By Stu Hackel
In a sign that intelligent life exists on Earth, the Islanders have changed their plan to rebroadcast their infamous brawl-filled Feb. 11 game against the Penguins at a fan viewing party scheduled for this Friday.
SI.com has learned that the party will go on, but the Islanders and MSG Network have agreed to switch the game to a victory over the Sabres in which Michael Grabner's hat trick goal was the winner.
The Feb. 11 game, which featured 15 fighting majors, 14 game misconducts and 346 minutes in penalties, resulted in two Islanders receiving suspensions and the team being fined $100,000. It was a post-lockout lowpoint for the NHL. The Penguins, and most people around hockey, consider it an embarrassment (Penguins owner Mario Lemieux called the game "embarassing" and "unacceptable.") With Zdeno Chara's vicious hit on Max Pacioretty a few weeks later, it ranks as one of last season's worst incidents. While the concept of celebrating it was admired in some places, others reacted negatively, ranging from mild rebuke to near-apoplectic outrage.
"We do not approve of the use, based on what we know," NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told Kevin Allen of USA Today.
In a statement, the team said, "The New York Islanders have requested that MSG Network change the originally scheduled game to be viewed at the Friday, Aug. 19 meet-up. As a part of MSG Plus’ Summer Ice programming, the schedule had the Islanders game from Friday, Feb. 11 against the Pittsburgh Penguins set to air at 7 p.m. Instead MSG Plus will air the Islanders 7-6 overtime victory on Sunday, Feb. 13 over the Buffalo Sabres."
On ESPN's "Around the Horn" (video) a pair of general sports columnists condemned the idea of rebroadcasting the Penguins game at a fan party, displaying the same sort of skill required to score an empty net goal. Bill Plaschke of The Los Angeles Times said, “I’d go to the party, I’d stand on the table and I’d yell, ‘This is why everybody thinks hockey fans are nuts. This is why your sport is a niche sport, you celebrating something like this. Shame on all of you!’” and The Denver Posts's Woody Paige added, "This party is irresponsible! They should be fined $250,000!"
"We get that there haven’t been a lot of highlight games involving the Islanders in recent seasons, but this seems a bit over the top, like inviting people to come cheer on a train wreck or at least a ‘Slap Shot’ remake.” wrote The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Shelly Anderson, quoted in Sports Business Daily, which felt moved to devote an item to the viewing party and round up disparaging comments. That Anderson likened Isles-Pens brawlgame to the wretched Slap Shot 2 might be the lowest blow of all.
The media who follow the Penguins felt the Isles' viewing party was so noteworthy that they had to ask GM Ray Shero about it on Monday while he was in the midst of his mildly significant update on Sidney Crosby's status, and try to link the NHL's ongoing concussion issues to the event (video, about eight minutes in). The questioner called the party "kind of ridiculous." Shero smiled broadly and replied with characteristic diplomacy. "That's a game we put behind us. We don't want to revisit it. The Islanders have a good, young hockey team. That's what we should talk about...Whatever they want to do off the ice, if they want to revisit it, that's fine."
It all makes you ask, "What were the Islanders thinking?"
Turns out, they weren't thinking about curdling anyone's blood. The team's Director of Communications, Kimber Auerbach, explained that back in May, MSG Network, which owns the Islanders' TV rights, selected and scheduled eight games from last season to be shown this summer. They are also airing similar packages of Rangers and Devils games. The Isles didn't choose the games, Auerbach said, but they took the opportunity to plan viewing parties around each of them. The Feb. 11 game was just one of those scheduled -- and there will be a few more before the season starts.
The parties allow the team and its fans to stay connected during the offseason and discuss the upcoming campaign, which has some predicting a surprise showing for the Isles. These "meet-ups" have been publicized largely through Twitter, Facebook and other social media and continue the team's other offseason gatherings, which included a draft party and a get-together with Devils fans on National Social Media Day. There's also a charitable component as fans raise money for the Islanders Childrens Foundation through auctions and raffles of signed pucks, jerseys and the like.
Auerbach added that the Feb. 11 game against the Penguins had aspects to it, other than the brawl, that the Islanders found appealing. They scored nine goals in that game, the first time they did anything like that since 2003. Three Isles -- Grabner, John Tavares and Matt Moulson -- all hit the 20-goal mark that night, and tough guy Micheal Haley scored his first NHL goal.
Few fans remember those things, considering all else that went on that night. For example, Haley -- who is not really an NHL-caliber talent beyond his fighting abilities -- also picked up three fighting majors, a roughing minor, an instigator minor, a misconduct and a game misconduct, and was a main actor in the mayhem. Trevor Gillies and Matt Martin were suspended.
Auerbach didn't deny that the fights were an attraction. "There was a lot of stuff that went on and guys were defending their team," he said. "But the big part of (the viewing party) is for fans to meet up and get ready for season."
When news broke that this game was to be aired at a viewing party, it didn't come out as part of a series of similar events, nor was it understood that the Isles did not select the game, Auerbach said. It seemed in the media, much to Auerbach's dismay, as if the Islanders initiated it in an attempt to embarrass the sport and inflame the already-contentious relationship between the two clubs. Auerbach says the Isles have great respect for the Penguins organization and he has a good relationship with his public relations counterparts in Pittsburgh.
The reaction to the news of the viewing party put the Isles in a bad light, so sometime during this week they contacted MSG Network and asked if it could replace the Feb. 11 game. That was done on Thursday.
"We feel like Ray Shero does," Auerbach said. "That game is behind us and we want to look forward."
The Isles have had to absorb a lot of abuse in recent years for new they make on-ice and off. To their credit, they recognize that while some of their fans might rejoice at the prospect of reliving the chaos of Feb. 11, it would do the franchise and the game no good. Hopefully, taking the initiative and asking MSG to change the scheduled game indicates the Islanders are rebuilding their image just as they are rebulding their team.