By Peter Schwartz
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Today marks the beginning of a new era in Islanders history.
Not only is general manager Garth Snow hoping to find some new pieces to what he hopes is a Stanley Cup puzzle, but the franchise is now under new ownership. After two seasons as minority owners, Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin are now the majority owners, and we’ll find out quickly how they plan on using their checkbooks.
But before welcoming in the new bosses, I think it’s appropriate to sum up the last 16 seasons under outgoing majority owner Charles Wang.
Without winning a championship or even presiding over a perennial winning franchise, it’s hard to label someone a great owner. But I would like to thank Wang for being a good owner and for his efforts in trying to keep the Islanders in Nassau County. There are many Islanders fans who have a disdain for Wang because of the team’s lack of success, not spending to the salary cap ceiling and the very fact that they now play in Brooklyn.
Wang, a proud Long Islander, bought the Islanders in 2000, and he did so for a couple of reasons. He didn’t want to see the Islanders leave Nassau County, and he figured it would be a good business decision. After the ownership debacles that took place before him, Wang saw an opportunity to do something for the community and to figure out a way to build a new arena for Long Island’s only major professional sports team.
To his detractors, I’ll give you that not every decision he made was a good one. In fact, many of them still leave me scratching my head. But I will also argue that he deeply cared about the team and wanted badly to make it work. I know this because I worked for the man for eight years.
I’ll always be grateful to Wang for the opportunity to be the radio voice of the Arena Football League’s New York Dragons. He purchased the Iowa Barnstormers and moved them to the Nassau Coliseum for the 2001 season. It was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had, and I can’t thank him enough for that.
It was also in 2001 that Wang showed how much he cared about the Islanders. On draft day in June, the Islanders swung two big trades, acquiring Michael Peca from Buffalo and Alexei Yashin from Ottawa. Shortly after the trades, the Islanders signed Peca to a four-year deal and Yashin to a landmark 10-year contract.
He could have stopped spending right there, but he didn’t.
The Islanders still needed a goalie, and near the end of training camp, the Red Wings left Chris Osgood unprotected for the waiver draft. Thanks to their position in the standings the year before, the Islanders were in position to take Osgood and his contract. Wang gave the green light, and Osgood helped the Islanders make the playoffs for the first time since 1994.
We could go through all the moves over the years and those that were good, bad and controversial, such as the 15-year contract given to Rick DiPietro. He also pulled the plug on Neil Smith after 42 days on the job as general manager before hiring backup goalie Garth Snow to replace him. Snow was actually his first choice but was talked out of it.
Wang, who will retain ownership of 15 percent of the team, did a lot of good things for the Islanders and the NHL, such as taking over the franchise’s AHL team in Bridgeport, promoting the game of hockey in China and spending millions in renovations to the coliseum. On that note, Wang did everything he could to give the Islanders a new home.
First, he tried “The Lighthouse” project that included a renovated coliseum, but that was turned down by politicians, namely Town of Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray. Then, there was the public referendum to build a brand new arena. That was voted down by residents.
At the end of the day, Long Island, namely Nassau County, turned its back on the very person that was trying to do the right thing for the community. The geographical area on the Islanders logo let down the man that was trying to save the franchise. Wang deserved better, but he still found a way to keep the team in the area, as he struck a deal to move the Isles to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Wang got what he wanted for the Islanders. They’re now in a new arena with additional revenue streams and an expanded fan base. It just isn’t on Long Island, and that’s a shame because when people think back to the end of the Islanders’ 43-year run at Nassau Coliseum, it happened on Wang’s watch.
He didn’t ask for that, but he still ensured that the Islanders’ loyal fans could go to games, albeit 30 miles west of the team’s roots.
If you hate Wang, just think about what happened before he bought the team.
You had an absentee owner in John Pickett, who lost interest in a franchise that won four Stanley Cups. You had that fraud John Spano buy the team with no money and subsequently go to jail. Then you had Howard Millstein and Steven Gluckstern, a couple of guys who had no interest in the team but bought the Islanders because of a potential real estate deal, who claimed the scoreboard at the coliseum was going to fall and couldn’t wait to get rid of the team.
Was Wang perfect? Absolutely not, but he did grow to love the team and he made sure the Islanders were in good hands at the end of his tenure.
Thank you, Charles, for being a good owner, for caring, for the opportunity for me to do football play-by-play and for making sure that I could still take my family to see our beloved Islanders.
Follow Pete on Twitter at @pschwartzcbsfan.