Make no mistake about it - the future of the Islanders as a professional hockey team on Long Island is firmly tied to the proposal that Charles Wang and development partner Scott Rechler filed with the Town of Hempstead on Tuesday. And as an Islanders fan, nothing is more important.
Not the power play. Not the penalty kill. Not the line combinations. Not the progress of top prospect Kyle Okposo. Not the quality of the cheesesteaks or the nachos sold at the Coliseum (although based on the renderings of the renovated arena, you'd hope the concession fare would improve dramatically as well).
The Islanders have been playing in what is easily the National Hockey League's worst venue for years. It is the league's third-oldest arena and has the smallest seating capacity. Every attempt the team has made to either build a new arena or extricate itself from the heinous lease agreement the team has with Spectacor Management Group -- signed by former owner John Pickett in what is unanimously regarded as a colossal blunder -- has been thwarted. Now, there is a plan in place to change all that, and while Wang and Rechler may not get everything they want in their multi-phase proposal -- and there will be many questions to answer, particularly regarding traffic -- the Coliseum phase of the project needs to be approved if the Islanders are to remain, as we all are, Islanders.
If memories were all an arena required to make it successful, then the Coliseum would be the Taj Mahal of the NHL. And when the barn is packed it is an intimidating place to play. But the squat, outdated structure has been obsolete for years, plagued by physical problems and space issues, not to mention rats and cockroaches that GM Garth Snow joked "are so old they have Stanley Cup rings." Anyone who has tried to navigate the concourse between periods knows all about the arena's faults. And walking across the vast, windswept parking lot in the dead of winter is like traversing the Siberian steppes.
Maybe the arena isn't why free agents have been reportedly reluctant to sign with the team, but combined with the crippling lease agreement, the Islanders need to be as frugal as they can, even with the league's new collective bargaining agreement in place. Wang is reportedly losing $15 million to $20 million a year on the team, and while he is invested in Long Island in multiple ways -- never mind the fact that he's made it his home for 55 years -- it should be obvious that no one is going to stand for losing that kind of money for long. And he shouldn't be expected to.
Certainly, Wang and Rechler have a wide-ranging proposal on the table that should make the both of them quite a lot of money in the long run. It's far beyond just a new home for the Islanders. But they're not the only ones interested in remaking the parcel of land off Hempstead Turnpike. Nassau County executive Tom Suozzi has said that the lot is the centerpiece of a "new suburbia," one that would feature smart development and less of a reliance on driving and more public transportation. It's a very valuable piece of property with tremendous potential, but making the project a reality will require endless cajoling, negotiations, public input and good, old-fashioned shmoozing. Thankfully, it seems a new 99-year lease agreement would be part of the deal if it is approved, one that should be much more friendly to the team.
So what should you do as an Islanders fan? If you live in Nassau County, get involved. Talk to your local legislator, attend public meetings, ask questions, take advantage of public comment. Make it clear to the power that be that the Islanders are important to you and extremely important not only to the town and the county but to Long Island itself. The team is part of our identity, and if we want them to stay then a new arena is absolutely required.
Of course, no one seems to argue the point. But getting there has been impossible. There's been talk of a new arena for years. Wang's original plan for a 60-story "Lighthouse" tower was shot down almost immediately. And while the process has dragged on, the Islanders and their fans have had to put up with the Coliseum and all its quirks and problems.
Hopefully, that is all coming to an end soon. If all goes well -- I'm not holding my breath, but we can dream, can't we? -- the new arena would open in 2010. And we fans will finally enjoy what Devils fans are enjoying now, a new arena worthy of the four Stanley Cup banners hanging in its rafters.
The alternative is too depressing to even consider. And if you need convincing, there's one sure method.
Call a Hartford Whalers fan.