By John Rolfe
Sometimes it’s just plain awful to be a fan.
We’re not talking about the occasional emotional bump and bruise, the kind fans get from a devastating last-second loss or a disastrous season-ending injury — or even when they watch their favorite team bow out in the conference finals, one round shy of a shot at the Stanley Cup. We mean years of suffering at the hands of a club that almost seems to delight in tormenting those who freely give to it their hearts, minds, time and money.
This is the ninth in our series on the 10 NHL franchises that take an ongoing toll on their fans, the teams that suggest that their devoted followers are either bottomless wells of hope or certified masochists — or perhaps just a touch crazy. Today we look at the New York Islanders, the once proud dynasty that rose in the space of eight years from expansion doormat in 1972-73 to Stanley Cup juggernaut (1980-83; the Isles remain the last major North American pro sports franchise to win four league championships in a row) only to stagger through decades of mindboggling mismanagement, futility and humiliation.
Teams 10: Winnipeg Jets | 9: Dallas Stars | 8: Columbus Blue Jackets | 7: Vancouver Canucks | 6: Florida Panthers | 5. Edmonton Oilers | 4. Washington Capitals | 3: Buffalo Sabre | 1. Toronto Maple Leafs
Since the end of the dynasty (yes, it actually existed; I grew up on Long Island and saw it with my own eyes), Islanders fans have been subjected to an astounding, ongoing litany of folly, losing, indignity and woe. Since 1988 -- more than a quarter of a century ago -- they've had to subsist on a thin gruel of three winning seasons, eight playoff appearances and two series wins (both in 1993). The 10 Greatest Games DVD set put out by the NHL in 2009 included only two contests that had been played since '93: the '02 first round playoff game comeback vs. the Maple Leafs that Shawn Bates won with a penalty shot (New York eventually lost the series in seven) and coach Al Arbour's 1,500th game ('07).
The franchise's fortunes went south after majority owner John O. Pickett moved to Florida in 1985 to pay more attention to his business interests, and they kept getting worse after GM Bill Torrey, the dynasty's architect, was dismissed in August '92, when an ill-fated sale to Cablevision owner Charles Dolan (who later bought the Rangers) looked like it was about to go down. The occasional return of old heroes such as Lorne Henning, Butch Goring, Pat LaFontaine, Bryan Trottier and Ken Morrow in front office or coaching roles has failed to rekindle the Isles' mojo, and the very prospect of playing for the club has become enough to make grown players weep (Ryan Smythe), refuse to show up (Kirk Muller and, more recently, Evgeni Nabokov and Lubomir Visnovsky, both of whom were suspected of balking) or look for the fire escape after they arrive (Thomas Vanek). And while there are some reasons for optimism, thanks to a core of fine young talent, a parcel of prospects, and a sparkling new home (albeit in Brooklyn) for 2015-16, to be an Islanders fan still means being hit with the worst just when you have started to hope for the best.
Most notorious moments
• The sweep: One year after their epic upset of Mario Lemieux's two-time defending Cup champion Penguins en route to the 1993 Wales Conference finals, the Isles were blown out in the first round by their hated rivals, the Rangers. Shut out 6-0 in each of the first two games at Madison Square Garden, they were outscored 22-3 during a galling sweep that ended on home ice. Arbour's storied coaching tenure came to a sad end while fans vented on besieged goalie Ron Hextall. The ultimate indignity was watching the Blueshirts go on to win the Cup and set off a seismic celebration in Manhattan that dwarfed any of the modest parades the Islanders had enjoyed on Hempstead Turnpike after each of their championships. That one Rangers Cup seemed to trump Long Island's four, and it would be a franchise record seven miserable years before the club saw the playoffs again.
• Fish Sticks: The NHL has seen its share of ugly and even bizarre uniforms, but change for sake of the change has never been crueller than when it was visited upon the Isles. After the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season in which the team finished with the league's second-worst record (15-28-5), the notorious Gang of Four (minority owners Ralph Palleschi, Steve Walsh, Robert Rosenthal and Paul Greenwood, who had been given day-to-day control by Pickett) decided, despite dire warnings, to honor the franchise’s Long Island roots by outfitting their players with a new nautical look that now lives in infamy. The fisherman crest looked uncannily like a seafood company’s logo (or veteran hockey broadcaster Stan Fischler), inspiring fan protests and derisive chants of “We want fish sticks!” from gleeful Rangers partisans. The indignity was compounded by the Isles’ abject inability to rise from the bottom of the Atlantic Division during the two seasons they wore their seasick duds, which might as well have been sailor suits with propeller beanies.
• John Spano: Along with eyesore uniforms, the NHL has housed a goodly number of rogue owners -- including Harold Ballard (Maple Leafs), John Rigas (Sabres), Peter Pocklington (Oilers), Bruce McNall (Kings) and William "Boots" Del Biaggio (Predators) -- who have been accused of various legal misdeeds and even sentenced to the hoosegow for them. But it was the accursed Islanders – who have their own history of questionable ownership -- that attracted the most comically outrageous of them all. (Check out ESPN’s documentary “Big Shot.”) John Spano, a 33-year-old self-proclaimed tycoon from Dallas, came out of nowhere in 1996 to rescue the franchise. Initially lauded by Commissioner Gary Bettman as "the kind of owner we want", hailed by dynasty stalwart Clark Gillies during his number retirement ceremony and serenaded with chants of “Save us, Spano!” by the suffering faithful on Halloween (an eerily appropriate night), the so-called savior turned out to be a dithering, two-bit con man with moths in his wallet and cobwebs in his vault. Yet he still managed to actually buy the team during a nine-month charade that embarrassed the league and tormented New York's fans, and which left the franchise in limbo when he was arrested on an array of fraud charges in July '97.
• Millstone: After the Spano debacle, Pickett ended up selling the Isles in February 1998 to real estate developers Howard and Edward Milstein, and their partner Steven Gluckstern, a trio that only had beady eyes for the lucrative land around Nassau Coliseum. While embroiled with Nassau County in a farcical and ugly battle (county executive Tom Gulotta famously described them as "pigs at the trough") over the rights to build a new arena, New York's new owners threatened to move the team and slashed its payroll to an absurd pre-salary cap total of $12 million, forcing GM Mike Milbury to trade young stars such Ziggy Palffy, Todd Bertuzzi, Bryan Berard and Bryan McCabe. The Islanders failed to make the playoffs until new owners Charles Wang and Sanjay Kumar arrived in 2000. But in keeping with the old sad story, Kumar was later sent to the federal pokey for 12 years after pleading guilty to securities fraud and obstruction of justice.
• Mad Mike: Mike Milbury ( "he who must not be named" to Islanders fans) arrived as the team's new coach in July 1995 and took on GM duties as well when the beleaguered Don Maloney was given the heave-ho six months later. Once regarded as one of the NHL's bright minds, Milbury, 43, seemed to lose it during his 11 years as the blustery, ubiquitous face of the franchise. Coach for parts of three seasons, he was unable to rant his lads out of the basement. But after being hamstrung by a succession of penny-pinching owners, Mad Mike the GM was fully unleashed after Charles Wang bought the team in April 2000. Milbury's first move was a jaw-dropper: trading up-and-coming goalie Roberto Luongo, the team's 1997 first-round pick (No. 4), to the Panthers along with center Olli Jokinen for forwards Mark Parrish and Oleg Kvasha on draft day. Milbury then made Rick DiPietro the first goaltender ever chosen No. 1. "As dangerous as this may be," Milbury explained while giving himself a distinctive nickname, "we think Mad Mike may have something going for him." Indeed. DiPietro's tortured saga with the team became the stuff of tragi-comic legend.
• The Yashin trade: A year after his Luongo/DiPietro stunner, Wang and Mad Mike steered the franchise onto the rocks by dealing defenseman Zdeno Chara (who went on to become a six-time All-Star, a Norris Trophy winner, and the captain of a Stanley Cup winner), forward Bill Muckalt and a first round pick to the Senators for Alexei Yashin, a talented but mercurial center with a history of disappearing in big games. Yashin was given a mind-blowing 10-year contract worth $87.5 million and later named captain. After five up and down seasons and five 2007 playoff games -- which he finished without a point -- he was bought out with four years remaining on his deal, leaving the Isles to fork over a not so grand total of $17.63 million during the next eight years at a cap hit of $2.2 million.
• False start: In June 2006, Mad Mike became a senior VP with limited input on personnel moves and hope arrived in the form of Neil Smith, the former Rangers GM who had presided over New York's 1994 Stanley Cup-winning team, and former Adams Award-winning coach Ted Nolan. Smith had a link to the Islanders, having worked for them in the late '70s and early '80s, and real hockey smarts. Less than six weeks later, he was thrown overboard for refusing to work under Wang's "management by committee" plan. (Pat LaFontaine, the owner's new senior advisor, saw what was coming and quickly decided to follow Smith into the foaming brine.) Thus began the Garth Snow Era.
• Snowed under: Snow, the Islanders' backup goalie, had no front office experience to speak of, but he impressed Wang with his knowledge of the NHL and that was good enough. During his tenure, Snow has become one of the league's most feared GMs ... by the Isles' faithful. He's occasionally caught lightning in a bottle (signing Matt Moulson in 2009 and Michael Grabner in '10), and hasn't blown no-brainer decisions (drafting John Tavares No. 1 in '09), but he's mainly become associated with such words as "bizarre" and "insane." In July 2011, there were reports that New York was talking about bringing Yashin back at age 37. In June '12, Snow offered to trade the Islanders' entire slate of seven draft picks to the Blue Jackets in order to move up two spots and take defenseman Ryan Murray at No. 2. When the offer was turned down, Snow drafted seven blueliners, starting with Griffin Reinhart. And while Wang has tried to stanch the team's red ink hemorrhage by pinching pennies, Snow has had to play with table scraps like the Tim Thomas contract just to make the salary cap floor.
• DiPietro disaster: Before the 2006-07 season began, Wang and Snow rocked the NHL by awarding Rick DiPietro a landmark 15-year, $67.5 million contract that ultimately proved catastrophic. A wave of injuries limited the snakebitten goalie, who took on the unfortunate but apt moniker "Rickety," to a mere 50 appearances from '08 to July '13 when New York finally bought him out, leaving the Isles to cough up annual $1.5 million paychecks until 2029.
• The Lighthouse Project goes down in flames. The Nassau Coliseum was once a decent building with great sight lines, but it became an outright albatross after Pickett signed a catastrophic 30-year lease with the Spectacor Management Group (SMG) in 1985. In exchange for running the arena, SMG was given all revenue from concessions and parking, plus 33 percent of the advertising dough and 11 percent of the box office take. The deal ensured that anyone who owned the team would take showers in red ink, especially when the Islanders were losing and attendance tanked -- their fans are often accused of being fickle, but they aren't fools who enjoy parting with their money in order to watch lousy hockey. Wang has reportedly been losing $10 million a year and has a $75 million loan repayment due after the 2013-14 season. Every owner since Pickett -- even Spano -- has coveted a new arena, but the onerous lease and byzantine county politics have stymied every effort. Meanwhile, the roof at "the Mausoleum" began to leak, the Milstein ownership group claimed the scoreboard was about to fall from the ceiling and briefly moved the team's offices out of the building and a sewage pipe burst in the Islanders dressing room (cosmic symbolism, eh?) in March 2006. Wang spent a decade pursuing his privately funded Lighthouse Project -- $3.8 billion for a new arena, sports facilities, housing, stores and a hotel on the 150 acres where the Coliseum crumbles -- only to see it cut down by Hempstead town officials to the point where Long Islanders were asked to vote for a $400 million tax-funded arena and minor league baseball stadium. Despite fan rallies, the proposal was nixed in an August 2011 referendum. In October '12, Wang announced the team was leaving for Brooklyn.
The emergence of John Tavares as a Hart Trophy candidate, a rare playoff appearance and a respectable six-game showing against the powerhouse Penguins wildly inflated hopes and expectations for 2013-14. When the flawed Isles were slow getting out of the box at 4-4-3, Snow felt the team "needed to take the next step" and sent fan favorite Matt Moulson, a conditional 2014 first-round pick (the Isles can defer it to 2015 if, as expected, it falls within the top 10) and a 2015 second-rounder to the Sabres for Thomas Vanek. Due, like Moulson, to become an unrestricted free agent after the season, but lacking the same chemistry with Taveras, Vanek played reasonably well but could do nothing to address the team's shortcomings on defense and in net. New York went 5-15-4 after he arrived in the Oct. 27 deal, a skid compounded by the usual wave of injuries. In early February, Vanek turned up his nose at the Islanders' seven-year, $50-million offer and gave Snow little choice but to trade him by the March 5 deadline. The return, from the Canadiens, was underwhelming -- questionable prospect Sebastian Collberg; a conditional second-round pick -- and it drew plenty of derision as well as fury. Even John Spano felt compelled to weigh in. When Tavares went down for the season after suffering a knee injury while playing for Team Canada at the Sochi Olympics, the Isles were left to play out the string while their fans made plans to don bags in protest. Chants of "Snow must go!" were heard at the game against Buffalo on March 15.
In the system
Considering where they've drafted during the past five or six seasons, the Islanders should have one of the deepest systems in hockey. That they're actually slotted somewhere in the middle of the pack reveals how inconsistently they've managed their assets. (See: Nino Niederreiter, their 2010 first rounder at No. 5, who was rushed to the NHL and languished before being traded.)
• Two of the team's top forward prospects, Ryan Strome and Anders Lee, have graduated to the big club during the past few weeks. Strome (No. 5, 2011) has outgrown the AHL, but isn't ready for a top-six role in the NHL ... yet. “That kid has some special hands,” a scout said. “He'll dangle you out of your jock if you get to looking at the puck. But he's got a lot to learn about how to play without it.” A center all his life, Strome might be better off at right wing at the NHL level to protect against his defensive shortcomings until he gets some experience under his belt. Lee (No. 152, '09) looks like a late-round gem, a 6-foot-3, 230-pound power forward with kitten-soft hands and a bulldog's determination in the greasy areas. He needs to work on his play away from the puck, but as long as he's scoring, the Isles will be patient with his development.
• Opinions on forward Sebastian Collberg (trade with Montreal) are varied, but there isn't much enthusiasm. His size (5-10, 180) wouldn't be a concern if he could score, but he hasn't shown any offensive touch yet in the Swedish league. “He's not exactly Patrice Bergeron away from the puck, either,” one scout added. It's too soon to write Collberg off, but he seems like a long shot at this point.
• Forward Taylor Cammarata (No. 73, 2013) led the USHL in goals and points in '12-13, and made a smooth transition to college life with 22 points in 35 games for the Gophers. But at 5-7, he looks up to Martin St. Louis ... literally. Good luck with that.
• Johan Sundstrom (No. 50, 2011) hasn't figured out how to put the puck in the net at any level, but he's smart, has decent size and knows how to play some defense. He could fill a bottom-six role.
• Kirill Petrov has been shining off in the distance since dropping to 76th in the 2008 draft. There's still talk that he could come to the Islanders for the 2014-15 season, but don't expect him to be riding a white horse. His play in the KHL suggests he'll max out as a third line winger with 10-15 goal potential.
• The Isles boast a ton of potential on the back end, but there are plenty of reservations that come with them. Expectations have been lowered slightly for Griffin Reinhart (No. 4, 2012). The big defender still projects as a solid top-four, but he hasn't taken the big step forward that many expected. “He plays a good, all-around game,” a scout said. “He stays in his comfort zone, he makes good reads, he moves the puck well. He's got that grace under pressure thing down. He'll never be a big scorer and with that body, you always hope he'll be more physical. He doesn't shy away, but you'd like to see him unload on someone every now and then.”
• Ryan Pulock (No. 15, 2013) has the tools to be a power play QB. “Has that ability to get the puck to the net from the point,” a scout said. “Moves the puck well. Heavy shot, too.” That said, he hasn't lit up the WHL in the two years since being drafted and while his skating has improved, it's still a concern. He upside might be second pairing.
• Ville Pokka (No. 34, 2012) developed a bit of offensive touch this season in Finland to go along with a solid defensive game. His hockey sense is his key attribute, defining his play with and without the puck. He could skate in their top four.
• Scott Mayfield (No. 34, 2011) could add size and a reliable physical presence to the third pair.
• Andrey Pedan (No. 63, 2011) missed most of the season with an upper-body injury, setting back his development almost a full year. He has decent size and is a strong skater, but he's a stretch to play a top-four role.
• Adam Pelech (No. 65, 2012) was one of the drivers of an amazing turnaround in OHL Erie, and it was the team's success that defined his improved offensive play (54 points in 60 games) and plus-minus (minus-16 in 2011-12 to plus-56 this season). As a pro, he'll rely on his size (6-2, 210) and defensive reads to contribute in a depth role.
• Goalie Anders Nilsson (No. 62, 2009) is the team's best prospect between the pipes, but you won't find anyone who believes he can become a reliable No. 1 goalie in the league. "Not sure he has the mental toughness," was the assessment of one scout. Both Nilsson and Kevin Poulin project as backups. -- Allan Muir
Better days ahead?
Captain John Tavares is the real deal, a star worthy of his 2013 Hart Trophy nomination. His presence, along with the emergence of winger Kyle Okposo and center Frans Nielsen, a stockpile of prospects, and a new home in the Barclays Center are all expected to herald the dawn of a bright new chapter for this benighted franchise, and very well may. While Islanders fans need no longer fear losing their team to a far-off city, or endure invasions of fans from Quebec, there’s a hard-to-shake feeling of foreboding, ingrained after so much has gone so wrong for so long, that after the initial buzz and novelty wear off in Brooklyn, more bad moves and misfortune will extend the endless rebuild while prime free agents continue to think twice about signing on. If there's a way to keep a bad roll going, the Islanders always seem to find it.
The team still needs a cornerstone goaltender, and as the Oilers have been demonstrating, waiting for homegrown prospects to fully blossom at the same time can be a long, frustrating process, especially when the injury bugaboo is always waiting to strike and you have a hard time attracting top veteran talent to augment the kids. It also seems somehow in keeping with what the Isles' image has become that their new home will be in an arena that was designed for basketball. Its shortcomings did not escape the notice of fans after a preseason game at Barclays last September. And if the team and its followers ever felt like outsiders during the Island years, just wait until they set up shop in the Rangers’ backyard. Even during the dynasty, one of the great frustrations was dwelling in the Blueshirts' shadow.
Are you an Islanders fan? Got a tale to tell? Feel free to share in the comments section below.