By Stu Hackel
On Monday in New York’s Nassau County, a mere 104,000 voters — or about one-tenth of the population – turned out to turn down a new arena for the Islanders, among other projects. [UPDATE: The final official voter turnout was 154,549 voters, around 11.4 percent of the population, and about 17 percent of the registered voters.] Team owner Charles Wang didn’t say much after the results were clear other than to express his disappointment and heartbreak, and promise to honor the team’s lease at crumbling Nassau Coliseum until it runs out (video).
That leaves the distinct impression in many quarters that the Islanders won’t be around after that. They’re going to Brooklyn! They’re going to Kansas City! They’re going to Quebec! They’re going to Portland! They’re going to Seattle! They’re going to Hamilton! They’re going to Hartford!
They’re going nowhere.
The Islanders were rejected by the voters because not enough people were motivated to vote, just as not enough people are motivated to attend their games. And why is that? Because this team hasn’t been a winner in a long time. But when the Isles were champions or simply contenders, they were a tough ticket, a wildly and passionately supported club. And because Long Island is a proven market, that’s all the NHL needs know.
This is, for lack of a better term, The Bettman Doctrine (or the second version of it after he was all about franchise-relocation and “growing the game’s footprint” early in his tenure). No franchise gets moved if the league believes the team has been or can be a success where it is and an owner — any owner — is willing to keep it there. Charles Wang may not want to keep the Islanders on the Island, but Gary Bettman will find someone else who does.
Now, Bettman has not always been on top of his game when locating owners for the Isles. To review, there was the John Spano swindle followed by the Milstein-Gluckstern debacle prior to the purchase of the team by Charles Wang and his protegé Sanjay Kumar, the top two executives at Computer Associates. Kumar is now serving 12 years for securities fraud and obstruction of justice. Kumar accused Wang of being the brains behind the $2.2 billion accounting fraud that sent him to jail and nearly destroyed CA, but Wang was investigated and not prosecuted. He bought Kumar’s share of the Isles in 2006 and reinvented himself as a real estate magnate, but his massive Lighthouse Project development project didn’t pan out.
That dubious track record, however, doesn’t mean a worthy owner like Terry Pegula, who purchased the Sabres, or the True North group that bought and moved the Thrashers, can’t be located and successfully courted by the NHL for the Islanders. We’re not talking about a poorly located franchise here. This isn’t Glendale, AZ. We are talking about a team that has been historically mismanaged on a massive scale, but that now has a good amount of young talent and a home in a relatively prosperous region with an obsolete arena.
The Islanders are a classic “handyman’s special,” and if Wang plays his cards right, someone will come along and buy them, maybe even give him something closer to the $187.5 million that he and Kumar paid for the team than the $151 million that Forbes says is the club’s value. The new owner can become the hero of Long Island, finance a new arena on his own, spend money to finish the job of building a winner, pack his new building and make everyone happy.
Think no one is out there who can do that? Think — and I can’t believe I’m typing this name — Jim Balsillie.
Once upon a time not long ago, I thought Mr. Balsillie, great hockey guy that he is, would never get a sniff at another NHL club (I’ve even made a bet with a friend on it), and with good reason, considering his backdoor attempt to hijack the Coyotes and move them to Hamilton. That gave everyone involved a huge black eye (except maybe for bankruptcy judge Redfield T. Baum). That was enough to make him persona non grata in the NHL owners club, not to mention his previous dalliances with the Penguins and Predators. But Forbes reported in June that Bettman told Balsillie that if he behaved himself, he could still buy an NHL club one day.
That day is here. Balsillie can become the Terry Pegula of Long Island.
OK, maybe Balsillie isn’t the right guy. Maybe he only wants to be a hero in Canada and couldn’t care less about the Islanders unless he can move them north. And that’s fine, but that’s not going to work for Mr. Bettman. If not Balsillie, there is someone out there for this team.
The hot rumor is that NBA Nets’ owner Mikhail Prokhorov buying the Isles and moving them to Brooklyn, but is it really in the best long-term interests of the Islanders to move them away from their established fan base into Brooklyn, 26 miles west of where they currently play, and into a borough where most of those who are hockey fans have traditionally cheered for the rival Rangers? The huge number of Islanders fans who live east of Uniondale, in Suffolk County, would be loathe to travel into Brooklyn to see home games. Bettman has already seen that happen in Arizona, where the fanbase the Coyotes established in the East Valley during their years playing in downtown Phoenix hasn’t migrated in great numbers to watch them play in Glendale. An Islanders’ move to the Barclays Center might very well turn out to be a Phyric victory.
And is it really in the best interests of NHL, having three teams within 15 miles of each other? Those are probably just some of the reasons Bettman said on Tuesday, “Our goal is for the team to remain on Long Island and we still hope that objective can be realized.”
Of course, nothing is impossible in the modern business of sports, but judging by the tenets of the Bettman Doctrine and Bettman’s own words, the Brooklyn option or a new arena in Queens for the Islanders is not what the NHL wants.
One thing is sure: the NHL will do all it can to keep the Isles on the Island. They just need to find someone to save the day.