They were gone, plain and simple. One of the best NHL teams of the last 30 years was packed up and ready to leave its only home, frustrated by the politics of trying to get a new arena.
“It is time to take control of our own destiny,” the team’s owner said at the time. “We will begin to explore options in cities outside Pennsylvania.”
Mario Lemieux spoke those words a little less than three years ago.
If there’s still hope for the Islanders to stay on Long Island, to stay on the spot of land they’ve occupied for 35 years, the Penguins, last night’s opponent, could serve as the best example of that hope.
The Penguins had been saddled by debt and financial worry for years, going back to the mid-1980s, when they were accused of tanking games to get Lemieux with the No. 1 pick.
Lemieux and the owners had been trying since 1999 to either get a new arena -- Mellon Arena, their building, is the only one older than Nassau Coliseum in the NHL -- or sell.
For seven years, they could do neither, and the on-ice product suffered. Of course, with that on-ice suffering comes top draft picks, like goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin and, finally, Sidney Crosby in the post-lockout 2005 lottery draft. Conspiracy theorists abound on that one, too, like the ones who say the Pens went in the tank in 1983-84.
In any event, Lemieux could not sell -- Jim Balsillie, the wannabe owner from Ontario, was in on that one and angered all in the process -- and was ready to walk. At the last minute, the politicians of Pittsburgh came to a deal on a $325-million bond issue to finance the Consol Energy Center.
Oh, and the team with all those top picks went to two straight Stanley Cup finals, winning last year.
“Great things can happen when everybody gets on the same page,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Saturday night, between periods of the Islanders game.
Bettman doesn’t like to see teams move, and certainly doesn’t want Charles Wang to throw the Islanders open to the highest bidder, because there’s only one bidder who’s willing to go high, and that’s Balsillie. And he’ll never have an NHL team under Bettman’s watch.
So there is still hope. And it skated off with a 4-3 shootout win at
the Coliseum on Saturday.
No Euro nightmare for Blues
The NHL’s attempt to expand its reach into Europe seemed like fun for the four teams who went a year ago. At the time, anyway. The Rangers beat the Lightning twice in Prague; the Penguins split with the Senators in Stockholm. Euro fans get a taste of the NHL, and four teams get a little adventure to open the season.
Except all four teams slumped badly at times and fired their coaches. Worked for the Penguins, of course, who went on to the Cup; the Rangers did make the playoffs, but the Lightning and Senators were awful.
Fast forward to this week. Is there a jinx?
One benefit for the teams that went this year was the ability to learn from the guys who went a year ago. Blues assistant GM Doug Armstrong spoke during training camp with members of the front office and training staff of some of the teams who went last year and the Blues were prepared.
“We have everything down, from when to get some sleep on the flight over to when to wake the guys up so they can hit the ground running,” Davidson said before the team left last week.
It worked, especially for a couple of old goats on the Blues. Paul Kariya, 34 and fresh off arthroscopic hip surgery in January, scored twice in the opening win over the Wings. Keith Tkachuk, 37, scored two in the sweep win on Saturday.
Around the opening week
The Leafs promised to get tougher under new GM Brian Burke. They had three fights in their opener on Thursday against the Canadiens -- ex-Ranger Colton Orr dropped the gloves with Georges Laraque 1:51 in -- but they’re 0-1-1 and have allowed 10 goals.
Well, at least they’re scrappy.
Good start for Ray Emery, whose last act as an NHL goalie was getting the boot from the Senators midway through the 2007-08 season. After a year in Russia, he inexplicably became the Flyers’ No. 1 -- guess it makes sense for a franchise that hasn’t put a premium on goaltending since Bernie Parent -- and he has wins in his first two games, allowing just two goals.
Ranger of the week: Marian Gaborik is healthy, so he’s playing well.
Goals in each of his first two games as a Ranger and the quick hands, as advertised.
Islander of the week: Gotta give it to the kid. John Tavares gave
everyone a thrill on Saturday with a goal and assist. As one coach
told me before the season: “The puck just seems to find him.” They
said that about Gretzky too, but let’s not get hysterical.