Tales of Bittersweet Loyalty

Author Archive

The Future of Hockey on the Isle

In Hockey, Loyalty, New York on August 3, 2011 at 11:10 AM

Before I get to the main thrust of this article, it should be noted I’m a Rangers fan, thus hate the Islanders with an intense passion, and that colors everything I think about this situation.

But contrary to how you might interpret that sentence, I want the Isles to stay on Long Island.

I want them to stay badly.

I value this rivalry more than the Yankees and Red Sox or Arsenal and Spurs. Certainly more than the Rangers and Devils or Rangers and Flyers.

But despite Chris Botta’s original optimism on ESPN NY that the Isles would win the crucial vote, the chances of that happening are getting very slim after Monday’s referendum on the $400m loan from Nassau County to fix the old Mausoleum was voted down.

Sure, they are a perennially awful and mismanaged franchise. Nothing Charles Wang, or the people Charles Wang has put his trust in, has worked out for them, and for as bad as they’ve been over the last decade, you’d expect them to have built up an amazing team through the draft, as Pittsburgh and Washington did and Edmonton are in the process of doing. Tavares and Niederreiter aside, there are some major question marks in their system, despite Hockey’s Future ranking the organization #6 (the Rangers are #7, for the record)—especially in goal.

How mismanaged are the Islanders? The two key players from this year’s Stanley Cup finals were drafted by them: Roberto Luongo was traded after they drafted Rick DiPietro, and Zdeno Chara was traded away because they wanted Alexei Yashin, giving Rangers fans plenty to laugh at for a long time (and the Rangers returned the favor by signing Chris Drury and Wade Redden).

It’s curious to me, actually, that a lot of younger Ranger fans don’t have the raging hatred of the Islanders that older Rangers fans do. The split seems to come circa 1994, in the Cup year. Fans too young to remember the Cup hate the Devils more, or the Flyers or Penguins (mostly Crosby). But to me, and most fans who are old enough to remember the Cup (and sweeping the Isles in the first round en route to that Cup), the Rangers prime rival will always be on Long Island.

I think their fans are goobers (Gary Bettman grew up rooting for them, for Christ’s sake!), personally, but more in a playful way, not in the same way Thrashers fans were. Thrashers fans, with a few die-hard fan exceptions, deserved to lose their franchise. In the case of the Isles, it’s more that the franchise-as-run deserves to lose their fans, which has the unfortunate knock-on effect of the fans potentially losing their franchise. And the Rangers losing their prime rivalry.

It’s an interesting rivalry, in that whichever team is doing worse in the standing tends to win the season series. There’s such an intense hatred that the worse team plays with a motor that they don’t have against other teams, and it leads to absurd chants like You can’t beat us! with a callback of Make the playoffs!

So, what now though?

Might the Islanders move to Kansas City, who have an arena and desire for a hockey team? The surging St. Louis Blues wouldn’t be a fan of this idea, and might make the team less desirable as they are about to be sold by Checketts’ group.

Not only would the Blues not like this idea, but the rest of the Eastern Conference also wouldn’t like this idea. After moving the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg, and the probability that they will end up in the Western Conference once the dust settles (meaning one team currently in the West would move east—probably the Columbus Blue Jackets), moving the Islanders west of Detroit would up the likelihood of the Red Wings entering the East, something Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch has reportedly been pressing the NHL commish for years.  That’s not something any of the 14 remaining teams in the East would welcome, though something that would make Bettman want to touch himself (extra Wings games with the Rangers, Leafs, Bruins, Flyers and Habs? A ratings boon for sure).

Might they move to Brooklyn, into the Barclay’s Center, when their lease is up? It would keep them in the East, and in New York, thus keeping the rivalry alive. But as a Brooklyn native and resident, this sends shivers of disgust up my spine. The Brooklyn Islanders? No, no, no. I vote no.

Despite what Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz says, this is not a good idea. Not a good idea at all, dammit. With the bad blood between Madison Sq Garden and the group that own their farm team, the Hartford Whale, many Ranger fans were hoping it would be the Baby Rangers moving into the ice rink that the Barclay’s Center will have (which is thought to have about 14,500 seats, or 4,300 seats fewer than MSG’s 18,200 hockey capacity). Also, there’s the fact that Nets partial owner Mikhail Prokhorov says he has no interest in owning another sports team, though Wang would be admitting defeat if he sold anyway, and he doesn’t seem like the type who would give in, especially not after sticking it out for this long.

The Islanders must move out of their awful arena, of course. But they must stay on the Island, just as the Devils had to move out of their awful arena, but stayed in North Jersey.

I don’t know how this can be achieved, however. Most Nassau County voters and politicians don’t seem to want to lift a finger to help owner Charles Wang keep the Isles on the Island.

Hockey fans aside, it was the oddly ironic coalition of Tea Partiers and Democrats who turned out in force to vote in Monday’s referendum, which was expected to be an extremely low turnout, but ended at up at a “high” 17% of registered voters. This may be the only thing the two sides have ever agreed on, and was seen as a referendum on the debt ceiling bill passed in Congress over the weekend.

Long Island has some of the highest property taxes in the country already, so the early optimism seems a bit misplaced. This always seemed doomed from the start to me. Nassau Count Executive Ed Mangano (R) might have signed his political death certificate with this vote, but that’s a story for another article.

The thing is, though, if we’re to take Charles Wang at his word, he has lost around $250 million dollars on a team that hasn’t won the Cup since 1983, and Nassau County, who loved those 1980s teams so much but have the worst current attendance record in the league, are still unwilling to throw him a bone.

That’s not right.

A Farewell Letter to Chris Drury

In Hockey, New York on July 4, 2011 at 10:00 AM

“O Captain! my Captain! Our fearful trip is done…”

-Walt Whitman

On June 30th, 2007, I wanted you. I wanted you bad. Well, truthfully, I wanted you or Scott Gomez. As an organization, the first line center was seemingly an unfillable void since 1997, when Mark Messier left for Vancouver after only a year of being reunited with Wayne Gretzky. Much like the Flyers can never find a goalie and the Canucks cannot win the Cup, it seemed the Rangers could not have an elite first line pivot.

It loomed even larger in the 2007 off-season when, very much against Jaromir Jagr’s wishes, we let Michael Nylander and his army of 19 children walk, where he eventually signed a disastrous deal with the Washington Capitals. Jagr was past his prime then and couldn’t do it alone. He needed a new center and you and Scotty Gomez were the prizes of the unrestricted free agent class that season, and you both happened to be first line level centers.

Never did I dream that we would acquire both of you. Never did I dream that it would quickly turn into a nightmare. It was elating in the moment, though, watching you guys flip a puck to see who would wear #23.

True, you had just ripped out Ranger hearts in the playoffs by scoring a game-tying goal in game five with 7.7 seconds left. But you grew up in Connecticut and, more importantly, grew up a Ranger fan. It was a coincidence that you scored a game tying goal with 7.7 seconds left, the same as the Devils’ Valeri Zelepukin did in 1994, though one that was impossible to not feel sore about in the moment as there was no Stefan Matteu to step up, only Maxim Afinogenov to twist the knife in our hearts deeper.

Gomez had his own issues, too, coming from the loathed New Jersey Devils, where he was regularly a Ranger killer. But he loved playing in the Garden, where he could take the puck from his own goal line, zip through the D untouched like they weren’t even there and put one right past Mike Dunham, or even Mike Richter and Henrik Lundqvist. He tallied 4 goals and 2 assists in three games at the Garden in his ’99-00 rookie season, including a hat trick the first time he stepped on Garden ice. Of course it’s not as easy to do that when you’re not playing against the Rangers D.

But neither you nor Scott could find a fit with Jagr. 25 goals and 33 assists for 58 was not a bad return, but not the 70 points we were expecting and the -3 plus/minus on a team where the only other players minus were the fourth line and a aged Brendan Shannahan was deeply worrying.

Still, after Jagr left you were named captain. Rightly so. You were fulfilling the dream of millions in the NY Metro area—the entire sports fan world, really—to play for the team you grew up rooting for. In explaining your departure from Buffalo you explained to the fans that it was like a kid from Rochester being offered a chance to play for the Sabres. You had to take it. Just that fact made you instantly beloved by fans of a certain generation (mine, born in the early 80s and older), though your diminishing skills and silent, lead-by-example style did nothing to impress younger fans who were not sated by the Stanley Cup win in 1994 as my generation was. They could not identify with the famous “Now I Can Die in Peace” banner held up that night. They didn’t witness a cup.

To them, you were supposed to be Captain Clutch, the Rangers’ version of Derek Jeter who would score key and late goals like the one you scored against us in the playoffs.  You did have 7 game-winners, but there were not that many clutch goals to speak of outside of the one in Chicago in that ridiculously penalty-filled game, or the one in Calgary where we lost in a shoot out anyway. In the following three seasons, you had 3 combined game winners, as you morphed into something of a penalty killing defensive specialist, which, let’s face it, we could have just kept Jed Ortmeyer at $600k a season for if that’s what we needed.

You and Ryan Callahan did Ranger fans proud at the Vancouver Olympics, but we wondered why you lacked that same drive when you played for us. We saw the same Cally on the ice at the Garden as we saw in Vancouver,, but you were different, like that jersey mattered more to you than the Ranger jersey. I’m sure it didn’t, but it felt that way at times.

And then came the injuries. The concussions, the twice-broken finger that never really healed and the knee that had to be scoped that also never really healed, which limited you to 24 games played, 1 goal and 4 assists last season. Just not acceptable for $7.05m a season, and so Glen Sather was forced to buy out your contract for the Rangers to stay competitive.

You’ll surely be missed, even though your time here was largely a failed experiment. You’ll be wished well on your new team (until you score against us) if your knee ever heals enough to resume playing. Ryan Callahan will probably replace you as captain either this season or next. Someone will be issued the #23, though I hope we keep it vacant for a season.

But things move quickly in sports, Chris, and we’ve already spent your cap money on Brad Richards, who comes on a 9-year, $60m deal that, while exciting as he fills every need we have (veteran leader, elite, top line center and powerplay quarterback) is somewhat worrying when we think of the deals we made in 2007 with you and Scotty. Though his cap hit is a relatively tame $6.66m a season (maybe a little numeric payback for the Devils having 19,040 seats at the Meadowlands), the 9 year term is an awful lot to live up to in New York.

Childhood Chris, who used to go to baseball practice in Rangers sweatpants en route to winning the Little League World Series, would think this was a good move to make.

It was, sadly, the only move to make.