The Long Island Tragedy

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Who could leave this wonderland? Photo by Miguel Cepeda

New York Islanders owner Charles Wang used the words “heartbroken” and “disappointed” to describe his feelings on Monday.  His plan for a referendum to build a new arena for the Islanders was shot down by Nassau County voters.  Now without a home past 2015, the Islanders franchise is stuck in a bizarre combination of uncertainty and hopelessness.  Time is running out to build a new arena by the time the prior lease is up, but the Islanders have already been rejected by their own fan base.  After the choices made, I don’t see how the team and city could make up.

The Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum is notorious in sports for its small capacity, utter lack of charm, and cruddy tenants.  The Islanders have called the Coliseum home since 1972, and experienced huge success with four consecutive Stanley Cups in the early ’80s.  Things have not been nearly as great in Long Island since then.  The Islanders have not won a playoff series since 1993.  The building has not aged well.  It would be easy to blame ownership and management for such an extended period of futility, but the real culprit could be the Coliseum.

It’s pretty easy to see that players would balk at playing hockey in a concrete barn like the Coliseum, in a rough area like Uniondale, under the pressure of the Islander dynasty.  The current Islanders team lives in the shadow of the greatness of the great days of yore.  A new arena could usher in a new era for the team, instead of drawing out the old one.  The Islanders need to be reinvented, but they needed a little bit of money to make it happen.  But that shouldn’t have been a problem.  All they needed was some money from the county that has been their home for years.  Nassau County loves its Islanders!

I guess not.  The referendum that would have lent the Islanders $400 million to build a new arena by 2015 was shot down.  56% of voters flat-out said no.  Higher taxes could be the culprit (Nassau residents already pay an average property tax bill of $11,500, almost the highest in the country), but the vote seems like a knee-jerk reaction.

Can Uniondale continue to rake in money without the Islanders (Nassau County is the 11th richest county in the country, according to Forbes)?  How could the money have been better spent?  Will the jobs fly out of Long Island if its only sports team does?   Voters probably saw the unfairness of higher taxes.  The worst projections had Nassau residents paying an extra $58 a year on taxes if the referendum passed.  Wang has maintained that there would be no tax hikes if the referendum was passed.  Maybe the vote was held in the wrong county at the wrong time.  Despite the massive income for Nassau County, the county hasn’t been able to balance the books: Nassau County’s finances were taken over by New York State oversight earlier this year for that reason.

My biggest question in this debacle is the community’s devotion to the Islanders.  Charles Wang explicitly stated that the franchise would honor its lease to the Coliseum until 2015.  It’s going to be an awkward 4 years.  The fans that your team is supposed to represent on the ice left their job or house on a Monday, paid for gas, stood in line, and voted against your right to exist in their town.  As a player, how could you not look in disgust at the fans in the stands?  Nassau County has spoken, and they have said that they don’t want you around.  If I was Wang, I would get the heck out of that place as soon as possible.  There has to be a city with a serviceable arena, a rabid fan base, and a willingness to stick by their team through thick and thin.  Nassau County’s voters decided they don’t need their Islanders, but let’s see how life is for them after their team ships off.

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