“Sometimes the greatness of the past can become a burden on the present and future. Especially when the present and future always seem so bleak.”
– Peter Botte & Alan Hahn
These are just some of the words written by Peter Botte and Alan Hahn in their 2002 publication, “Fish Sticks: The Fall and Rise of the New York Islanders”. Even though the book was released in 2002 and does not include any documentation of the last decade of Islanders hockey, it is an essential read for any Islanders fan. The book offered an insight to the trials and tribulations that the Isles went through as a franchise from the early 90s to the turn of the millennium, but also illustrated the way that the team rebounded during the early 2000s after years of despair.
Individuals such as Don Maloney, Bill Torrey, John O. Pickett, Mike Milbury, John Spano, Charles B. Wang, and Sanjay Kumar were all given different portrayals in Botte and Hahn’s publication, but the authors recapped the “Gory Years” of the New York Islanders in an accurate and fitting manner.
While a number of individuals were responsible for the direction that the New York Islanders took during the mid-to-late 1990s, the authors detailed just how much Islanders Nation had to go through after enjoying a decade of success. Even though Botte and Hahn chose to focus on a very forgettable portion of Islanders history, the authors managed to describe how and why the Islanders spun into relative obscurity and the reasons for the team’s failures before the turn of the millennium.
From Glory to Gory
During the 1980s, the New York Islanders were the toast of New York as they won four consecutive Stanley Cup championships as an expansion franchise in the NHL. Peter Botte and Alan Hahn did not devote much focus to the championship years, but they did outline the reasons for the franchise’s failure during the mid-to-late 1990s.
As Botte and Hahn illustrated, the Isles’ tailspin began shortly after the team was ousted by the New York Rangers in the first round of the 1993-1994 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Legendary head coach Al Arbour retired from the game of hockey after the Islanders were swept out of the first round by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Rangers, but the direction that the team took after these events was one of the first signs of trouble for the Islanders of the mid-90s. General Manager Don Maloney traded away players such as Pierre Turgeon and Vladimir Malakhov, and even let other players such as Ray Ferraro walk away via free agency.
While Maloney’s blunders caused Islanders fans much pain, Botte and Hahn illustrated that the team’s ownership issues weighed significantly on the franchise. Toward the beginning of the 1990s, John O. Pickett grew less and less interested in retaining ownership of the Islanders and looked to sell the team to another investor. Individuals such as Robert Rosenthal, Steven Walsh, Jerry Grossman, Ralph Palleschi formed the “Gang of Four” and probably had good intentions when they purchased a portion of the Islanders from Pickett, but attempts to sell the team were only exacerbated as time wore on.
While inept management and disinterested owners hindered the progress of the Islanders, the team was not aided by the antics of con-artist John Spano. Not only did Botte and Hahn illustrate the fraud that Spano perpetrated in order to appeal himself to Islanders executives and the Commissioner of the NHL, but they also depicted the ways that the team’s fan-base was impacted. Untimely trades, Kirk Muller, and logo changes were just some of the things that bothered Islanders fans during the mid-90s, but the damage that Spano wrought upon the team was devastating as many of the fans that chanted “Save Us Spano!” fell victim to a cruel scheme that further deteriorated the credibility of the Islanders organization.
Botte and Hahn did a masterful job of showing how John Spano conned his way into the Islanders organization, but the authors also illustrated how owners such as Howard Milstein and Steven Gluckstern hurt the team when Nassau County politics prevented the pair from purchasing 70-plus acres of Coliseum land for possible development. Even though Spano’s fraudulent actions were inexcusable, Milstein and Gluckstern greatly hindered the development of the franchise by drastically cutting the team’s budget and attempting to void the lease with SMG. Poor management and ownership groups devastated the Islanders throughout the 1990s, but Botte and Hahn also illustrated how one man tried to kick-start an organization that was teetering on life support.
Peter Botte and Alan Hahn devoted a fair amount of writing when describing the tenure of Mike Milbury as the head coach and General Manager of the New York Islanders. While the authors lightened the mood by including a section of hilarious “Milbury-isms,” the pair also illustrated what the head coach/GM had to go through during the later portion of the 1990s.
Many might lambast Mike Milbury for his up front style and ability to speak his mind, but the former General Manager and head coach of the New York Islanders outlasted half a decade of losing under some unfavorable conditions. Even though Milbury might have pulled off some trades during his Islanders tenure that furrowed some eyebrows among hockey fans and analysts, the GM was often forced to operate under an austere budget that allowed very little wiggle room. Players such as J.P Dumont and Zigmund Palffy were ultimately traded because of the team’s financial issues and it was Milbury that was often forced to field a sub-par on-ice product.
Playing under a tight budget probably did not help Milbury in the least bit, but Botte and Hahn illustrated how “Mad Mike” eventually pulled his team out of the doldrums of the Atlantic Division when the right owners assumed control of the New York Islanders. Under Charles B. Wang and Sanjay Kumar, Milbury was allowed to spend money and make the necessary moves to get the Islanders back into contention. While players such as Zdeno Chara, Roberto Luongo, and draft picks (Jason Spezza) were traded by Milbury in order to get top flight talent to Long Island, the GM made the moves with the hopes that they would re-invigorate a fan-base that was steadily dwindling over the course of the 1990s.
Botte and Hahn may have recapped some Islanders history that Mike Milbury was not too fond of, but the authors thoroughly illustrated the tumultuous times that Milbury shared with his team, especially during the first five years of his stay on Long Island.
A Post-season Return
While much of Botte and Hahn’s publication focused on the turbulent times that the Islanders organization experienced throughout the 1990s, the authors tied their book together in a fitting fashion as they documented the Isles’ 2001-2002 NHL season that saw the team make the playoffs for the first time since the 1993-1994 season. Milbury’s acquisition of Alexei Yashin, Michael Peca, Chris Osgood, Adrian Aucoin, and Roman Hamrlik helped New York reach the post-season, but the team was ultimately dispatched by the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven hotly contested games.
One of the most defining moments of that series was undoubtedly Shawn Bates’ penalty shot conversion in Game 4 at Nassau Coliseum. As I was listening to this game on the radio, all I remember was standing up and pacing around the room as John Wiedeman and Chris King explained that a penalty shot had never been converted in the Isles’ post-season history. After purchasing “Fish Sticks” about a year later, I glanced at the photo on the back cover of the book that featured a fan holding up a sign that read, “JUST BELIEVE. 16,294 Of Us Do!” and was instantly reminded of the way that Bates had lifted the spirits of countless Islanders fans that had endured years of irrelevance and ridicule.
Reading Botte and Hahn’s book offered a great look into a part of Islanders history that many seem to forget nowadays. Even though a decade has passed since the publication of “Fish Sticks,” the book is an excellent read for any hockey fan that wants to learn a bit of Islanders history from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s.