Arthur Staple Arthur Staple

Staple, with Newsday since 1997, has covered high school sports, hockey and football.

The 8,000 or so fans who watched the Islanders in Kansas City's Sprint Center on Tuesday night was supposedly a referendum on how much - or how little, given the half-empty arena - that city wanted our hockey team.

So what to make of the 4,000 or so who turned out for John Tavares' Long Island debut at the Coliseum last night?

Ummm . . . Anyone want these guys?

There were a bunch of No. 91 jerseys for the No. 1 draft pick, and a loudish round of applause when Tavares took his first shift a minute or so into the first period. But the old barn that Charles Wang so desperately wants to replace with a home more like the Sprint Center was so empty, it felt like the end of last season's dismal run instead of the beginning of the Tavares era.

To be fair to the tens of folks who came out last night - the official number was 8,256, but that would have been true only if the Coliseum held 27,000 at capacity - there wasn't a lot to see. It's preseason hockey after all, where the biggest deal is watching fringe roster guys try to punch their way to a spot.

And Tavares didn't exactly have the linemates to put on a show. He skated between Trevor Smith and Matt Moulson, two guys likely ticketed for Bridgeport.

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Scott Gordon didn't have his pick of good wings for the 19-year-old star-in-waiting, with Kyle Okposo (concussion) and Trent Hunter (pectoral) out with injuries.

But this was bad. Coming so close on the heels of Tuesday's political grandstanding session at the Lighthouse hearing across the road, so close to the mediocre showing by the fans in Kansas City, so close to the news that Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov wants to purchase the Nets and wants to make a splash with the new arena in Brooklyn, the Islanders and their fans had a chance to make some sort of statement with a good showing.

It didn't happen. Tavares was the toast of Long Island in late June, after the Islanders took him first overall and used his future stardom to sell tickets. That worked for a while, but promoting a new era in Islanders history didn't jibe with Wang's desire to showcase his club all over North America to give the Lighthouse project a boost.

So this game last night had no boost, no juice, nothing more than a few thousand die-hards watching Tavares.


And the Oct. 3 home opener, the real debut for Tavares against Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the rest of the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins, isn't exactly a hot item, either.

Go on Ticketmaster's Web site right now. Punch up a request for seats to that game. For $140, plus the extra fees, you can see Tavares' debut from about 15 rows off the ice.

There's also the matter of Wang's Lighthouse deadline, which happens to be the same Saturday as the home opener. That's an unimaginable double-whammy if the Town of Hempstead doesn't meet that deadline and Wang seeks an arena deal elsewhere a few hours before the team takes the ice.

Islander fans need something to believe in, whether it's the promise of a new arena and a team that's staying put for years to come, or a new superstar.

Wang needs certainty and fans in the seats. Tavares needs time to develop and some linemates who can match his skill level. The team needs to win.

So far, no one's needs are being met. This isn't the way to kick off such an important season.