If the last month has been one of the worst months in franchise history for the New York Islanders, then you could probably call Sunday the worst day of one of the worst months.
The franchise that can never get out of its own way didn't do anything terribly wrong or make any horrible mistakes off the ice today. However, it was the backlash of all its errors from the past couple of months that finally started to show through as fans and media alike showed their apathy and disdain for the way the team is being run.
It all started Sunday morning when Larry Brooks of the New York Post, a well respected journalist, dedicated his entire "Slapshots" column to asking the NHL to take control of the Islanders, as the league has done in Phoenix. It's an impassioned plea and may have resonated with fans even if it may seem an extreme idea. He wrote:
Throughout the mid-to-late 1990s, the Islanders had multiple ownership groups who came in and promised big dreams and a revitalization of the franchise and arena. One by one, they turned out to be frauds -- completely broke crooks and businessmen in well over their heads. The arena was in disrepair and crowds were frequently four digits in a building with a capacity of 16,000-plus.
It would be unfair to lump Wang into the aforementioned group.
When Wang came on board, the team spent money on big name free agents Alexei Yashin, Mike Peca and Chris Osgood -- something almost never seen on the Island before or since -- installed new video boards and gave the old barn a fresh coat of paint. The team promptly made the playoffs and averaged over 13,500 in attendance each of the three years prior to the lockout (source). The relationship between Wang and the fans got off to a flying start but has since burned out.
On Sunday, the Islanders faced off against the Philadelphia Flyers at the Nassau Coliseum for an afternoon matinee, and it seemed more reminiscent an atmosphere of those pre-Wang years of the 1990s than anything he has done since taking over. Sure, you could still buy sushi and other novelty food items on the concourse but that was about where the similarities ended.
The official attendance was a meek 7,773 on for an afternoon game at 1 p.m. ET that was marketed as "kids' day" with junior flag bearers, anthem singers and at least a dozen NHL and local mascots. Sure, the game was going right up against NFL Sunday and a New York Giants game at the same time; however, the Jets don't play until Monday night so it wasn't competing against all the local football.
The attendance hit the team took Sunday is due almost entirely to a poor roster, management creating negative publicity and an increase in ticket prices over last season.
After a month that saw the team take PR hits by firing its coach, ban FanHouse's Chris Botta from the press box and suffer a 14-game losing streak, the team that has been decimated by injuries and consists of a roster only reaching the cap floor due to Yashin's buyout lost to the Flyers. It was the 21st loss in the last 23 meetings between the teams. For good measure, the home team blew a third-period lead to seal it.
The team lost for the 17th time in their last 18 games in the league that has figured out how to do parity better than any other. The Islanders are already 16 points out of eighth in the Eastern Conference, and that's one more point than it has accumulated the entire year (15). By comparison, third place and 15th place in the Western Conference are separated by only seven points and the East's eighth place Thrashers are only seven points out of first.
With an atmosphere Sunday more reminiscent of a low-level ECHL barn -- apathy has set in among the fans, and rightfully so. As Brooks has shown speaking on their behalf, in some places that has manifested itself as a frustrated cry for help.
For the first time in Charles Wang's tenure as owner, things are as bad as they once were in the pre-Wang era of the 1990s.
The team can't get any worse. The public perception can't get worse. The negative media stories, like this one, can't really get any worse when one of them is pleading for the league to intervene. Management's stated goal for 2010-11 was to make the playoffs. After two years of a rebuild, they're further away from achieving that goal than ever before.
Now, as it always has been, the talk will grow louder and louder about if and when the team will pack up shop and leave town. It happens every time this team crashes and burns, as it has so soften since last winning a playoff series in 1993.
As a credit to Wang, he has vowed to honor the team's lease on the building that runs through 2015. As an aid to Wang, the league needs to re-write the revenue-sharing rules that currently disallow the Islanders from receiving any outside help. As Brooks pointed out, they are classified as a "big market" team despite being located an hour's drive from Manhattan and attracting few fans from the "big city."
It's a long way away, but there's a genuine chance that the Islanders could pick up and move for good when that lease expires. It's long been said by insiders that Wang will never move the team away from New York but, given no other options, he may be forced to sell. Eventually, the river of money he funnels into the team will run dry. When people try to point their finger at the culprit who let their team get away, there are going to be many villains in the story.
The first one they'll point at will be the rich, scrooge owner who wouldn't spend money on players or an arena. That's about as unfair a picture as can be painted. Wang has poured money into the team but has seen no help from other sources. Blame him all you want for mismanaging the team on the ice -- he's been meddling in the hockey operations for far too long with no success -- but he has put in the capital this team lacked during the 90s.
Ultimately, he'll rightfully take blame but a large portion of it should lie with Kate Murray, the Town of Hempstead Supervisor who is the only thing standing between Wang and a complete renovation of the arena, revitalization of the local area and profits to keep the Islanders afloat. The Lighthouse Project is now dead thanks to her, throwing away a potential windfall in tax and other revenue to protect the small-town spirit of her district, which, only miles from the Brooklyn border, hardly resembles a small town.
Her district, and the area surrounding the Coliseum, includes Roosevelt Field Mall, one of the largest in the metro area, the Source mall and the lovely small town feeling that comes over you when you pass by the Coliseum Gun Shop and tattoo parlor that sit yards away from the Coliseum's parking lot across Hempstead Turnpike.
Then there will be the blame on Bettman. That he never did enough to help the franchise. Brooks has a point. For all the league has done for Phoenix, very little has been done for the Islanders save for a few media interviews supporting Wang. A little alteration of the revenue sharing agreement would go a long way. Why should the help only come once Wang is ready to unload? At that point, it would be too late.
There are many other, smaller villains in the story -- Mike Milbury, SMG, Nassau County -- but the good news is that there's still time to turn the story around. Rumors of the Islanders shacking up with the Mets in Willets Point proved to be just rumors, but that could be a dream scenario. Wang should take a serious look at it if he's serious about staying. Suffolk County, while far from the team's current locale, would welcome them with open arms. Hell, the Nets are getting an arena in Brooklyn. Maybe they've got space for a roommate?
No matter, what this team's lifespan continues or ends with Wang.
There is no outside help coming. There are no Jim Ballsillie-type billionaires waiting to snap up the team and build them a new arena in the New York area. Wang is that billionaire. Wang has poured tons of his own money into a team that likely hasn't been in the black since at least when Glenn Healy was in uniform and not at a TSN desk, if not before that.
Like it or not, there is not another local buyer coming to save the team from Wang's supposed tyranny. Now it's up to the different outside factions to get together and help the Islanders if they so choose, for the Islanders have historically had an awfully hard time ever helping themselves.