[Eureka! It feels like it's been a whole off-season, but the Islanders actually resume play tonight. Isles-Thrashers Lottery War thoughts will come later. First, the fourth and final installment of All-Star Break "Islanders Essential Questions," about the biggest issues facing the club. Parts 1 (Trade deadline theory), 2 (Scott Gordon's overspeed) and 3 (Summer roster moves) can be found, well, at those links. What follows is the theory and synthesis of observations from an innocent bystander. Objections are welcome.]
The Islanders are not moving. Kansas City is being played, like so many cities before it. The Lighthouse Project will happen. The only gap between now and that near-certainty is how much more money Charles Wang loses before it all goes through, and whether an ugly political poker game escalates enough to truly endanger the whole thing -- which is about so, so much more than a hockey team.
Rumors of franchise moves - and conflict between sports fan and politician - make for good news theater. That is why in recent weeks we saw the surreal contrast of Newsday -- "Long Island's newspaper" -- one day not running a single print story about that day's Islanders-Rangers game - yet just days later turning reporters out in ghoulish numbers to cover the Lighthouse Project and "rumors" of the club moving based on one transparent preseason game held in a vacant arena run by a desperate NHL power broker willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to showcase the vacant facility he promised he would fill with a team K.C. could call its own.
Sad to say, but this is how the sometimes seedy relationship between public relations and news media works. There are certain touchstones that trigger a mutual PR/media back-scratching orgy, and this scenario is one of them. Having worked in (and escaped from) one of the nerve centers of corporate PR, I sometimes take this for granted and forget that many people do not fully internalize just how that "third-party expert" (read: corporate shill placement) got his/her guest spot on their local TV news show.
(Future employer dislaimer: PR of course has its communication and market-efficiency benefits; but like other tenets of our capitalist democracy, it also has its victims.)
The other crazy thing? As Chris Botta has repeatedly pointed out, Charles Wang always insisted on taking the high road on this issue. Sure, he wanted to be the developer for the Coliseum land, and the county eventually selected him and Rexcorp. But as a (adopted) native son, he never wanted to play the dirty "we'll move" threat card that has extorted publicly funded stadiums out of so many sport-addicted populaces. Yet sadly, instead of taking this as a gesture of earnest for a local institution, his refusal to play hardball meant the project languished as a deflated political football as it had for the more short-sighted owners who came before him.
So now that Wang, or whoever authorized the Kansas City and Saskatoon leaks in concert with one another, has decided to amp up the pressure, we will go through the formulaic steps of this public dance. The current round of media poker seems aimed at ensuring timely public comment hearings once the required environmental review is completed (expected in as soon as 30-60 days).
In one sense, it is amusing to see pressure finally mounted on Kate Murray, who surely has other political goals. Yet in another sense she is still clean, as her public statements about the environmental review are founded in fact. (Her statements about offering to let Wang redevelop the Coliseum alone, however, are founded in a place far from fiscal reality.)
Interlude: If the Islanders did move, one could call it the fourth WHA-NHL franchise to vacate, since it was largely to stave off WHA competition that the NHL expanded to Nassau Coliseum in the first place.
That's not to say the Long Island market doesn't "deserve" its team, or that Kansas City or [insert free, open arena here] would be a better host. It's just to say that accidents of history put these teams in non-hockey-bible places in the first place, and it will take a massive accident of history to make them flush their TV deal away and move to a most uncertain market.
It has been 12 years since an NHL franchise relocated -- possibly because, of all the scurrying around in the great "Go South, Young Man" '90s, only two moves/expansions can be deemed unqualified successes: Both were to growing top-20 media markets (and, oddly, both were soon Stanley Cup champions -- though that is no guarantee for long-term success). In other words, not to Kansas City, bless its heart.
So this isn't an "Essential Question" in the same sense as the other questions raised on this blog this week. But there is an underlying question that should give comfort: If the environmental review finishes and the Town of Hempstead does not commence public comment in a timely manner, this will frustrate Wang and partners, oh yes -- but will it be enough to make them sell and leave? After he's waited this long, and lost this much money for what is partly a labor of love, would he give up the fight over one or two more years?
It will get emotional. There will be moments late in the night where you can imagine Wang really will give up and sell. The economy may even get worse and make holding on untenable. But so many intuitive signs point to this thing finally crossing the finish line, even though when the environmental review goes through, the ground-breaking will likely not happen by the original target of 2009's summer. That's not to deter fan activism -- not at all. But it will happen. Just be glad it's Wang's money -- not yours (not yet) -- that is being lost in the mean time.