No Place Like Home?

Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images

“I think it is clear, and I say this perhaps as a matter of observation, and as a matter of fact: There is probably no worse major-league facility right now in North America than the Nassau Coliseum.” — Gary Bettman, 2009

* * *

During the NHL All-Star game in January, Hockey Night in Canada released the results of a survey filled out by 318 of the league’s players. Questions (and answers) ranged from “Who is the cleanest player?” (Pavel Datsyuk) to “Which coach demands the most from his players?” (John Tortorella).

And then there was this one: “Which team would you least like to play on?”

The leading answer, which appeared on 27 percent of the ballots, was the New York Islanders.

It’s hardly the kind of ringing endorsement anyone would want to hear about their local team. But it’s even more wincing when you consider that in just a few days the polls will open to Nassau County residents for a special referendum vote: Should the county issue up to $400 million in bonds to finance a brand-new arena, one that would keep the Islanders from leaving the Island?

On the surface it’s a no-brainer: NO WAY. Why should taxpayers — especially in already-taxed-to-the-max Nassau County and especially in this dismal economy — finance the construction of a new building for some hockey organization that is, according to the players themselves, the very worst in the league? Why, to use the unfair but telling logic of the New York Daily News, would anyone make a “$400 mil gift to billionaire Charles Wang,” the Islanders’ owner? Why doesn’t he raise the money himself?

But it isn’t that simple. Take a step back and you’ll see that this proposed bond isn’t merely a gratuitous cash grab by a greedy creep of an owner. It’s not an extraneous vanity project, or even an aspirational move. It’s more of a last gasp after a decade of false starts, shifting alliances, and stonewalled solutions — the sad culmination of a half-century of proud, local political gridlock that threatens to drive the team somewhere else and ultimately, lead to the demolition of the arena altogether.

Built in 1972, the Coliseum is the second-oldest NHL arena behind only Madison Square Garden (which is currently undergoing extensive renovations that will span several summers.) The roof leaks. Chairs and fixtures are beginning to crumble. The air-conditioning system is wonky, and that means the ice surface is, too. If The Coliseum sounds like some sort of torture chamber that’s because it basically is, complete with a victim who has been chained up, ball-gagged, and held hostage for years within the arena’s cold depths: the Islanders franchise.

In 1985, two years after Mike Bossy & Co. won their fourth straight Stanley Cup, then-owner John Pickett signed two documents: a monster TV deal with Cablevision, and an equally monster 30-year lease designed to keep the team in the building through 2015. Which would have all been just fine, if it weren’t for the terms. With Nassau County owning the building, and an arena management company called SMG raking in much of the ticket sale revenue and all of the concession dollars, there’s been very little left over by way of revenue for the franchise itself. As the years went by and salaries began to balloon, what began as a nuisance became arguably the most handicapping lease arrangement in professional sports. The Islanders could theoretically sell out every game every night and lose money regardless.

Given those sterling financials, buyers weren’t exactly storming the gates when the team went up for sale in 2000 after a failed attempt by the previous ownership to oust SMG from The Coliseum. Former Senator Alphonse D’Amato, a board member of Computer Associates, convinced the company’s chairman, Charles Wang, to purchase the team, citing vast untapped potential for a development deal around the arena.

In the 11 years since, Wang has sunk an estimated $230 million to $240 million of his own cash into the team — more than $50 million more than he paid to buy it in the first place. And yet he does not own the rink that the Islanders play on, nor the land that it stands on. He and his team are really just tenants. As anyone who has ever rented would tell you, if you need a new roof, or a new faucet, or, perhaps, a new 18,000-seat arena, you ask your landlord to get one.

***

In this case, the landlord is Nassau County, which means it’s up to the taxpayers Monday. Should they vote no, the Islanders will most likely do what any reasonable tenant in desperate need of a new roof would do: wait until their lease is up, then find somewhere better to live.

This raises the obvious question: Why doesn’t Wang just buy the damn house? Well, he tried already, pulling together a group of investors that was willing to put up $3.8 billion for a massive next-generation development called the Lighthouse Project comprised of a hotel, a shopping center, a pedestrian plaza, a convention space, a sports complex, a parking garage, condominiums, many greens, a man-made canal … and a renovated Coliseum, all across 150 acres. In 2006 the Nassau legislature approved the idea, 16-2.

Like any big development, the Lighthouse Project had its share of pie-in-the-sky absurdities that were ultimately scaled down. But in all of its iterations, the Lighthouse Project was a plan with potential and, more importantly, a purse. When it came time to get the zoning in place, though, the developers came up against an immovable object: the Town of Hempstead, and its supervisor Kate Murray, who hemmed, hawed and stalled like a bureaucratic champ, asking for revision upon revision and fretting about traffic patterns and congestion and “preserving the suburban way of life.” Weeks, months, and then years passed, and deadlines blew by, until Murray finally unveiled her own acceptable version of the development last year. Her proposal so violently neutered the original Lighthouse Plan that it essentially died then and there.

Nassau County was once a locus of one of America’s most influential projects: the creation and growth of suburbia. Levittown, with its tidy rows of sensible homes mass-produced for returning soldiers and their families, set the standard for American postwar neighborhood development. Long Island’s so-close-and-yet-so-far proximity to New York City only solidified its residents’ commitment to preserving their specific lifestyle in the face of encroaching expansion — after all, if they had wanted the bustle and bombast of the big city they would have chosen to live there, thank you very much.

Many Long Islanders still cling to the specter of this suburban ideal even as the model itself has grown increasingly obsolete. (Even in 1974, an urban planner quoted in a New York Times article described Nassau County as “already so heavily built up, its blight so widespread, its sprawl so malignant that much of it seems to be crying out not for planning or preservation but for thorough renewal.”) It’s both silly and unsurprising that the Kate Murrays of the world continue to act as though developments like the Lighthouse Project would shred the gossamer social fabric of some bucolic and vulnerable bedroom community. The area immediately around Nassau Coliseum, is uninspiring at best and an eyesore at worst. Nassau County more broadly swells with strip malls and big box stores. Other than their cushy political careers, what exactly is anyone trying to save?

The worst thing about decades of bland risk aversion ostensibly in the name of keeping the suburbs suburban is how self-defeating a cycle it can become — a dangerous vortex of impossibly high standards and remarkably bad taste. By tamping down on large and cohesive projects, or by stifling anything with a grand vision, Long Island politicians ensure that any “progress” that slips through the cracks will be half-assed and piecemeal: a new Hofstra dorm here, an office minipark there. At some point, those who sound the familiar refrain, “all this development is ruining Long Island!” will no longer be wrong.

* * *

Charles Wang is no hero, of course. His decade-long tenure as owner has been riddled with acrimony, odd personnel decisions, and we-gave-him-what? contracts. In 2004 he was forced to buy out the ownership stake of his business partner, former Computer Associates colleague Sanjay Kumar, after Kumar was sentenced to 12 years in prison for accounting fraud while at CA. In 2006 Wang hired former Rangers GM Neil Smith, then fired him just a month later, promoting to General Manager the team’s backup goalie, Garth Snow. (Patty LaFontaine, an adored former player who was serving as an adviser, quit that same night, frustrated that the headstrong Wang had ignored his advice not to do something so drastic.)

The madness didn’t end there. The Islanders signed no. 1 draft pick goalie Rick DiPietro (warning to Isles fans: don’t look at this photo) to a massive 15-year deal in 2006, a contract that eclipsed only its staggering 10-year commitment in 2001 to Alexei Yashin, who remains on the team’s payroll despite not physically remaining on the team. (For now, at least …) Wang’s hockey knowledge was so notoriously meager that two of his jokes — that he read “Hockey for Dummies” right after buying the team, and that the Islanders ought to go scout for a sumo wrestler to fill up the net — are widely thought to be not entirely in jest.

So he’s no saint. And yet somehow he has emerged in the past few weeks as the sane guy in the room, which speaks volumes about a lot of the other characters involved in this mess. In the time since the Lighthouse Project fell through there has been an entire election cycle. Tom Suozzi lost his county executive seat to Edward Mangano, a Republican, meaning that where Wang once allied with the Democrats to fight Republican roadblocks, he now finds himself doing precisely the opposite.

The Chairman of the Nassau County Democrats, Jay Jacobs, was a former Lighthouse Project supporter but is now one of the loudest opponents of the bond referendum. Luckily for the Islanders, he’s not one of the brightest — he failed miserably to make any coherent case in an interview Tuesday with WFAN’s Mike Francesa, at one point even suggesting that instead of raising public funds the Islanders ought to finance the arena via the sale of dreaded personal seat licenses. (“Are you out of your mind?” Francesa replied.) Wang’s segment went much more smoothly in contrast.

Should the referendum pass, the measure would still need to be approved by both the legislature and, more ominously, the Nassau Interim Finance Authority (NIFA), who took over the struggling county’s finances this winter. Just like the Lighthouse Project, and the 2002 talks between Wang and Nassau County before that, and the 1998 attempts to find financing for a new area before that, this initiative too could very well end up DOA. The difference is that this time, as Wang told a crowd in one appearance earlier this week, there’s not a Plan B. We won’t know for a handful of years, but if this project fails the Islanders could end up as nearby as Queens or as far-flung as Kansas City or Seattle. Or they could blow out of the States altogether and settle in Canada, which would be sadly fitting: Quebec City was named the place most deserving of an NHL franchise in that same All-Star Weekend survey that declared the New York Islanders the least desirable team of them all.

With just a few days left until the Aug. 1 vote, both sides continue to ramp up their get-out-the-vote efforts. The team recently held a rally outside Nassau Coliseum that was fronted by Blue Oyster Cult, a band with Long Island roots. Say what you will about the headlining act — I find it to be just so very Islanders — you can’t say that “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” didn’t have just a little more relevance and resonance than ever before.

Katie Baker is a staff writer for Grantland. Follow her on Twitter at @KatieBakes.

Previously from Baker: Sabermetrics, the Sunday Times, and the so-called women’s sports section10 fond thoughts about New York sports A look at Wimbledon’s Magic Monday.

grant_h_katie_sl_600

Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes