After a lot of negotiations, threats and politics, local hockey fans’ long nightmare has finally reached a resolution this afternoon. Of course I’m not referring to the lockout itself, comical as it is that major hockey news is happening while the league is still in shutdown mode, seemingly not to return anytime soon despite tomorrow’s deadline for an 82-game season. More on that later though.
No, the saga that has finally come to an end is the Islanders quest for a new arena. After years of getting blocked by Nassau in hopes of building his own arena there, Isles owner Charles Wang finally saw the writing on the wall with their lease set to expire in 2015 and decided to move to Brooklyn and play at the new Barclays Center beginning with the 2015-16 season. While Brooklyn is still on Long Island to be sure, obviously this is a day of mixed emotions for Isles fans in Nassau County though I’m sure the overriding emotion is happiness that Wang lived up to his word in the end and did not move the Isles out of the Metro area.
In a move that was just consummated last night and announced this afternoon, the Isles agreed to a 25-year lease to play in the new Barclays Center – which is now home to an NBA and NHL team, after fifty-five years of Brooklyn not having any major sports franchise. Aside from the fact they’re still a train ride away, the best news for Isle fans (and traditionalists like myself and Derek) is that the team will still be known as the New York Islanders, apparently with their current logo although I’m sure a third jersey will be in the works…hopefully one that’s better than their current abomination.
However, there are concerns that still need to be addressed in the coming weeks and years – the chief concern being that the arena was built with NBA sightlines and seating in mind, and not as a dual-purpose stadium. As a result, the arena currently has just 14,500 or so seats viable for hockey attendance, and some of them are going to be obstructed view. Their public trial run at hosting a game (a preseason game) of course got wiped out due to the NHL’s latest work stoppage. Not to mention the Isles have to take care not to price their loyal fans out of the building, the way that NFL and MLB fans have recently been priced out of new stadiums in this area. And fans on Long Island accustomed to driving to Nassau Colliseum will now have to adjust to taking mass transit, since driving to the new Brooklyn arena is by all accounts difficult.
What happens with Nassau itself once the Isles’ lease runs out is also up in the air. I suppose if they want to keep it open badly enough they can (the fact Izod hasn’t been torn down yet is evidence of that) but with a handful of shiny, new stadiums in the area it’s clearly the end of an era in Nassau after forty plus years of hockey, with memories of one of the greatest teams ever assembled in the early ’80’s. Unlike with some other stadiums that have been torn down recently, nobody disputes Nassau’s time has come and gone. My only trip there was five years ago for a Isles-Devils game, and my impression of it was ‘minor league stadium for a major league team’. Concourses were packed in so tight they made Brendan Byrne/CAA look spacious in comparison, and steps were uneven so if you didn’t watch it going down the stairs to your seat you could take a tumble.
The irony is this is one of the few times since I finally got Sirius radio on my phone/computer that I went out of my way to listen to the NHL Network, because I wanted to hear the press conference. It’s comical that Gary Bettman was there, tauting the eleven subway and bus lines that were accessible to the arena for games along with the LIRR – when we’re no closer to even thinking we’ll have games this year. Even more comical (although it was a neccesary move) that the Columbus Blue Jackets announced that John Davidson would be heading its hockey operations today, when we still don’t have any hockey operation to speak of. Like Derek, I allowed myself to be excited after the NHL’s sham of an offer, which basically offered one compromise which still qualflies as a downgrade to the players (the 50-50) and givebacks everywhere else including contract length, free agency age and an immediate salary cut.
While my head can’t fault the players for making a stand against the owners’ ridiculous cash grab, emotionally I’ve had enough of both sides. Especially after Don Fehr‘s lame attempt to ‘negotiate’ last week by making half-baked offers and trying to work the numbers so that 50-50 would be down the road and wind up being a lot more than that in actuality for the players. I’m biased against Fehr because of what he did to baseball in 1994 and his intractibility, but I’m just as or more biased against Bettman and the greedy owners, who turn around and give the players huge contracts in July that they don’t intend on fully paying out in October. If there was ever a true case of wishing ‘a pox on both your houses’ in sports labor wars, this is it.
Unfortunately the fans can do little at this point while watching greedy owners fighting players who were prepared for war the minute Fehr agreed to head the NHLPA. Ironically enough, after losing a season in 2004 the players still got a deal that wound up giving them 57% of HRR in the end, though even that was way down compared to the unfathomable 70% they were getting before the lockout. That’s why I supported the owners to a degree then, the system did need to change. It doesn’t now. There’s nothing that needs to be fundamentally changed other than cap-busting contracts, and that can be hashed out once both sides get their heads out of the sand and start negotiating instead of playing PR games. And if owners were willing to miss a year and still sign a deal that had hidden flaws in it, how long are they going to stay out this time to try to bully an even more owner-friendly deal down the throat of better NHLPA leadership?
I never figured on both sides coming to an agreement this week anyway, although D-day has to be soon since in my opinion (and lots of other people’s too), the Winter Classic will be the true flashpoint to whether we have a season or not. The NHL has to commit to spending money for the showcase game at some point next month. We’re almost as Halloween now, I’d say by Thanksgiving we’ll know whether we have a season or not. Because if the owners are willing to cancel the Winter Classic without budging then there’s no stopping Armageddon II from happening. And if the players are willing to go down that road, they’re in for a rude awakening when the deals get worse, not better. Not to mention both sides will be in for a rude awakening when they finally come back, and fans decide fool me once, shame on you – fool me twice…let’s just say I wouldn’t want to be testing the fans again so soon after nuclear war eight years ago.