By Stu Hackel
On Monday night, I just caught the tail end of the Winnipeg Jets' game against the visiting Rangers, which, by all accounts, New York was lucky to win, 2-1. In many NHL arenas, frustrated fans would have booed the home team, but in what will almost certainly be a year-long love-in at the little arena on the prairie, Winnipeggers applauded their club for its effort.
Everyone, it seems, loves the Jets. I've been giving my Minnesota North Stars hat a rest and wearing my Jets chapeau lately (the old logo, thank you) and getting compliments from hockey friends about my good taste. I can't recall where I heard this, perhaps it was the CBC's Elliotte Friedman on a radio interview, but it seems that our neighbors up north, apart from those in Winnipeg, have made the Jets Canada's second favorite team. Fans in the rest of the country cheer for their team and then for the Jets, the refugee franchise whose transfer north is celebrated as a symbolic "Screw you!" to the NHL's Sunbelt strategy.
The embrace of the Jets, not just on the ice but also at the cash register, has some people wondering: Can the nouvelle Nordiques be far behind?
Well, no one is reserving moving vans so quickly. We know that won't happen until Quebec City gets an arena, which is not looming. It has just formed an engineering/architecture group for the $400 million proposed project that was first announced two years ago. No rush, especially because any new building with that price tag is going to draw some fire for being one of the league's most expensive arenas in what would be the NHL's second smallest market after Winnipeg and, inevitably, a drain on taxpayers. In fact, the legal wrangling on the new building is just beginning.
And we know that new arena won't happen until -- and unless -- there's a team that is out of options and has no choice but to relocate to Quebec. There are no expansion plans, at least none that are publicly known. Is an NHL team destined abandon its current market and wear a redesigned Nordiques sweater?
Gary Bettman apparently doesn't see the Islanders as being the team to wear that uniform.
The NHL's Commissioner was a guest on WFAN in New York on Tuesday afternoon (audio) and he stated rather plainly, "I refuse to accept that this team (the Islanders) is not going to get a new building at some point."
The defeat in August of the most recent proposal to fund, among other things, a new arena for the Islanders not far from the site of their current Nassau Coliseum hasn't changed either Bettman's nor owner Charles Wang's resolve to find a local solution to the team's biggest non-competitive problem.
"Having the Islanders play in Nassau County, having the people who work for the Islanders own homes in that marketplace, the number of jobs, the economic impact can't be denied, Bettman said. "Charles Wang is committed to the Island, is committed to the Islanders, he's devoted almost a decade of his life and tens of millions of dollars in pursuit of this. And fortunately, there are a few years left (on the Islanders' lease, which expires in 2015). They're not going to stay in the Nassau Coliseum no matter what, so we're going to have to come up with a solution somehow somewhere."
Asked by host Mike Francesa how long it would take to get a building completed, Bettman estimated three years and admitted that the time was drawing near to get concrete plans going, and admitted there's not a lot of focus from government officials and others on those plans at the moment. If a workable plan doesn't materialize soon, Bettman said, "We're going to have a problem." But he didn't think there was a reason to panic.
"I don't know exactly how we're going to solve that problem, but it's inconceivable to me the Islanders wouldn't be on Long Island because it would be malpractice for those in charge to let that happen," he said.
So, after the death of Wang's ambitious mixed development Lighthouse Project (consisting of housing, retail, a hotel and a new arena) and the electoral defeat of the new, simpler arena plan last summer, where do things stand at the moment? Neil Best reported in Newsday that Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano recently submitted an extensive economic development plan to the state for the area around the Nassau Coliseum where Wang envisioned his Lighthouse Project, which Mangano's plan calls the Hub of Nassau County. He envisions creating a bioscience research and development park and a new Nassau Coliseum in the Hub. The proposal also focuses on Belmont Park racetrack as a potential site for new sports and entertainment options and suggests that area could be an alternative place for the Coliseum if the bioscience park will take up the entire 77-acre Hub site.
Mangano's plan asks New York State for $253 million for infrastructure and road improvements. He would still have to seek private developers for the rest of the proposals, but the belief is that the state's participation would attract private sector financing. How close all that is to becoming a "concrete" plan is a big unknown.
Bettman also stated that the area in Queens around the Mets' Citi Field is "an interesting location" and "not the craziest thing I've ever heard." He also said he wasn't positive that the Islanders could move to Queens without the Rangers' consent, "but nobody's gotten to that point of even discussing it." He also mentioned the possibility that the Islanders could move further east into Suffolk County on Long Island.
Some will hear Bettman's words and detect that he's at a loss to see where this is going, but he can be an extremely influential figure in matters of franchise locations and new arenas. Despite his lack of popularity in Canada (a direct result of his early doctrine of franchise relocation and league ownership's infatuation with the Sunbelt), he subsequently became a big force in keeping many of the Canadian teams where they are. He helped the Penguins and Predators navigate their rough waters. The Coyotes are still in Phoenix, well after many thought they'd be in Hamilton or Winnipeg, and Bettman has much to do with that. Most recently, the Oilers are closer to a new arena because Bettman got ownership and government to find a workable compromise.
But the Islanders situation is different. It's far more complex and, as we've pointed out before, Bettman hasn't always had success contending with this franchise's post-dyansty machinations.
Meanwhile in Quebec, they'll try to move forward with their big, expensive new arena while hoping that lawsuits don't postpone the plans to break ground next year and cut the ribbon perhaps three years later -- right around the time the Islanders lease with Nassau County will be up.
Bettman isn't sure how it's going to happen but he's convinced the Islanders are staying in the New York market. "In my heart of hearts, I believe that's the right outcome," he says, "and we're going to work very hard, as I know Charles Wang has, to make that happen."
In his heart of hearts.
Here's the composer doing it live in 1981....
....and if that guitar figure sounds familiar, Robert White of the Funk Brothers house band invented it for this song.