Tales of Bittersweet Loyalty

The Future of Hockey on the Isle

August 3, 2011

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.

  • I remember living in New York in 2001-2002, when the Islanders made a shock run to the playoffs. In December 2001, I went to buy tickets to see my Capitals when they came to town in February – and saw that the entire season for the Islanders was sold out.

    Then there was the 2010 draft party, where something like 15,000 fans turned out to see the Isles choose John Tavares with the first overall pick.

    Let’s not forget that for the past few seasons of Entourage, E has an Islanders something in every episode (this season, it’s the Tavares sweater hanging on the wall of his office; I still remember the Islanders hat he wore during the filming of Medillin.)

    Point being, despite all of the club’s best efforts, the fans are still there and thirsting for a successful Islanders franchise.

    On Long Island, not in Kansas City.

    — Sreesha

  • Anonymous

    The fans are idle. They have, by far, the worst league attendence, at under 70% average capacity. http://espn.go.com/nhl/attendance The only games they sell out anymore are the games where fans can travel easily to the Island (Rangers, Flyers, Devils, Broons, Habs). They’re not in KC or Quebec City yet because they’re locked into that awful lease at the Colosseum until 2015 (it was, I think, the model for the Rick DiPietro contract). They won’t play a single game more in that joint than they legally have to, whether its in a new arena or somewhere else.

    Instead of their shock run to the playoffs, I prefer to remember the time the sewage pipe burst in their training room, spewing poop all over their stuff. But that’s just me.