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From the archives: The dotted line / Spano near contract to buy islanders

John Spano

John Spano Credit: Newsday / Paul Bereswill

This story was originally published in Newsday on Oct. 31, 1996.

The sale of the New York Islanders to Dallas businessman John Spano appears to be all but a done deal, with Spano announcing yesterday that he had completed negotiations and was awaiting only a sign-off by lawyers.

"All the paperwork is now in the hands of the attorneys for review," he said in a prepared statement. "I hope the review is completed very soon, and then the contract is signed."

The deal would have to be approved by the National Hockey League Board of Governors, which represents all the teams. Mike Milbury, the Islanders coach and general manager and a member of the board, was cautiously optimistic about approval.

"I don't think it would have gotten this far without NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman's approval," he said in Hartford last night before the Islanders' game against the Whalers. If Bettman is in fact involved, he continued, "It is highly unlikely . . . that there would be a problem."

The NHL has declined to comment on the sale.

Details of the proposed deal remain a closely kept secret, though Spano has said that a reported $80-million price for the team was close to the actual figure.

A source familiar with some of the talks said it appears that Spano would actually put up a smaller sum - perhaps $25 million - because he also would be assuming the team's debt, believed to be in excess of $40 million. The debt includes money spent to build luxury boxes, the source said.

The source said the franchise has been valued at $150 million, but said that $75 million of that represents the current value of a long-term contract the team has with Sportschannel for broadcasting rights.

Another source said that the deal apparently will give Spano 90 percent of the team. The rest would be divided between John Pickett, who currently owns 90 percent of the team, and certain members of a management group that now runs day-to-day operations for Pickett.

The management group, along with some other investors, now holds the remaining 10 percent of the team.

Of the four members in the group, at least two - Steve Walsh and Paul Greenwood - would not remain under Spano, the sources said. Robert Rosenthal would probably stay; the future of the fourth manger, Ralph Palleschi, was unclear.

Pickett also would retain a sizable portion of the lucrative cable contract, perhaps 50 percent, under the proposed deal, one of the sources said. But the deal requires him to use a chunk of that money in the initial years to pay off some of the other investors, the source said.

The source also disclosed that Cablevision has agreed to an extension of the contract to the year 2030 in return for reduced annual payments to the Islanders in the short term. The Islanders are still getting $10.5 million to $12 million a year under the renegotiated contract, very high by NHL standards.

Spano also met with senior executives at Spectacor Management Group, the company that manages the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, at the company's headquarters in Philadelphia on Tuesday.

He said the two sides discussed ways to make short-term improvements to the dilapidated arena. Eventually, Spano wants to replace or modernize the Coliseum.

In the meantime, he would like some minor improvements. Wes Westley, the chief executive officer of Spectacor, said, "We're going to work with real closely to make sure what we control off the ice is top notch."

Neither Westley nor Spano would discuss specifics, but the Islanders in the past have asked for things such as a new paint job and the repair of some seats.

Asked how the impending sale would affect the struggling Islanders, Milbury said it was too early to tell. But he added, "It sounds like he's interested in building a winner, and that can only be good news."

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