Lighthouse Project PR by proxy in the NHL office

Before I get to a little tea leaves hallucinating on the Lighthouse Project: Michael Fornabaio has his Bridgeport Sound Tigers season wrap-up at ctpost.com, with thoughts on individual players from captain Mark Wotton and coach Jack Capuano. On the cutting-room floor, he has more quotes -- Jesse Joensuu on the "three-year plan," Joel Rechlicz on his season -- in his blog post. It's a firm reminder how injuries are a silent variable that clouds development and blurs our read on how well different players are progressing.

In the NHL: Holy cow was Nasvhille handed a gift-wrapped chance to win Game 5, and my oh my did they blow it. I was at a family party as that game played out, and I think I punched my brother in the arm every two minutes to look at the horror playing out in the third period and OT. From the 5-minute major to ice the game (ha!) to the shorthander that tied it and the ugly shift that resulted in the winner...unreal chain of events.

In keeping with the first round's pattern, I fully expect today's games to be unpredictable. Phoenix is currently pounding the Wings at Joe Louis Arena, naturally; the Kings and Canucks resume in the only other game tonight.

*  *  *

Now for a periodic Lighthouse Project briefing: The developers' radio silence has now consumed an entire season -- save for one very oddly staged intermission interview with Charles Wang -- but NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has taken on the lead spokesman's role for Wang and friends. Bettman appears to be in charge of: 1) Restating that the Islanders will look elsewhere if they don't get the answer they want from the Town of Hempstead, and 2) Using that pretty obvious conclusion, to the extent that it has any leverage, as a threat to the Town that no really, honest engine, they will lose their team and best hope for arena redevelopment if they don't play ball the way Wang wants it played.

Bettman's latest money quote:

"Hempstead hasn't done anything but elongate the process, and his [Wang's] attitude at this point is: 'I've done everything I can, and at some point they've got to come to me.' If not, he'll start looking at his options on Long Island first to see what he can do, but the club has to have a new arena."

That's from the Steve Zipay Newsday piece [sub.] from the weekend, prompted by "a discussion with sports editors from around the country in Manhattan." The piece also included the obligatory response from the Town (combative) and the County (trying to straddle the line). The disagreement hasn't really changed, and we haven't seen any progress -- or communication from the Lighthouse people. It is amusing that Hempstead's response complains that the other new sports venues in New York proper have been built without "construction of a mini-city on Hempstead Turnpike." (Um, you know what surrounds those venues, right?) Just another example of both sides talking over each other, with no trust and no apparent intention of compromise.

As Nick noted and interpreted at Let There be Light(house), the Project has now replaced its Web site with a placeholder and boilerplate message:

As the Lighthouse organization currently awaits Town of Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray's vision for the proposed site and the future of the New York Islanders, we would like to thank all of our supporters for their patience through this very long and excruciatingly painful process. Since 2003, the Lighthouse organization has invested over $19 million, produced over 10,000 pages of environmental documentation from top tier consultants, and presented at almost 220 community meetings. You would think this would be enough for the Town to decide on our project that will bring 75,000 jobs during the construction period, 19,000 permanent jobs and more than $71 million in annual tax revenue. We know these jobs and tax dollars are badly needed.

Thank you again for all your support and patience. We anxiously await Supervisor Murray's decision.

While the developers imply -- through silence and messages like the above -- that their season-long silence is because the Town hasn't moved, that silence obviously doesn't sit well with a lot of supporters.

I won't go into the history or the specifics of the entrenched disagreement here -- Nick did a very thorough job of that in his post. But there is so much mistrust, disagreement and lack of apparent desire to compromise among the two sides, it's hard to imagine this working out at the current site.

Through a PR Lens

But since I like to interpret the strategy behind PR moves -- heh, particularly the commissioner's -- this is how I read Bettman's latest volleys from an outsider's perspective, in terms of PR strategy (because make no mistake, these comments aren't issued just because a reporter happened to ask about it):

Wang wants to keep his version of the high ground (i.e. He's said for nearly a year that he's awaiting Murray "yes or no" -- a simplistic mantra, but alas -- and he's said since last fall that he's done fighting it out through the press). So with little for Wang to do under these conditions without breaking from his stance, the commissioner can do Wang's press drumbeating for him. And in fact, Bettman's words carry more weight at this point, because now it's not just one developer fighting for local PR leverage with his opponent, it's the league's official spokesperson signaling to media, fans, potential investors, and potential arena partners that the Islanders are looking for an alternative arrangement. It's sort of like a complaint carrying more weight when it comes from the CEO rather than from a junior VP.

As the commissioner and chief rep of all 30 NHL owners, Bettman -- who said he talked with Wang "recently" about it -- is only all too happy to take on that role.

Bottom Line

But in the end, this is all, still, just PR. It's managing the message. Bettman's quotes aren't really new, and he's re-iterated these points in multiple media forums before, including his radio show. Whether his language could ever amp up pressure on the Town is a longshot at this point, but it does at least signal to other important interests (you know, Queens, Brooklyn, banks, billionaires, the like) that league and club are glancing elsewhere.

Wang's not getting the approval that he wants, so it's either try to find compromise with the Town or move on. Each time Bettman carries this banner for him it's a little signal -- and threat -- that Wang is inching closer to the latter. As usual, we'll just have to sit and wait.

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