, being built with private funds by developers that have Long Island roots, can’t get built, than nothing may ever get built on Long Island again. Some residents don’t want the congestion of tourism, but they could get even more room to stretch out if the plan doesn’t get approved and people start leaving in droves to areas with lower taxes and more work.
If the Islanders have to leave Long Island, it won’t bode well for other franchises in similar situations. Several teams in every league could face similar scenarios over the next few years if the owners can’t survive the new economic climate. The Islanders are the heart of Long Island, and it’s up to the Town of Hempstead to keep it beating.