Ever since the NHL lockout began in September, fans have been clamoring for their favorite sport to return to the ice. Twitter posts bemoaning the lack of hockey being played have become as commonplace as those whining about excessive political ads during this brutal election season, and this hunger for any positive news on the labor negotiation front has perhaps caused fans to lose sight of some of the other happenings that are going on off the ice.
For fans of the New York Islanders, Wednesday morning brought what can only be described as a seismic shift in the course of their franchise. After years of trying to renovate or replace the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the New York Islanders announced that they would be moving to the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn at the conclusion of their lease on Long Island in 2015. The move was certainly discussed as a possibility long before the announcement was actually made, but there was just about no one who actually thought that the team would make this decision three years in advance, and even more stunningly, in the midst of yet another work stoppage.
Almost immediately, there was a tidal wave of reaction across the blogosphere. Many Islanders fans were happy that the team was merely moving into a sparkling new arena close to Nassau, as opposed to another city like Seattle or Quebec City that is pining for tenants for arena projects. Those that didn’t share that joy, however, were devastated to learn that the team was planning on playing for three more seasons, criticizing the team for making the announcement so far in advance and essentially rendering themselves dead men walking.
Despite what fans of the team think, the reality of matters is that the Islanders are perhaps handling this better than just about any other team that has looked down the barrel of relocation in recent years. Charles Wang, the owner of the team and one of the leading crusader behind projects like the Lighthouse Initiative and others designed to keep the Islanders playing near their current home, has lost $250 million during his tenure at the helm. While some of that has to do with paying out stupid contracts to guys like Alexei Yashin (who is ironically getting paid via his buyout even during the league’s lockout) and injury-prone goaltender Rick DiPietro, whose 15-year contract has earned derision on par with that of the lifetime pact signed by the immortal Dan Quisenberry with the Kansas City Royals in 1983, it has more to do with the fact that fans simply weren’t willing to shell out money for tickets at a decrepit and substandard arena, and rightfully so.
Announcing the move quite a bit in advance will definitely have an impact on the team as soon as the lockout ends, and it all starts with buzz surrounding the club. Anyone with a brain in their skull has taken note of how enthusiastically the borough of Brooklyn has embraced the NBA’s Nets, who are only a few years removed from winning an abysmal 10 games. That ferocity of affection has to have an allure to a team like the Islanders, who have been looking for a way to generate excitement for years now. Even with stars like John Tavares and Kyle Okposo, the team simply has no traction in the New York sports market, but this move makes them a player in that regard immediately.
The announcement will also have the added bonus of helping lure free agents to the franchise. Whenever a player is mulling over making a long-term commitment to a club, it never hurts to be able to offer state of the art facilities as part of the package. That phenomenon was on display with the Miami Marlins in 2012, as they lured three big-time free agents into the fold with a brand new ballpark being part of the sales pitch. College football programs across the US are testaments to the effectiveness of this strategy, and the Islanders moving into Barclay’s Center will be a boon to their fortunes in getting talented guys to buy into their strategy.
For further proof that the Islanders are handling this better than any other team who has taken a spin of the Relocation Roulette wheel, it would be helpful to see just how the other clubs involved have screwed up in their respective situations:
-The Phoenix Coyotes are perhaps the most cited example of relocation shenanigans, and they have hit just about every level possible in dragging the drama out surrounding their status. They were purchased out of bankruptcy by the NHL, who wanted to keep a tight rein on its control of who could buy a franchise, and have subsequently gone through as many as FIVE different potential suitors. The sale has come close to closing twice, but even now former San Jose Sharks CEO Greg Jamison’s bid to buy the team is still hitting road blocks. Whether they are still in Phoenix when the NHL finally resumes play is still up in the air, which isn’t exactly where you want a business transaction to be after three grueling years.
-The Atlanta Thrashers had some rumblings of turmoil with the ownership drama involving the Atlanta Spirit group, but it surprised a lot of folks when the group sold the Thrashers to the True North group, which then moved them to Winnipeg over the summer of 2011. The team’s quick departure was so poorly handled that they still sent out emails to fans in Atlanta offering them renewals on their season tickets AFTER the announcement of the move to Winnipeg was made. In most cases, ripping off a Band-Aid quickly is a recipe for success, but when it comes to NHL relocation, a more tactful exit is usually smarter for all parties involved.
-Finally, the Edmonton Oilers are currently embroiled in their own funfest when it comes to potentially changing mailing addresses. Owner Daryl Katz has been vocally trying to get the city government to commit a huge chunk of money to building a new arena for the club once their lease at Rexall Place expires in 2014, but negotiations have gone nowhere, and the team seems poised to potentially move. That scenario became just a bit more real in September when Katz and a group including Edmonton legend Wayne Gretzky travelled to Seattle to meet with local officials about the progress of the new arena being built there, leading to an apology by Katz and a hellfire of criticism from around the hockey world.
Similarly to the Oilers, the Islanders were trying to negotiate with their local government about getting funding for a new arena, and they did embrace some tactics that could have struck some folks as arm-twisting. The Islanders have been scheduling exhibition games in several other possible NHL cities, including Kansas City’s Sprint Center and even in the Barclay’s Center itself, where they were supposed to play the New Jersey Devils in a preseason game before the opening puck drop of this now lockout-shortened season.
Even though scheduling these games could be viewed through the prism of wanting to showcase the franchise for a potential courtship by other cities, the fact of the matter is that teams play preseason games in other locations all the time. Whether it’s in Saskatchewan, Las Vegas, or Houston, NHL teams like to broaden their horizons a bit when it comes to scheduling tilts during the month of September, so while the Isles did so for fairly obvious reasons, it isn’t like they were the only club doing this.
In addition to that, Wang never threatened to move the team as far away from their fans as other owners have in the past. In baseball, Jerry Reinsdorf was close to moving the Chicago White Sox down to Florida back in the 1980’s, and the Montreal Expos briefly considered moving to San Juan, Puerto Rico before ultimately moving to Washington in 2005. In basketball, the Seattle Supersonics took off for the greener pastures of Oklahoma City, and in football, the Baltimore Colts literally stole away in the middle of the night, moving in a fleet of Mayflower semi-trucks to Indianapolis in 1984. Baltimore did ultimately get paid back for that shot to the heart, getting Art Modell’s Cleveland Browns in 1995.
All of these moves (and near moves), and the men who perpetrated them, have gone down in the annals of history as hated figures, but Wang does not belong in this pantheon. He made every effort imaginable to keep the team in Nassau, even though it cost him a quarter of a billion dollars in losses, and even in admitting defeat in that endeavor, the team is still only moving 25 miles away. Fans of the team will still be able to make that trek for games, and as has been pointed out ad nauseum today, it will improve the rivalry the club has with the Devils and the New York Rangers with its closer proximity to downtown New York City.
In the end, Wang should go down not as the man who cruelly wrested hockey away from the citizens of Long Island, but rather as an owner who tried to do right both by the fans and by his own pocketbook. We should praise him for the former and freely admit that he is entitled to do the latter, and in this era when there’s so much animosity toward the owners of this league, Wang seems to be one that gets the value of loyalty.