Charles Wang initially knew nothing about hockey but plenty about how to treat players. He was not a distant owner; the players could hear him cheering in the rafters and mingled with him off the ice.
"Generally, you're nervous to be around the owner,’’ Matt Martin said Monday as the Islanders mourned the passing of Wang, who died Sunday at 74 of lung cancer. “He's the kind of guy that comes right over to see how your summer was, gives you a hug. Just a great guy to be around. He will be missed for sure.’’
The team will pay tribute to Wang on Wednesday at Barclays Center, beginning with a moment of silence before the game against the Panthers. The Islanders said the funeral for Wang will be private.
Wang never stopped believing in his players. That resonated with former goaltender Rick DiPietro, who endured a prolonged gantlet of criticism over a lengthy contract that ultimately paid few dividends for Wang. Sadness overwhelmed DiPietro, 37, when he learned of Wang’s death.
“It was more than him just being the owner of the team,’’ DiPietro said Monday. “The personal relationship I had with him from the day I got drafted, I almost looked at him like a second dad. When I needed advice or anything, if I had questions about what to do with real estate, whatever it was, he was always there to answer the questions.’’
But the goalie's parting with the Islanders had a trace of bitterness.
DiPietro was the John Tavares of his day, the No. 1 pick in the 2000 draft, and Wang envisioned him being in goal when the Islanders returned to Stanley Cup glory. Wang was so certain of it that in 2006, he signed DiPietro to a 15-year contract worth $67.5 million. Then injuries invaded DiPietro's career, and from 2008-13, he played in only 50 games. A compliance buyout was announced in July 2013 and the Islanders are still paying DiPietro $1.5 million a year through 2029.
"Sunday was a tough day because it was sadness and also a lot of regret," DiPietro said. "He's only 74 years old. I let the way that it ended kind of affect the relationship. It was way too long that I got over it. I probably still didn't get over it yet. I was hoping we would get back to that great relationship that we had. That we didn’t make it made [Sunday] a really tough day for me.’’
DiPietro said he felt as if he let Wang down.
“I still do, to this day,’’ he said. “He was always looking to protect me, always the first one to give me great advice. If stories in the papers weren't great stories or if they criticize the contract, he’d always say the best thing you can do is go out and have overwhelming success. If you want to go get past all the criticism, go out and have overwhelming success.
"It was a smart deal. It just didn't work out. At the time, I figured if I continue to play well, I would have years where I was probably underpaid, years at the back end where I was maybe overpaid. Just, unfortunately, for both of us, I ended up getting hurt, and [it] ends up looking like a bad deal.’’
The contract, DiPietro said, was born out of his desire — and Wang’s — for him to be an Islander for life. The two saw the future far beyond the poor practice facilities and aging Nassau Coliseum.
When DiPietro started his career, the team’s gym room was a trailer. “It only got better with him,’’ DiPietro said.
The owner was committed to keeping the team on Long Island one way or another. That’s why Wang inserted an undisclosed escape clause in the supposed “ironclad’’ lease with Barclays Center.
“He saved the Islanders,’’ DiPietro said. “If it was up to the NHL and who was going to buy the team, I have a hard time believing they would have kept that team on Long Island.’’