A few weeks before I started my freshman year at college I received the contact information for my assigned roommate. I decided to be proactive and call him, to let him know that I had a mini-fridge and a TV (black and white!) and it would be great if he had a decent stereo.
My immediate impression was that he was well-spoken but not terribly chatty. Then we got around to sports, around which my life at the time (and for the most part, my life to this day) revolved. Actually, I think I asked, "What sports do you like?"
"I don't like sports."
It was as if he replied in Swahili. I literally could not process the statement. I stumbled for a reply, "You don't like ANY sports?"
A few awkward-silence-filled minutes later, I hung up the phone and relayed the conversation to my mother, who was making dinner. How could they have paired me up with this guy, I wondered. We had as much in common as Ozzy Osbourne and Queen Elizabeth. I filled out a questionnaire, for God's sake!
My kid sister, wise beyond her 11 years, listened to my rant and said, "Maybe the college did that on purpose so you can get to know someone different."
I thought about that phone call after the recent Hempstead Town Board hearing about the Lighthouse Project.
I'm not going to cover the Lighthouse drama wall-to-wall in this blog. There are plenty of sources doing a much more comprehensive job than I ever could, from Let There Be Lighthouse, to Islanders Independent to Islanders Point Blank, to any other of my Blog Box brethren.
I'm in favor of the project. The Isles desperately need a new arena and lease arrangement not only to stay competitive but to survive. I am not a Hempstead resident and in fact don't live within 25 miles of the Coliseum, so I don't look at the project the same way as someone from Garden City or Uniondale.
It has been heartening to see how much support the project has been getting from people holding various stakes, from fans who want a new arena and a winning team, to unions who want jobs, to politicians like Tom Suozzi and Governor Paterson. And judging from the various hearings and meetings that have been held, the opposition is limited to a vocal minority of people and community groups near to the site.
What Islanders fans are learning is not everyone cares about their team. We've lived and died with the Isles, experienced incredible highs and embarrassing lows, and all we want is a winner. But this project goes well, well beyond a hockey team and its arena. And that's where it gets frustrating. Because the Town of Hempstead, while aware of the Islanders' history, has a lot more to worry about than a better hockey venue. There's a lot of development planned, from high-rise buildings to commercial and office space to residential space, and there are legitimate concerns on what kind of an effect it will have on the surrounding communities.
There's some fear here, fear of the unknown. This kind of mixed-use or "smart growth" development is new, and while its proponents say it's just the kind of development needed for a "new suburbia," it's easy to see why people would balk at it. It's different. Different is scary.
The Lighthouse group has done its work, provided reports on traffic and waste, provided a DEIS, has held tons of meetings. The town wants specific answers and guarantees. This week's meeting got testy as a result, but in the end, when Kate Murray asked for people in support of the project to stand up, 75% of those in attendance reportedly did so.
What bothers me most is the politics and the spinning, and it's being done on both sides. Caught in between are fans wondering why they can't just fix the Coliseum and be done with it. The answer is that Nassau County owns the land, and it put the project out to bid and the Wang/Rechler proposal was the one that was selected.
Just fixing or replacing the Coliseum was never a real option, nor was leaving the parcel the way it is, which is an awful eyesore and tremendous waste of space. Something big was going to be done there, and Suozzi has been talking for years about multi-use development that would be part of a larger, countywide initiative towards smart growth. This was going to be one (huge) piece of that puzzle.
That is, if it happens, and despite the hand-wringing and games played in Kansas City and deadlines for "certainty," it should. Yes, the October 3 deadline will come and go, and we'll read about other potential sites of Islanders home games, like K.C. or Hamilton or Brooklyn or maybe even Calverton, who knows? Wang has every right to look into alternatives as the process drags along, and he should. The lease runs out in 2015 and that year, which once seemed so far away, is fast approaching. But he's not going to give up on the Lighthouse. That's where he wants to be and where the most money will be made.
There will be more spinning, more threats, more columns written and blogs posted and commented on, but in the end there will be concessions on the development and ultimately some version of the Lighthouse will be built, and perhaps the Islanders will begin a new era of success, both on and off the ice.
Could the whole thing fall apart? Sure, there's a chance, but the county has too much at stake here, and ultimately will not let small-town politics or developers' greed bring it all crashing down. Only then would Wang sell the team, a truly worst-case scenario.
Could the Isles end up playing elsewhere? If the Lighthouse collapsed, they'd need to. They could end up in Brooklyn with the Nets and their new Russian billionaire co-owner, who I'm sure also enjoys hockey. No way the NHL risks seeing a large-market team with the history the Isles have moving to a smaller market, especially not after the unsavory goings-on in Phoenix.
As a selfish fan, all I want is to see the Islanders return to glory, with a new home that will allow them to do what they need to do to build a winner. As long as that home is somewhere on Long Island, I'm good.
My roommate, by the way, turned out to be OK. We had nothing in common, and he was a very unusual guy -- I mean, no sports? Not even soccer? -- but we got along just fine. Maybe there's a lesson there.