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Isles ownership changed, but dreams of a better arena did not

New York Islanders owner Charles Wang at a

New York Islanders owner Charles Wang at a 2011 news conference about Nassau Coliseum. Credit: Howard Schnapp

The last time the Islanders introduced a pair of new owners, Charles Wang and Sanjay Kumar spoke optimistically about their vision of one day renovating -- or even replacing -- that antiquated barn called Nassau Coliseum.

It was April 2000 and that message from the new owners, while no doubt appreciated by Islanders fans, came as no surprise to anyone. The same words were said by previous owners and team executives on other days of promise.

With this team and this home arena, there never was any doubt about the overwhelming challenge facing the owner:

Find a way to upgrade the team's home arena on Hempstead Turnpike, and surely that would go a long way toward fixing the depressed revenue structure that's been an issue for all but a handful of years of the team's existence.

That always sounded good in theory. Former owners such as John Pickett, Howard Milstein and, yes, even John Spano, said as much. But making it happen proved to be quite difficult.

"We love it when people say it's impossible," Wang said on April 26, 2000, the day of their introductory news conference. "That's what drives us. Just watch us.''

In the course of Wang's 14 years as Islanders owner -- he bought out Kumar in 2004 -- he went rounds with politicians from Nassau County and the Town of Hempstead. But the road never led to where he trying to go. Finally, he had enough.

Two years ago this month, Wang decided it was time to give up the longtime fight of Islanders owners and announced plans to move the Islanders to Brooklyn starting next season.

"When you have a good alternative,'' he said then, "at some point you take the alternative.''

In August, Wang reached an agreement to sell a minority stake in the team to a pair of businessmen who will assume majority control of the team in two years. They are Manhattan investor Jonathan Ledecky, a former co-owner of the Washington Capitals, and Scott Malkin, who owns upscale shopping centers across Europe. Wang will remain a minority owner.

In some ways, the news that the Islanders were only moving a train ride away might have been a relief. If any fan base knows uncertainty from off-the-ice issues, it's this group.

Consider that before the Islanders truly made their mark on the ice, the team's first owner, Roy Boe, fell into financial woes. This was the late 1970s, and Boe was accused of using money from the Islanders to fund his other professional sports team, the Nets of the NBA and formerly the ABA.

With the Islanders facing more than $20 million in debt and a bevy of lawsuits because of missed payments, there was talk as early as 1978 that their days on the Island were numbered. Boe had no choice but to sell the team.

Pickett, a private investor who was an Islanders minority owner from the early 1970s, came to the team's rescue. He purchased the team from Boe and organized its finances. Before long, all the focus was on the Islanders' championship run of the early 1980s.

As exciting and momentous as the four straight Stanley Cups were, their afterglow was relatively short-lived. Pickett left Long Island for Florida in the 1980s and lost interest in the team. Once ticket prices were raised, fans lost interest, too. The end of an era was near.

"In sports, it doesn't make sense to own a franchise if you can't go to the games,'' Pickett said in 1991. By then he had announced plans to put the team up for sale, assuring Long Islanders that his goal was to find local owners.

That didn't happen, so Pickett did what he thought was the next-best thing. He gave four Long Island businessmen -- Jerry Grossman, Steve Walsh, Bob Rosenthal and Ralph Palleschi -- managing control of the organization in 1992 in exchange for a $10-million minority share. That foursome would come to be known as the "Gang of Four.''

But finances and the aging Coliseum remained a dark cloud over the franchise, and Pickett was looking to get out.

Enter Spano, a 32-year-old who fancied himself a rich businessman -- so rich that his bid for the team in 1996 beat out Mets co-owner Nelson Doubleday. Islanders fans know all too well what happened next. Spano failed to pay, was arrested in July 1997 and admitted in January 1998 that he lied to get an $80-million loan to finance the purchase of the Islanders.

By then Pickett had found another duo to sell to: insurance broker Steven Gluckstern and real estate developer Howard Milstein.

When the sale closed on Feb. 25, 1998, the public address announcer at the Coliseum announced the news, saying the new owners planned to bring "a fifth Stanley Cup'' to Long Island.

"The Islanders need a more modern facility,'' Milstein said on his first official day as Islanders owner. "In order to be competitive in today's hockey world . . . you have to be able to afford to pay for talent. In order to afford to pay for the talent, you do need other- revenue kinds of opportunities that cannot be afforded in this current venue.''

But hope was lost quickly. Once Milstein and Gluckstern were in control, they saw the road to a new arena was much more bumpy and congested than they had envisioned. So after only 25 months as Islanders owners, they wanted out, and in April 2000, they sold the Islanders to Wang and Kumar.

And the cycle of Islanders owners dreaming about a better home on Long Island started all over again.

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