The Hockey Maven: Don't sleep on Brooklyn
New arena offers an intriguing option for Islanders if Nassau County isnít part of their future
by Stan Fischler/Columnist
The New York Islanders will play an exhibition game at Barclays Center, the new arena in Brooklyn, on Tuesday, Oct. 2.
That, my fine feathered friends, is the question. Or, to put it another way, should a big deal be made about a game from which a win does not even produce two points in the standings?
And the answer is …
Truth be told, nobody really knows. And in this case, ignorance produces blissful speculation that often is so far off base it hardly merits discussion so let's examine the exhibition match for what it's worth:
* What Charles Wang wants: A former Newsday reporter, who has followed the Isles’ pursuit of a new arena, puts it this way: "No owner in the history of sports has been so badly treated by his home county and his surrounding town than Wang. Charles has spent a fortune to keep his team in Uniondale and has gotten no respect, no satisfaction, nothing in return from Long Island politicians."
The man is right and I speak firsthand, having covered the club's pursuit of a new facility for almost two decades. Over the years, Nassau County politicians merely talk about helping the Islanders while Kate Murray, who runs the Town of Hempstead, has deposited endless roadblocks in front of Wang's attempt to build a Lighthouse development, including a new arena, on her turf.
Without question, the Islanders owner wants his club to remain precisely where it is.
"I live on Long Island and I love Long Island," says Wang, with the utmost sincerity, and his words are precisely true. But there's just so much frustration that even a wealthy executive can tolerate and Wang has been doing a lot of tolerating for a long time. Too long.
Bottom line: If the City of Newark could generously fund what emerged as the magnificent Prudential Center for the Devils, Wang has reason to wonder why the County of Nassau -- with the help of New York State and, perhaps, private investors -- cannot do likewise for his Islanders.
* What the fans want: Despite a number of setback years, the Islanders maintain one of the most loyal fan bases in the NHL. Given a playoff-bound team, these fans – in wealthy Nassau and Suffolk Counties – will fill Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum or any new arena erected in Uniondale because they've done so in the past.
Supporters of the hockey club do not want it to move anywhere; not to Belmont Race Track, not to Aqueduct and not to Brooklyn either because they've been coming to the Coliseum for 40 straight years and they happen to want their favorite team to remain exactly where it is now -- preferably, of course, with a new building.
* What Barclays Center wants: Nobody is quite sure whether the arena on Flatbush Avenue in downtown Brooklyn will be a success or a white elephant. The baseball Dodgers left Brooklyn for a reason and, since the Borough of Kings never has had a major arena, there's really no guarantee that fans will flock to it, especially since its primary tenant will be the NBA’s New Jersey Nets.
"Brooklyn is an untapped hockey market that offers the Islanders an exciting opportunity to grow its fans base," says Barclays Center CEO Brett Yormark.
Of course, Yormark would want a second tenant in his arena, but when it was re-blueprinted by a second architect, Barclays was designed for basketball and not hockey. As a result, its seating capacity is 14,500, which clearly is below the NHL standard. Major -- very expensive and extensive -- renovations would be necessary to accommodate a major league hockey team for a regular season's play.
One exhibition game is another -- simpler -- story.
* What Garth Snow wants: The Islanders general manager knows full well that his boss must explore all options as long as Wang is getting no encouragement from the Nassau nabobs. And that explains why Snow displayed overt joy over the exhibition game at Barclays.
"We're extremely excited to play the first NHL game in the new, state-of-the-art Barclays Center," the GM said at the time of the announcement. "We already have some of the most passionate fans in the league supporting our young team, and we are looking forward to expanding our base into Brooklyn."
For Wang-Snow, Brooklyn remains a viable option -- an ace in the hole -- if all Nassau plans fail to jell. The Islanders’ lease at the Coliseum ends in 2015 and in the months -- starting right now -- up until then, you can bet that investors will be working behind the scenes to make something happen on the very attractive land around the present barn.
Early in February, several top Long Island real estate executives declared their interest in developing property surrounding the Coliseum. The property includes 77 very ripe acres and the Association for a Better Long Island endorsed county executive Edward Mangano's intention to seek new ideas for the site. And that could include a new arena.
As for the proposed exhibition game itself, let's get realistic before we get too futuristic. As prize-winning sports business columnist Even Weiner puts it, there's a tendency to exaggerate the importance of the Oct. 2 Islanders-Devils contest.
“One day and night in Brooklyn won't be the ultimate deciding factor in Wang's search for a new arena," says Weiner, "but Brooklyn is like manna from heaven. It's a huge gift of leverage for a sports owner looking for a shiny new arena."
* What The Maven believes will happen: My expectation -- call it a hope -- is that the movers and shakers among Nassau's politicians will wise up in time to realize that the county needs its only major league sports team. And, furthermore, Long Island needs a new state of the art building not only for hockey but concerts, the circus and all the other noteworthy events that now visit the Coliseum.
Somehow, I believe – hope -- that the arena that Charles Wang and his Islanders so richly deserve will be built to keep the club in Uniondale where it belongs.
How good is too good?
One of the most amazing contradictions in Rangerville is the team's lofty standing in relation to fans’ anxiety about maintaining such positive momentum.
With the Blueshirts for months at the top of their division, the club's supporters still have a worry -- that the club is "peaking too soon."
There is a certain legitimacy to that argument.
Hitting a hot stride at the very end of the season often has been a catalyst for a Cup win. For example, in 1938, the Blackhawks finished the regular season under .500, yet took Lord Stanley's mug. Ditto for the Maple Leafs in 1949.
The Maven says not to worry, even if GM Glen Sather makes no moves before the trade deadline. This is a deep roster armed with arguably the best one-two goalie combination in the league -- Henrik Lundqvist and Martin Biron.
What remains to be seen is what effect the trade deadline has on Rangers futures. An eleventh-hour deal -- see Butch Goring 1980, enabling the Isles to win a championship -- could seal the Cup deal for the Blueshirts.
With or without such a move, John Tortorella's troops have proven with consistent wins over Boston and Philadelphia that they can beat the best.
Bonus points from duo
At the start of the season, you could have passed off the name Adam Henrique for a waiter at Hobby's Deli, the famed eatery down the block from Prudential Center in Newark, but certainly not an aspiring star.
In fact, Henrique didn't even start the season with Peter DeBoer's outfit; he paid a visit to Albany, the Devils farm team in the American Hockey League.
So, who's got the last laugh now?
When the early-season sidelining of Travis Zajac and Jacob Josefson, an SOS went out to Albany. After all, the Devils had been robbed of their two top centers and, as a result, Henrique was summoned to The Show and promptly shoved on to the club's top line alongside Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk.
To say that the rookie fit in as snug as a bug in a rug would be the understatement of the Devils’ wacky year, but the Brantford, Ont., native has not only danced with the stars, he’s become a fixture.
After 46 games, Henrique shared the NHL's rookie scoring lead with Edmonton's more highly-touted Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. With 14 goals and 21 assists for 35 points, he has qualified -- at least in the homestretch -- as a Calder Trophy candidate.
An equally pleasant surprise has been the goal surplus gathered by right wing David Clarkson. A season ago, the Devils’ unofficial disturber played all 82 games, totaling a dozen goals and six assists for a paltry 18 points.
This year -- wow! Through 54 games, Clarkson boasted 21 goals and nine assists for 30 points. That thrust him into a goal-scoring tie with Parise and only one red light behind Kovalchuk.
Sooooo … how come?
"It's a lot of things," explains Clarkson. "For starters, I'm playing a lot more. The team is playing better and a lot of times when you're on the ice more, you get more chances."
Plus, he played junior hockey for DeBoer, who has pressed all the right Clarkson buttons.
"David is similar now to the way he played for me in juniors,” said DeBoer. “He was a guy who everybody in the building knew when he was on the ice; the fans and the other team. He draws attention to himself and also is a big-game scorer. He's found a way in overtimes, in the playoffs to rise to the occasion and score."
LOOKING BACK AT BROOKLYN'S FIRST SHOT
Once upon a time there was an NHL team called the Brooklyn Americans; in the 1941-1942 season, to be exact. Curiously the team never played a game in Brooklyn because home ice was Madison Square Garden.
Well, the Amerks, as they were called, had been the first New York team in the NHL, arriving in 1925, one full year ahead of the Rangers. But unlike the Blueshirts, the Americans never won a Stanley Cup and, by the outbreak of World War II, had become the sad-sack team of big-league hockey.
Hall of Fame defenseman Mervyn (Red) Dutton, who ran the Amerks, got the bright idea of building a new arena for his club in downtown Brooklyn, but wartime shortages prohibited the use of steel for anything but essential services. As a stopgap, Dutton -- prior to 1941-42 -- changed the team name from New York to Brooklyn Americans while still calling MSG home.
Red's next move was to have every one of his players to move to Flatbush in Brooklyn. Meanwhile his team practiced at the Brooklyn Ice Palace on Atlantic Avenue, between Nostrand and Bedford Avenues; not far from where Dutton had hoped to build his arena. A Rangers farm team, the Brooklyn Crescents of the Eastern League, also called the Ice Palace home. Legendary coach Fred Shero and later Rangers captain Don (Bones) Raleigh played for the Crescents.
Alas, Dutton's dream of an NHL-sized Brooklyn arena never materialized. By the summer of 1942, wartime inductions had reduced the Americans’ roster so drastically that the team was forced to fold for the duration but when the war ended in 1945, Dutton never was able to muster votes from the league's Board of Governors to win a return and his Brooklyn arena plans disappeared like smoke rings from Red's cigarettes.