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Wang's Lighthouse deadline passes, script of mistrust continues

Charles Wang's self-imposed Oct. 3 "deadline" for a definitive answer on the Lighthouse project has passed, and the rhetoric has escalated from both sides. Why? In a word, mistrust.

It is maddening and hearbreaking, when a solution appears so achievable.

But at this point, it's all about the mistrust: High-stakes negotiation between partners is ideally part-compromise, part-game of chicken. But once two parties do not trust each other, it becomes very difficult for either to believe the other is even capable of compromise -- and the sneaking suspicion that the other side actually desires mutually assured destruction creeps in.

(For a hockey world example, see Boston Bruins v. Phil Kessel. Or earlier, see New York Islanders v. Pat LaFontaine, player. And for the most epic hockey parallel, see NHL v. NHLPA 1994 and 2004.)

Mutual mistrust is why parties turn to the outside (fans, media, politicians) to influence the other side in ways that one-to-one negotiations have failed to do. It's why this whole Lighthouse saga has been littered with predictable political move after predictable political move. It's unseemly, yet almost necessary when neither side thinks it's possible to expose its back without getting stabbed, with a Newsday or Long Island Business Journal article often being the knife.

The details of each player's inner motivation is between he (or she) and their conscience, but we can bet (hope?) that each would at minimum desire smart development of the land and a renovated venue worth going to. Whether Nassau County ever receives that depends on whether the mistrust barrier recedes for long enough to get things done. Despite political carnage, such recession has actually happened previously during this complex project to take it to this point.

But I really believe it's mistrust that has long fueled each sideways step: It's why we had Wang's deadline (which the Town of Hempstead, cheeky as they are, are right to call a hockey date rather than a government date). And in turn we had Murray's late call to arrange a meeting, followed by a call to the press. Then we had Wang and Tom Suozzi's anger at Murray turning to the press with that call. (Don't disrupt my publicity moment with one of your own!)  Which is why we have NHL commissioner Gary Bettman doing his well-timed cameos, the latest being even stronger language about possible relocation.

(Superficially, that move looks stunning: "Whoa! Bettman won't even relocate the miserable Coyotes to a lucrative market, yet he's willing to let the storied Islanders leave New York?!" Realistically, though, Bettman's step is all part of the game. In Phoenix, his priority is to protect the league's right to control its destiny while protecting the owners from a "partner" they don't want. On Long Island, his priority is to get approval for a building that will keep the team there ... even if the step is to, as with Pittsburgh, act like the team might really move.)

Honestly, none of these steps surprise me -- going all the way back to the hearing tit-for-tats and the alternating pleas to media last spring. I'm literally no more worried today than I was a week before the "deadline" passed. I've no crystal ball on how this cluster will finally end (even bets on it being too sensible to fail, as well as bets on TOH politics being too backward for it to succeed), but I do have conviction on this: Every public step has been rooted in mistrust of the other side:

"Why would you call at 4 o’clock the day before the deadline and go right to the press? It’s kind of emblematic of this entire process, that it’s more about game playing."

>>Nassau county executive Tom Suozzi.

Why, indeed. Except: Sure, the call and timing were clearly calculated, just as it's reasonable to think (despite denials) that the Town intentionally scheduled the Sept. 22 zoning hearing to coincide with the preseason game in Kansas City, stealing part of Wang's thunder.

But: Each was a chip played in reaction to Wang's own chips: scheduling the K.C. game to begin with, and declaring a deadline that coincided with the home opener, when the project's most fervent supporters would be gathered in Nassau Coliseum for the "went to a hockey game and a press conference broke out" moment.

And of course, Wang didn't start publicly playing these chips until he came to the conclusion, or to a deepening sense, that the Town of Hempstead board might have never wanted a deal anyway.

But the time for negotiation has passed, according to one side (Wang) after years and months of frustration. Meanwhile, the other side has often left reason for one to wonder whether the real desire was to negotiate the project into oblivion.

Will cooler heads prevail? I don't know. Maybe the political escalation backfires, maybe it again ramps up enough pressure to bring about compromise.

But if it all falls through, we'll know it was because sometimes things that absolutely should happen -- the 2004-05 NHL season, for example -- fall through not because they don't make sense, but because mistrust in the negotiating process poisoned the well until it was too late.