Mixed Signals / Milstein hedges about sale of Islanders

Travel deals

Just when talks regarding the sale of the Islanders

apparently had

sparked back to life, co-owner Edward Milstein snuffed out the recent

reports by making a statement that's sure to send shock waves through

the desperate fans of the once-proud organization.

"I don't really want to sell the team," Milstein said during a

surprise visit to Islanders practice yesterday at Nassau Coliseum.

When asked if the franchise, which Milstein, his brother Howard and

Steven Gluckstern purchased for about $195 million in the spring of

1998, is on the market, Milstein replied, "No."

"We were approached and someone said they wanted to buy it," he said.

"There have been negotiations and someday they may show up, someday they

won't."

The "they" he was referring to is a Long Island-based group, fronted by

former Madison Square Garden president Bob Gutkowski, that signed a

letter of intent to purchase the team in late August and has followed an

excruciatingly slow due diligence process that has yet to produce a

signed sales contract despite various reports that the negotiations were

"progressing."

"Talk is cheap," Milstein said. "The reality is there are lots of people

that wanted to buy this team. Most of them had no money. When they show

up with money, I'll know that I'm selling the team. Other than that, I'm

not selling the team."

Milstein then said it is "very possible" the current ownership group

will remain beyond the end of the season. "We're building this team

assuming we're going to own this team," he said.

However, a person with knowledge of the situation told Newsday that

the Milstein-Gluckstern group is indeed interested in selling the team

and that a sales contract was presented to the lawyers from both sides

last week.

Reached at his home in Cold Spring Harbor, Gutkowski did not want to

comment on the negotiations, but did say the interest of his partners is

"real and sincere." Gutkowski's group includes former EMI Records North

America president Charles Koppelman, a Roslyn resident who runs his own

entertainment securities company, CAK Universal Credit, in Manhattan. No

one from the group would comment about the group's interest in

purchasing the team or Milstein's comments.

Steve Ellers, president of a 3,000-member fan organization called

the Save The Islanders Coalition, said if the team is not sold by the

current owners, "it would be a great disappointment" for the fans, who

have seen what once was a model organization in the NHL become one of

the league's most embarrassing failures in recent years. Ellers said the

fans are "waiting with bated breath for good news, and good news would

be that the team was sold to someone who cares."

Fans have been critical of the Milstein-Gluckstern regime during the

past year, especially after the recent salary purge that sent away

popular scoring forward Zigmund Palffy and team captain Trevor Linden,

among others, in exchange for unproven youngsters and a host of

promising, but years away, draft picks. The payroll was slashed from

about $28 million last season to the NHL's third lowest at $18.1 million

this season, according to The Hockey News. The second-year Nashville

Predators are the lowest at $16.6 million and the expansion Atlanta

Thrashers are next at $16.7 million. The Islanders, with an NHL-low

average age of 25.4 years, are 2-5-1.

"I had a $28-million payroll that barely could get out of their own

way," Milstein said of last season's 24-48-10 record, the third worst in

the league. "I had guys who were veterans in the league who were

underperforming...We may be marginally worse [this season], but I can't

say our $28-million payroll did so well."

Milstein said he doesn't blame the fans for their ire, acknowledging

"it's been a bad couple of years." And despite their fiscal struggles

and plummeting attendance, moving the franchise is not under

consideration. "This team belongs on Long Island," he said. He pointed

out, however, that the growing number of empty seats at Nassau

Coliseum-a trend that began more than a decade ago when the season

ticket base dropped from 14,000 to well under 5,000 this season-does not

affect the ownership as much as it does the players. "The only guys

you're penalizing is them," he said. "I'll lose money either way."

Money may be the most obvious element in any sale, but this transaction

might be snagged by the suffocating lease with the Coliseum's management

company, SMG, which commands 11 percent of ticket revenue, one-third of

advertising and all parking and concessions revenue produced by the

Islanders' 41 home games. "We walked into something which was worse than

anyone perceived," Milstein said. "However tough we thought it was, it

was three times worse."

With that in mind, any potential buyers are likely to take a longer look

at the constraints of the SMG lease, which was signed by previous owner

John O. Pickett and runs until 2015, and ways to work with it or buy out

of it before making a formal offer.

"As of right now," Milstein said, "all you do is lose money here."

Notes & Quotes: The Islanders Friday sent veteran center Tony Hrkac and

minor-league defenseman Dean Malkoc to Anaheim for center Ted Drury.

Hrkac, 33, saw his ice time diminish as 18-year-old rookie Tim Connolly

emerged as the team's third-line center. Drury, 28, gives the Islanders

another solid forechecker who is strong on the penalty kill. The team

also sent rookie defenseman Evgeny Korolev back to Lowell (AHL) and

recalled second-year defenseman Eric Brewer, 20, who had been demoted to

his first minor-league stint two weeks ago after a disappointing start

this season. The Islanders host the Carolina Hurricanes Saturday night

at Nassau Coliseum.

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