It should come as no surprise that Jon Ledecky was at ease and in his element on Wednesday as he met with three tables’ worth of journalists over lunch at the 21 Club in Manhattan.
The Islanders’ new co-owner once was a potential aspiring sportswriter himself, passing up a Fred Russell-Grantland Rice Scholarship to Vanderbilt before settling for Harvard and a career in business that seems to have turned out well for him.
Still, he continued to cover sports for the Crimson, Harvard’s newspaper, as an undergraduate.
Now he is in charge – with co-owner and college roommate Scott Malkin – of a major league pro sports franchise, meaning that for the foreseeable future he will be answering questions from reporters and fans more than asking them.
So far, so good.
Ledecky, 58, addressed a variety of topics over an hour – about 20 minutes per table – in his first extensive public remarks about the team.
But he stressed that he would leave hockey-specific questions to his GM, coach and other experts in the organization, now and forever.
He sounded genuine. Then again, George Steinbrenner made a similar promise when he took over the Yankees in 1973.
Time will tell. The Islanders are undefeated under the Ledecky/Malkin regime. See you in October!
Here are excerpts from Ledecky’s remarks on Wednesday.
On being able to study the operation during two seasons as a minority owner:
“The great thing about being invisible for two years, because your picture is not online or in the newspaper, is I talked to hundreds of fans anonymously, and not posing as the owner, just posing as a fan, sometimes wearing a coat and tie.
“A couple of times they thought I was the usher and asked where their seat was. I was stopped by people at Barclays and asked for my ticket. I find that endearing because people are doing their jobs.
“But the most important thing was to take that feedback, because you’re competing against this wonderful ghost in the [Nassau] Coliseum. The Coliseum had a whole bunch of issues, but nostalgia overwhelms our fans, as it overwhelms all of us as we get older.
“We have to make Barclays Center feel more like the Islanders’ home. It’s a wonderful facility, but it is generic. So we’re working with Barclays. In the middle of [last season] we weren’t happy with the scoreboard presentation, so we sat down with them, and they’re great partners, and they got a production company to start increasing the professionalism and expand the number of the videos to engage the fans. We started trying to put up Islanders logos and the pictures of the players.
“We should be the world-class destination for free agents. If you think about a [salary] capped world, everybody can spend to the cap and we certainly have no constraints on our GM and our staff to spend. We want to create and continue to progress towards John Tavares lifting that Stanley Cup, so we should be world class in everything we do.
“If I see a tweet from a player’s wife complaining about the Barclays Center experience, it makes me cringe. And that was out there this past year, so immediately as an owner you can address that. What’s wrong with the family experience at Barlcays? Let’s fix it. Let’s personalize the family room.
“This year players’ families will have a suite so they can actually watch the game. Let’s make sure their transportation is flawless coming, many of them, from Long Island.
“Let’s get the buzz that you want to be playing for the New York Islanders, because they are a world-class group, world class in the way they travel, where they stay, how they treat the players, the accoutrements of a hockey team. We should make sure our scouting team is the best, that with the things that are not cap-centric we spend intelligently and really provide world-class standards.
“Same thing on Barclays. To me, if [NHL commissioner] Gary Bettman can call up Barclays and say, ‘Congratulations, Barclays Center, you’ve been picked to host the NHL All-Star Game,’ then we’re successful. That should be the standard. We tell that to Barclays and talk to [arena CEO] Brett [Yormark] and [COO] Fred Mangione and the whole team.
“That’s the standard we want as partners to have our building become. And then the wonderful memories of Nassau will be transplanted into the wonderful memories of the Barclays. John Tavares scoring the overtime goal [in the playoffs], I mean, you could have blown the roof off that place.
“Winning fixes a lot of things, but still in a world where there’s a sports dollar that’s being competed for, you have to supply your stockholders, who are the fans, with a world-class experience.
“You’re not going to see me sitting in the owner’s box. I’ll be in there [at times], but we’ll use the owner’s box for community. We’re giving away, come sit in the owner’s box, to foundations, to charities, to non-profits. But I want to be out there and hearing what the fans have to say.
“They will come at me and say, ‘How come you traded [Matt] Martin or [Frans] Nielsen or [Kyle] Okposo, and I’m going to say I didn’t trade them. Our hockey people run the hockey. (Those players left through free agency.)
“Talk to me about other things. Why shouldn’t every game be a playoff game in terms of the experience, in terms of the atmosphere? Why can’t the Long Island Rail Road run the same number of trains for regular-season games as they ran for the playoffs? That’s affecting our fan base. Make that fan base feel that they’re the most important thing.
“If I can get those hockey fans to Barclays and they see that the lower bowl seats are better than the seats in the other arenas locally you’re starting to think about adopting Islanders hockey, because they love hockey. And they’re getting a better seat and a better price, quite frankly. All of that goes into the mix of putting together a winning team.
“That’s what we can influence. But for me to sit here and say that we should trade a goalie or whatever, if I start doing that to Garth and his team, I’ve destroyed the organization and that’s what foolish owners do, and they pay a price for many, many years.
“By the way, this isn’t our first season. It’s our third season, so hopefully we’ve learned something in two years and we don’t make rookie mistakes in our third year.
“I was able to go and talk to 20 [team] presidents the last two years and visit every NHL arena, and I had a list of the best practices of each arena and I’d come back with my group and we’d send that best practices list to Barclays and the organization and say, ‘OK, when it’s our turn, how do we continue to take this data and make the experience No. 1?’”
On which franchises and arenas most impressed him:
“Chicago. Unbelievable how they turned that organization around . . . Every single thing they do is world class. I learned a lot from them.
“Arena-wise I think the seating at the Xcel Center [in St. Paul] is best in the league. Lower bowl, close, intimate. But what they’ve done, which is great, is you know you’re at a Minnesota Wild game. That’s really important.
“Then I think Montreal, the citadel of hockey. To go there at 2 o’clock in the afternoon and they have 20 people squeegeeing the boards, the glass. That was one of my big things from folks taking premium seats [at Barclays].
“They said, ‘Jon, I can’t see through the glass.’ I finally went to Brett and said, ‘I’m sorry, each pane of glass is $750. You need to buy new panes of glass and when I get that complaint you have to fix that. That’s our stockholder.’
“In Montreal they’re there, and if there’s one imperfection on that glass, they’re replacing it for their fans. That’s meticulousness. If you start with that it permeates through the whole organization. It’s like when the squeegee men were in New York City. Get rid of the squeegee men and all of a sudden the feeling about New York went up.
“It’s the same thing. When you start from the most basic thing and work your way up from there you become successful.”
On expressing confidence in Snow upon taking over the team:
“I think Garth has put together an organization over time, first with some constraints and now with an ability to spend, that over the last two years was eighth in the league in total points, and he has put together a group that continues to mix and match the players you need to win a Stanley Cup.
“I think what you saw in Pittsburgh this year was instructive. Who scored some of the winning goals? Rookies. Who was the goaltender? A rookie. You look at our farm system, and I know some of you follow our team at that level, I think developing players has been excellent, and I think they’re doing a great job.
“To get in the middle of that and start expressing opinions about this player or that player, that’s a recipe for disaster. You have to support the organization.
“We were talking about stockholders earlier. What’s the standard? We won the first round. We went to the second round. The standard this year has to be, you won the second round and went to the third round. And eventually you have to hoist the Stanley Cup, because that’s what the fans demand. They demand that excellence, on the ice and off the ice.
“The off-the-ice, I can handle, by giving them a great experience. The on-the-ice, that group has to manage that. They have got the insight. They’ve got the experience to decide who plays goalie, who plays on Johnny’s line and stuff like that, not me. That’s a recipe for disaster.
“Each one of you could talk about an owner who came in and completely rearranged the furniture and is paying for it in years and years of poor performance.”
On level of involvement Malkin will have:
“Scott is running a worldwide business. His latest unit is in China in association with Disney. Scott is intimately involved. We talk every single day. But because of his global travel schedule you’re stuck with me as the face of the franchise, and also the person who has the energy and the passion, because this is full time for me.
“I’m not distracted by running a company. I am literally going to be on the concourse because that is what I see as my mission, to build a winning organization. The players today can go to any of the 30 teams. In a cap world, whatever the guy signs for he’s getting that offer in multiple places.
“So you know how I can affect Garth’s life and make Garth’s life better? By making sure that the wife says, ‘Wow, they have an independent child care,’ which we will have at Northwell. Or, ‘they have day-care school, a school for our infants,’ because hockey players have infants, and the wives are stuck at home.
“So all of a sudden that becomes an important thing. Listening to the feedback about the family room, about being able to watch the players play. The wives are as influential as the agents in deciding where a free agent goes. And they all talk to each other. Josh [Bailey]’s wife is now the new person in charge of the wives’ group. She’s an incredibly important person to me.
“No detail can be left unattended to build a world-class organization, so that fans and players and agents and wives and relatives and fathers say, ‘Wow, I want my son, I want my husband, to play in that organization.’ Not hard to do, but it takes a lot of attention to make sure you execute the details.”
On navigating a relationship with Barclays Center, which controls marketing, ticketing and other non-hockey matters:
“We didn’t make that deal. I wasn’t there when that deal was cooked up. And Bruce Ratner is no longer there. I think the Barclays folks feel like we feel, which is: Hey, fresh start, blank piece of paper.
“We have the guidelines of this relationship. But I have to give them credit: When we were very unhappy with the video presentation, they did something about it. When we were unhappy about the ice, they brought in the chillers. When we still were unhappy with the ice, we went to the NHL and they brought in [ice expert] Dan Craig.
“Dan Craig was at every single home playoff game. That’s great service by the NHL, because they know how important this market is. They know how important the game of hockey is in New York, and you have to be major league. Everybody at Barclays, the Islanders and the NHL know that I want to get that call saying you’re hosting the NHL All-Star Game.
“We’re tireless. Scott routinely works an 18-hour day. I’m on the phone with him. He’s in China, he’s in London and we’re talking about this stuff. We’re on the phone or in person with Barclays every day. I’m getting up at 8 and going to bed at midnight and it’s the offseason.
“So I mean I’m literally there three times last week meeting with their staff, and I’m going department by department. ‘Hey, what can we do on the website to make that website better? What can we do with social and digital?’ I want those people to know we’re accessible and that’s part of the fan experience in 2016.
“You can say I’m the owner and I’m a big shot and I’m important, but no. You roll up your sleeves, and the fans will sense that passion. Scott played hockey for our high school [in Connecticut]. He played in graduate school. He still plays hockey. He still skates. He goes out to Northwell and skates.
“When he comes to the United States he laces them up and goes out and plays with the coaches and bonds with them, because he’s a hockey guy. It’s a passion a lot of owners don’t have. What we don’t want is we don’t want to be the focus of the team. It’s not about us. It’s not about us and seeing our names or pictures in the paper.
“Write about the fact the fans are happy and engaged, the team is progressing in the playoffs, they have a chance to win the Cup and write about us negatively if we screw up. If we take a step backward we take a step backward. Write about it. But know that I’m going to be working my butt off to reverse that if that happens, just as I’m working my butt off to do everything possible so those guys can win the Cup on the ice.
“I don’t want to hear that we didn’t win because X was wrong. We didn’t stay at the right hotel. We didn’t have the best ice. There wasn’t the right food in the media room. There wasn’t the right food in the family room. I don’t want to get involved in that. I want you guys to come out and say, ‘Jon, that is the best experience.’”
On encouraging fans to make the trip to Brooklyn:
“If the excuse is the Long Island Rail Road is not providing optimal service, I’ve got to fix that. If the suggestion is to run buses from the parking lot of the old Nassau Coliseum, I have to look into that. What I love is the fans come to me with all of these ideas, and I try to run them down.
“But we are meeting consistently with Barclays and the Long Island Rail Road. They ran extra trains for the playoffs. I said to the head of the Long Island Rail Road, ‘How come you can’t do that during the regular season?’ He said, ‘Maybe we can.’ A brick at a time. We’re trying to build things to transition the fans and transition the notion that Nassau is wonderful in history, but we’re building new history in Brooklyn.
“Sparky [the mascot], another small thing. Sparky was there for four or five games. Why is that? I want Sparky there 20, 25, 30 times. That’s going to be changed. So it’s the little things that are maybe not noticeable, but they’re noticeable to the fans who care. If those 50 kids meet Sparky and that makes them tug at their parents’ coattails and say, ‘I want to go back and see Sparky again,’ I’ve got 50 new fans, right?
“When I sell out those 14,000 seats, it’s valuable real estate. Once they’re sold out, everybody wants them, because they’re sold out. That’s my goal. I’m not going to rest until every one of those seats is full. And if a seat doesn’t have a full view, we’re going to make sure that fan has an unbelievable experience sitting in that seat as well.”
On getting Islanders alumni involved:
“I’ve talked to Mike Bossy for hours and hours. I’ve talked to [Bobby] Nystrom. I’ve talked to Clark Gillies. I’ve talked to the greats. We’re embracing alumni. The 100th anniversary of the NHL is coming up. I think you’re going to be very pleased when they make the announcement of what we have planned for that. Again, that honors our heritage.
“The heritage is great and it’s great for the current players to see that. They need to build their own heritage. We need to make our own memories for the team now. It’s been 33 years since we lifted a Cup. That’s 33 years too long for me now. So that’s got to be our goal every year, that we want to compete for the Stanley Cup.
“We know there’s a 1-in-30 chance, or 1-in-31 now with Las Vegas. But the organization itself has been making the right moves.
“You’re here as a trustee of the team. Maybe a couple of you could name all the different owners of the Islanders. You certainly couldn’t name all the different owners in the history of the National Hockey League. But you remember the great players.
“We’re passing through. We’re the stewards. We’re the trustees. When I go to heaven I want to be remembered for doing everything he could to make us win on and off the ice. He focused on that fan experience and he made it a pleasure to come to an Islanders game. That’s what I’d like to see as my legacy and Scott’s legacy to the team.”