Referendum on minds of Islanders fans

Islanders fans at Nassau Coliseum draft party show their enthusiasm after team selected center Ryan Strome with its top pick. Videojournalist: Jessica Rotkiewicz (June 24, 2011)

Wandering around the crowded floor of Nassau Coliseum at the Islanders draft party Friday, Carleen Rodriguez and Jeanne-Marie Lyga were typical of the 4,000 or so fans. They were there to celebrate the team's future -- for the second season in a row, the Islanders would pick fifth in the NHL draft.

But a question still hung over the crowd: What exactly would that future hold?

"It's kind of desperation time," said Rodriguez, 41 and from Carle Place, an Islanders fan her whole life. "If this [referendum vote] doesn't go through, the Islanders might be gone."

Rodriguez was referring to Aug. 1, when Nassau County residents will vote on a referendum to borrow up to $400 million for a new arena for the Islanders and also finance construction of a minor-league ballpark. If the referendum does not pass, Islanders owner Charles Wang has indicated he may be interested in moving the team.

So there was certainly apprehension -- if only whispered -- within the crowd that gathered to celebrate New York's newest addition Friday (the Islanders selected forward Ryan Strome with their first-round pick). Most were trying hard to forget about the impending vote and celebrate the night.

"I feel a lot more responsibility to show more Islanders support this year," said Brian Murray, 34, of Farmingdale. "I do. I'm bringing my son, going on the Internet, commenting, stuff like that. You want it to pass. I tell all my friends to vote."

Fans had plenty of diversions. Players such as John Tavares, Matt Moulson and Travis Hamonic were around to sign autographs, and there were tables set up for memorabilia auctions, video game booths, inflatable slides, even a tattoo booth. Some fans wore fake black mustaches, homage to forward Trevor Gillies' facial hair.

There were also dozens of fans walking around with buttons and T-shirts asking fans to "Vote Yes" on the referendum.

"There's an uncertainty, I guess," said Bob Parrella, 68, of Massapequa, a season-ticket holder for more than 25 years. "I feel if it doesn't pass Aug. 1, this place is going to be empty for five years. It was empty last year. Even if they come up with a good team, it'll be empty. Empty parking lot. It's crazy. People are afraid but they just don't want to pay a tax."

In December, Forbes valued the Islanders at $151 million, 26th out of the league's 30 franchises. According to ESPN.com, the team drew 453,456 fans to the Coliseum this past season, last in the NHL. The Islanders also missed the playoffs for the fourth straight year.

But the passion from a few remains strong. Lyga, of East Meadow, indicated she was such a hockey fan she would consider moving to New Jersey or elsewhere to be closer to a professional franchise if the Islanders have to leave the area.

Looking around, though, she took some solace in the waves of blue-clad fans she saw walking around. Murray, too, said he was pleased to see the turnout.

"That," Murray said, "or it could just be a cheap thing to do on a Friday, I'm not sure."

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