New Islanders owner John Spano, left, talks with long time...

New Islanders owner John Spano, left, talks with long time Islander fans Cheryl Brown and her son, Clinton, at the Coliseum during his visit to watch the team practice. (Nov. 27, 1996) Credit: David Pokress

This article was originally published in Newsday on Nov. 28, 1996

When the blitz of camera flashes faded, when the repeated grilling by reporters was finally over, an exhausted John Spano retired to his room at the Garden City Hotel on Tuesday night and thought: "It's done. Now what?"

Spano was feeling mostly relief after completing arduous negotiations to buy the Islanders for the equivalent of $165 million, a deal made all the sweeter because he had failed in two previous attempts to get a National Hockey League franchise. But a far greater challenge lies ahead for the 32-year-old businessman from Dallas: turning around a team that has been mired in mediocrity and that sometimes can't fill half the arena with fans.

Now, Spano slowly began to turn his attention to address that challenge. "One of my best friends is Pittsburgh Penguins star Mario Lemieux, and he said, What in the world are you doing?' " Spano said.

But yesterday also was a day to revel a bit in his newfound circumstance, a sports fan's dream.

He started the day at breakfast with former Islanders coach Al Arbour, who led the team to four straight Stanley Cup championships from 1980-1983 and had been inducted into the NHL Hall of Fame on Monday. Then Spano popped over to the Islanders' home, the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, to watch a morning practice.

In the afternoon, he wandered into the equipment room to ask a favor: Could he borrow a pair of skates? The manager was more than willing to oblige his new boss.

A few minutes later, Spano, who played hockey for his fraternity at Duquesne University, took to the ice. Spano, whose preferred sport these days is golf, was a bit rusty. But, he said, "I didn't break anything."

Spano also did a bunch of obligatory meet-and-greet functions, including lunch with sportswriters, a borderline-testy meeting with an Islanders fan club (members are angry with past management, not Spano) and cocktails with former Islanders players, advertisers, and luxury-box tenants.

Although the sale, announced Tuesday, isn't official until the league approves it at its December meeting, Spano wound up the day in the owner's box at the Coliseum, where he rooted for his new team in last night's game against the Philadelphia Flyers. The Islanders jumped to an early lead, and one fan held aloft a sign proclaiming "Spano for President."

Spano, reticent by nature, spent most of the day listening, smiling at other people's quips and asking an occasional question. But when he met with leaders of the Save the Islanders Coalition fan club, he found himself on the firing line.

"This should be: Let's get to know each other and put the past behind us,' " Spano said early in the meeting.

But the three leaders - Art Feeney of Seaford, Tom Croke of Huntington and Steve Ellers of Levittown - couldn't help bringing up complaints about Islanders management they felt has not been friendly toward fans and unwilling to spend the money to build a quality hockey team.

They applauded Spano's comments in a WFAN radio interview earlier in the day, when Spano said, "We're going to do what's right for the team. If it means getting a player that raises our level of talent, and he's expensive, that's what you have to do."

Feeney asked Spano if he felt it would be hard to bring back the fans.
"Absolutely," Spano said. "That's the big question."

And no one has an easy answer.

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Phone scam warning … SCPD property auction … Winter sports photo shoot Credit: Newsday

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