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In Lighthouse debate, what are Islanders worth?

Andy Sutton of the New York Islanders is

Andy Sutton of the New York Islanders is congratulated by teammates after scoring during the first period of a preseason game against the Los Angeles Kings at the Sprint Center in Kansas City. (September 22, 2009) Credit: Getty Images

There is no telling if the Islanders are really worth the $3.8 billion it apparently will take to keep them here, just as there is no telling what Long Island would be like if they left. Either way, people who have been down this road say you don't want to find out.

"We feel for you guys, totally," said Alan Victor, president of the Hartford Whalers booster club, a group that can attest that once a team leaves a small market, it's gone for good.

Victor can't believe there is opposition to the Lighthouse development plan at Nassau Coliseum, considering that the public is not being asked to pay for it. "If you put a decent building there, people are going to come back," Victor said on the phone from Hartford Tuesday, while Islanders owner Charles Wang was taking his lumps at a Town of Hempstead hearing on the massive development that is basically a Game 7 for the Islanders' future. Victor's group still is hurting over the fact that Whalers ownership moved the team to North Carolina in 1997.

In that vein, Wang has said he must get a definitive yea on his plan by a week from Saturday, or else.

"Else" had a better time than Wang did at the hearing during the day. He had the majority of support at night. After his supporters (many of them union construction workers desperate for jobs) finished giving him a standing ovation, the other side took the momentum. Village officials from Garden City made legitimate points about what the Lighthouse would do to existing businesses.

"I am not sure how we got to this point, where we need to build 5.5 million square feet of new development in the backyard of local villages and surrounding areas to keep the Islanders on Long Island," one official said. Another called the Lighthouse an "over-thought, over-planned, oversized boondoggle."

I gave that round to the opposition. Then Hempstead Town council members peppered Wang's traffic expert so thoroughly that he looked like beleaguered goalie Yann Danis last season when all of the Islanders' top defensemen were out with injuries.

It was a far cry from the Aug. 4 hearing at the same site, Hofstra's playhouse, when the crowd and the speakers list seemed like they had the home-ice advantage.

Wang did show a slightly revised video Tuesday, a tour de force that spanned Bobby Nystrom's Cup-winning goal to John Tavares getting drafted. Wang finished by telling the board, portentously, "this is a defining moment."

And it is defining the Islanders. There is much more to the Lighthouse project than the hockey team, but Wang had made it all about the Islanders last year, when he scheduled an exhibition game in Kansas City. Hint, hint.

Worried fans took up his cause and finally gave Wang impetus. But opponents turned it around Tuesday, hours before that game in Kansas City, when they essentially asked, "We're doing all of this just to save this team?"

So are the Islanders worth all the fuss?

Hard to say. From this peanut stand, it seems like you have to ask, what's the harm, as long as Wang and his partner, Scott Rechler, are going to pay for the thing?

"If they have to go somewhere, send them up here," Victor said from Hartford. "I've always been a closet Islanders fan. Even when they first came into the league, they could be down 5-1 with two minutes left, but they would still play like it was the first minute of the game."

Oddly, Hartford is one of the few places that hasn't been leaked as a potential landing spot for the Islanders. Personally, I'm a little skeptical of reports about a move to Brooklyn, considering that plans for the Nets arena there, released in June, did not include room for a rink.

Still, Hartford's lesson is that a place just isn't the same once it is a former big-league town. How would Long Island look without the Islanders? Would the public really care?

We don't want to find out.

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