To the longest-tenured Islanders player, Charles Wang was “a special man.” To the former coach, he was “an inspiration to all of us.” The franchise, in its formal reminiscence delivered over the public address system, called him, “our owner, our friend.”
As far as his indelible place in the life and history of the New York Islanders, the late owner was something else, too. He was the right person at the right time.
Just as Roy Boe was the right one to give birth to the franchise and John O. Pickett was precisely the right one to take over the team when it was both on the brink of insolvency and on the verge of becoming a dynasty, Wang came along just when the Islanders needed someone to keep them home.
There was a touching video at Barclays Center Wednesday night honoring the longtime principal owner who died at his Long Island home Sunday at 74. It peaked with tape of Wang saying, “There’s always a higher mountain to climb.” A moment of silence followed, then heartfelt applause.
Of course, the greatest tribute of all was the fact that there was a game at all, that it involved a team still known as the “New York Islanders” and wearing the old familiar crest that features a drawing of Long Island.
“I think the fans really need to realize that they could have moved. That’s the bottom line,” said former coach Jack Capuano, who was there as associate coach of the visiting Panthers. “He loved the area so much, and the fan base. He wanted to keep it and he did.
“People should realize that this team is here because of Charles,” Capuano said, adding that Wang was “an inspiration.”
We all didn’t agree with every bit of Wang’s 16-year tenure as majority owner — the longest in team history — but there is no denying that he did what was absolutely essential. He bought the team when it was not such a hot commodity, at least not as a Long Island entity. There was a feeling around the National Hockey League that the franchise was ripe for a fresh start in Kansas City, Quebec City or Las Vegas.
Wang jumped in despite having seen only one hockey game in his life. He put up big money despite the almost comic shambles created by previous owners (some of whom landed in jail).
Remember the Gang of Four, which came in with big talk and never delivered. Who can forget John Spano, an entertaining fellow who turned out to be a complete fraud? Then there was the real estate-focused group led by Howard and Edward Milstein and Steven Gluckstern, which cut payroll and made such a hash of things that Newsday’s Steve Jacobson regularly referred to the consortium as the “Millstones.”
A Shanghai native and Long Island resident who grew to love his adopted home, Wang saved the team when it needed saving. The move to Brooklyn was not great, but it was not irrevocable. He kept the franchise close enough for a revival, which is coming. Kudos to Wang for keeping the Brooklyn bean counters from replacing the Islanders crest with something black-and-white and boring.
“I think Charles was a special man in many ways, gave so much back to many people. Any time I had a chance to talk to him, I enjoyed it,” said forward Josh Bailey, an Islander since 2008.
Going back through some old stories, I came across one from April 10, 2000 under the headline, “Wang Lifts Hopes of Isles Fans.” Among those who expressed optimism about the new man’s stewardship was one Bill Torrey, the Islanders’ dynasty architect and the one who made the franchise worth buying and owning. Torrey also died this year and will be saluted, appropriately, at one of the games in Nassau Coliseum.
When the team moves to Belmont, Torrey’s banner will be in the rafters of the new arena. There should also be something in that new building to commemorate Wang, the right man at the right time.
“People owe him a big thank you for keeping the team on Long Island,” Bailey said, “where it belongs.”