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Islanders, Gulls youth hockey league battle over ice time

The New York Islanders skate during their first

The New York Islanders skate during their first in-season practice at Northwell Ice Center in Eisenhower Park on Jan. 20, 2016. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

The New York Islanders have told a nonprofit youth hockey organization that they no longer can play at the team’s new Eisenhower Park practice facility, despite a five-year agreement the group signed last year with the building’s previous owner.

Attorneys for the Gulls Amateur Hockey Association, Long Island’s oldest youth hockey organization, say the NHL Islanders are in breach of contract. The group, which has teams which play in a variety of leagues, filed a motion last week in federal Bankruptcy Court in the Eastern District to force the team to abide by the original deal.

The Gulls said the Islanders’ decision has prompted two of its 16 teams to withdraw, costing the league at least $127,000 in revenue and putting the league’s fate in jeopardy.

The Islanders are “taking a public skating facility, built in a public park and under a permit from Nassau County, and turning it into a private facility for exclusive use by a professional sports team,” wrote Gulls attorney Philip Campisi Jr.

But in an April 5 letter to Gulls’ attorneys, Roy Reichbach, chief counsel to Islanders’ owner Charles Wang, questioned whether the organization’s original agreement remains valid.

“Notwithstanding the fundamental issue as to whether or not the Gulls have a valid agreement …. it is clear that the Gulls do not have a right to any minimum ice time,” Reichbach wrote.

The Islanders did not respond to requests for comment.

Twin Rinks Ice Center, now called the Northwell Health Ice Center, opened in 2014 as a partnership between Nassau County and investors including Joel and Ronald Friedman and brothers Chris and Peter Ferraro, both former NHL players.

Construction costs ballooned from an estimated $15 million to $52 million, and the owners fell behind on license payments to the county. In June 2015, the owners filed for bankruptcy, setting off a public auction of their assets.

Wang won a bid to purchase the building for $8 million and transform it into the Islanders’ practice facility, with new locker rooms, a professional training facility and office space.

In May 2015, before filing for bankruptcy, Ronald Friedman signed a five-year licensing agreement with the Gulls allowing the organization — which serves 350 children ages 5 through 18 — to use the rink through March 31, 2020.

In the first year of the agreement, the Gulls averaged 51 hours of ice time per week, at a cost of $375 to $500 per hour. The agreement stated that from 2016-2019, the Gulls could negotiate a “fair market rate” for use of the rink and that the owner should provide the group with “maximum available” ice time.

In an email on April 4, however, Northwell manager AJ Congero told Mary Malvagna, the Gulls’ director of finance, that “there would be no ice for the Gulls going forward.”

Congero did not respond to requests for comment.

In court filings, Malvagna said the Gulls need the ice facility “to maintain its four-decade history of promoting youth hockey on Long Island.”

The Gulls are seeking alternate venues. The season begins in the fall.

Brian Nevin, spokesman for Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, called the matter “a private sector dispute.”

During a July 12, 2015 hearing, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Goodman addressed concerns that a new owner could restrict public access.

“I’m very aware of the county’s goal in keeping a facility like this available for the public,” according to a hearing transcript. “This isn’t a piece of dirt someplace or a building in the city that very few people care about; this serves an awful lot of folks.”

The two sides are due back in court May 23.

CORRECTION: The Gulls Amateur Hockey Association is a youth hockey organization whose teams play in multiple leagues. An earlier story described the group inaccurately.

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