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Islanders on thin ice: Old arena, weak play

RICK DiPIETRO, 2001-12 | 315 games played |

RICK DiPIETRO, 2001-12 | 315 games played | 130-133-36 T/OTL
Like it or not, the truth is that Rick DiPietro is the closest the Islanders have come to a franchise goalie since Billy Smith. Drafted first overall in 2000 and given a 15-year, $67.5 million contract in 2006, he's had a bumpy ride to say the least. He has been successful at times -- he was 32-19-9 with a .919 save percentage as the Islanders made the playoffs in 2006-07 and was an All-Star in 2007-08. But since a hip injury suffered during the skills competition of the '08 All-Star Game, he has been a disappointment, playing in 34 games since. He has also won only two playoff games in 10 years. Credit: Jim McIsaac

At Islanders home games this season, fans look around Nassau Coliseum at thousands of empty seats. The team is losing millions of dollars, and the arena is an aging hulk whose best years are behind it.

To many fans, the team's best years are behind it, too.

The franchise that won four consecutive Stanley Cups in the early 1980s and captured the imagination of Long Island now struggles to live up to its storied past. The team hasn't won a playoff series since the 1992-'93 season. And hanging over these issues is what a team official calls "the big gorilla in the room": Where will the Islanders play in four years when the franchise's Coliseum lease expires?

"The best place for the Islanders is on Long Island. It's my home," said Charles Wang, the team's billionaire owner who bought the Islanders a decade ago at the urging of prominent local politicians, including former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato. "At the same time, we must remember that the team must be economically viable as a business for the long term."

Wang has spent more than $200 million of his own money to cover the team's losses and millions more planning and promoting his Lighthouse Project - a mixed-use development he wanted to build around a new sports arena. To many, the success of the Lighthouse Project went hand in hand with the team's fortunes.

Today, the project is all but dead with Hempstead Town, where officials objected to its density, size and scale. The town's dramatically scaled-down vision for the property was, in turn, rejected by Wang as economically unfeasible, and today the Coliseum is considered so decrepit that at least one top player turned down the Islanders to play for another franchise for less money.Longtime fans see little that is promising on the horizon.

"We were asked that day 10 years ago what the big thing was about Wang buying the team, and we said, 'Hope,' " said Art Feeney, 70, of Seaford, who has been a season-ticket holder since 1972, the team's first season. "But there's no hope now." Feeney said that after this year, he will give up his tickets.

 

Wins hard to come by

The Islanders began the first part of the season with a league-worst 5-18-5 record. With a winning streak last month, the team improved to 14-22-7 after yesterday's 5-3 home win over Buffalo. Getting the Eastern Conference's last playoff spot remains a long shot. Average home attendance has fallen to below 9,900, easily ranking as the lowest in the NHL this past decade. The arena seats about 16,000.

The Islanders say their season-ticket holder base is down 800 from about 6,500 last season. Interviews show that some won't renew.

"For me, I'm done," said Barry Rosen, 56, a Plainview resident whose family was original season-ticket holders. He said he feels like the team chased him out of the Coliseum.

This season, the Islanders suffered through a stretch in which they lost 20 of 21 games. That skid cost coach Scott Gordon his job. Jack Capuano, formerly the coach of the Islanders' American Hockey League affiliate in Bridgeport, Conn., also owned by Wang, now acts as the Islanders' interim coach.

"Coming into this season, I thought we had one of the best defensive units in our conference," said general manager Garth Snow. "Unfortunately, we haven't had the opportunity to see the team that we assembled."

Despite the losses and injuries to key players, Snow said he remains committed to a rebuilding plan centered around developing young players. The team recently traded two of its best and highest-paid veterans - defenseman James Wisniewski and goalie Dwayne Roloson - for future draft picks and a minor league prospect.

Financially, the team's numbers are bleak.

In April 2009, Wang allowed a Newsday reporter to view the Islanders' audited financial reports, which showed that he had spent $208.8 million to keep the Islanders afloat during his first nine years of ownership. That was after he spent $74.2 million to buy the team and assumed $97 million in liabilities. (Wang purchased the team in 2000 with a partner, Sanjay Kumar, whom he bought out in 2004.)

"Charles continues to contribute cash to fund the continuing losses," said Art McCarthy, who as Islanders alternate governor handles the team's finances. "When cash is required, he puts it in."

 

'Sizable' amount spent

McCarthy declined to say how much cash Wang has contributed over the past two years, but described it as "sizable."

Forbes magazine values the Islanders at $151 million, and estimates that the team is running a yearly $4.5-million operating loss. If Wang were to sell at that price, he would not come close to covering his purchase price and investments in the team.

The Islanders did not fill the team president and amateur scouting director positions, choosing to disperse their responsibilities among other staff, sources say. And instead of buying time on a local radio station, they struck a deal this season with neighboring Hofstra University to have its students broadcast Islanders games on the college's station. Despite poor attendance, ticket prices increased in several sections of the Coliseum this season.

"It seems pretty apparent from the outside that what he's trying to do, given that he doesn't have much of a revenue-generating machine, is to live at the bottom of the NHL heap and try not to invest money in the club," said Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economics professor at Smith College in Massachusetts.

Meanwhile, the Islanders are working to encourage corporate sponsorship renewals. Bethpage Federal Credit Union, for instance, recently renewed for two years instead of its typical single-year deal - in part because of the pricing the Islanders offered.

"We're partners in good times and bad," said Linda Armyn, the credit union's senior vice president for corporate development.

As the debate over the team's future goes on, it continues to play in one of professional sports' most antiquated arenas.

Team executives say Wang spent $250,000 last summer renovating the home locker room, adding amenities such as a player lounge with leather couches, a flat-screen television, a kitchen and a sauna. Although the Islanders consider such upgrades long overdue, Snow likened them to "putting lipstick on a pig."

Snow said Wang has been willing to pay top free agents to play for the Islanders, to no avail. Persuading established players to commit long term to a team with an aging home and no set future beyond 2015 has proved to be difficult, he said.

Last July, for example, free-agent defenseman Paul Martin signed with Pittsburgh for $25 million over five years, declining an Islanders offer worth about $1 million more a year - with another year guaranteed.

"He didn't see the Nassau Coliseum as a great place to play," agent Ben Hankinson said, explaining his client's decision.

Fans see the Coliseum as a symbol of their problems.

"The team is about the future," said season-ticket holder Dominick Regina. "But we don't know where they are going to be in the future."

Wang's Lighthouse Project was supposed to include a new arena, and fans backed his quest to build a $3.8-billion development on the land surrounding Coliseum. They attended rallies, marches, Hempstead Town Board meetings and zoning hearings. They wanted Wang to succeed, believing if he did, then so would the Islanders.

 

Little enthusiasm by town

As Islanders fans rallied behind Wang's vision, many town residents showed little enthusiasm for his proposal to build high-rise towers and commercial buildings on the open space around the Coliseum. They cited worries about traffic and congestion, among other issues. Town officials also expressed caution about the size and appropriateness of the proposal. The sentiment of many officials was that it was just too big.

Town Supervisor Kate Murray, while saying she too wanted the Islanders to stay on Long Island, supported a dramatically scaled-down vision for the site when the town released its own study on the property.

Now, Wang's discussions with the town have ended, the Lighthouse website is gone, its personnel have been reassigned, and all references to it removed from the Coliseum's outside walls and scoreboard. Lighthouse partner Scott Rechler returned his interests in the team and the Long Island Marriott next to the Coliseum back to Wang. In recent months, some Nassau officials have expressed hope that an Indian casino can be wooed to the site and built in record time to help the county's financial future.

Wang, in a Newsday interview, said he hopes to find a solution that would keep the team here.

"Given the circumstances, given the constraints, we're still doing the best we can," he said. "I love the sport. I'm identified with the team. I poured a lot of resources into it, and I will continue to do that to make it the best I can. Am I going to get it right every time? No. But do we have a plan? Yes."

While he said in a radio interview late last month that the team is not for sale, Wang hasn't ruled out moving the team, several sources familiar with the team say. Both Suffolk County officials and Mets chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon, who has discussed Citi Field's parking lot as a potential site for a new home for the team, have expressed interest.

Merrick resident and Islanders season-ticket holder Steve Lester, an attorney for the Hempstead Town Board's Democratic caucus, said he'll renew his tickets but has little hope for an Islanders future in Nassau County.

"My instinct," he said, "is that they'll leave."

For Art Feeney and his son, Kevin, 37, who have been going to games since Kevin was a child, deciding to give up their tickets is the end of an era.

"The thought of it is sad," said Kevin Feeney. "It's almost like losing a family member. This is going to sound bad, but these last few years, it's been like watching a family member die."

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