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As 2015 Looms, Charles Wang's Legacy Hangs in the Balance

The Buck Stops Here
The Buck Stops Here

It's been 12 years already since that fateful day when Charles Wang became the owner of the Islanders. In the 12 years before he bought the Islanders, they had gone through multiple owners.

John Pickett, majority owner for most of the glory years, allowed the "Gang of Four" to take over the team. When it became obvious that without Pickett's money (Pickett became a minority owner while living in Florida) the four couldn't run the team, he sold the team to John Spano.

Spano ended up being a fraud, and Pickett took back the team. He eventually sold the team to Howard Milstein and Steven Gluckstern. When they couldn't get out of the lease, they gutted the team payroll and even attempted to buy the Washington Redskins.

Then you have Charles Wang entering the scene and buying the team with Sanjay Kumar. Wang quickly endeared himself to Islander fans by giving Mike Milbury the open checkbook he had always craved. Even though he was finally given the financial ability to keep around talented youngsters, Milbury somehow managed to run the team even worse then he had when financially restrained. When Milbury was given the boot, the team band-aided their way through a few seasons before deciding on a rebuild.

In that time Wang has gone from being a hero to Islander fans to being one of the biggest villains. Everything that goes wrong seems to be blamed on him. The Islanders' late entry into the Ilya Kovalchuk UFA race with an alleged (by some) 10-year, $100 million dollar contract? Crazy Wang again, making another big mistake. Yet Lou Lamoriello makes a just as ridiculous a contract and is still considered a genius.

The team is under/near the cap floor? No one congratulates Garth Snow signing quality guys for long term undervalue deals. Instead it is Wang icing a team on the cheap. Wang is "cheating" the cap floor because of buyouts, but no one complains that Glen Sather is cheating the salary cap by hiding Wade Redden in the AHL. Even more amazing were those who voted No on August 1st, demanding that Wang pay for the new arena himself. Because I guess he never tried that...

It seems to be almost bi-weekly that Pat Lafontaine is rumored to be working with a new person (or group) to buy the Islanders. Nothing against the beloved former Islander, but if a third of the rumors about his ownership groups are true, he gets around the 1% like no one's business. The idea that someone will come in, keep the Islanders in Nassau and spend a ton of money on the team seems far-fetched. But keep that between you and me.

The 2015 Showdown

One of the surprising footnotes of the August 1st vote was the 30-year lease Wang agreed to, if the vote had passed. Given that Wang is 67 years old this year, he would have to live to 100 to see the end of the deal. To me at least, it appeared that Wang wanted to make sure that the team stayed on the Island well past his lifetime. Wang saved the team from possibly moving once, and it seemed like he wanted his long-term legacy to be the savior of the team on Long Island.

With the failure of the vote, 2015 looms large for Islander fans. The return of the Winnipeg Jets (by moving the former Thrashers) has really riled up Nordique Nation, especially since Quebec City is working towards building a new hockey arena. There is already a new hockey arena in Kansas City which needs a tenant. There are also rumblings in Seattle, where Paul Allen was once rumored in negotiations to buy the Islanders before Wang came along.

It's amazing that Wang seems to be dedicated to keeping the Islanders on Long Island. He has had to fight with the Town of Hempstead, a fight he lost. He went to the people of Nassau County to keep the one thing around that keeps them on the map, and he lost. He has pretty much been repudiated at every level possible when it comes to getting the team a new arena, and yet the only minor bad thing he said was that he regretted buying the team originally.

It's All About The Benjamins

There are those that believe Wang isn't going to sell the team until 2015, because the team will be worth more money then. But for someone that has already sunk a rumored $200 million+ into the team, it doesn't seem like money is a big issue for Wang. To make back the original $190 million and the money lost would require someone buying the team for almost $400 million. For comparison, Forbes currently values only three NHL teams above $400 million, the Leafs, Canadiens and Rangers. The Islanders meanwhile are currently valued at $149 million.

At the same time, Wang has spent his own money to repair and update Nassau Coliseum. From the recent locker room renovations, which were then spruced up again as the young players clamored for a locker room with more of them in it and less of the Dynasty's ghosts. What isn't said enough is that the Islanders don't currently own the Coliseum. They are just renters and the County is supposed to upkeep the Coliseum. The current lease even has notice of upgrades the county was supposed to make during the late '80s and early '90s that never got done.

These are not the moves that an owner makes when he's planing to sell the team in three years. Why sink more money into a facility that might not even be around? For that matter, why spend money on something that might be torn down soon? No one is going to make sure the locker room is in good condition before buying the team. Especially if the new owner is intent on moving the team anyway.

The Legacy

There's a saying "You can't take it with you" when it comes to your wealth. Yet Charles Wang seems like he might be looking to the future. He has gone above and beyond when it comes to promoting the sport internationally. Not only does he hold an annual international youth tournament at the Coliseum, but he also attempted to hold a training camp in China. The Asian market is relatively untapped right now by the NHL, but it is a market that both the MLB and NBA have tapped into for gratuitous amounts of money.

But even if in the long term Wang helps to start a new market for the NHL, his legacy will be judged on the Islanders. Amazingly, he seems to be the lowest rung of sports owners in the NYC area. How he is considered below the evil Dolan Empire and the Steinbrenner Show is questionable. Even the relatively inept Wilpons seem to be held in higher regard then Wang.

If the Islanders move out of Long Island and out of the NYC metro area, Wang will be remembered as a bungler who cost Long Island a team. Even though Long Islanders, and their politics, and the several self-interested owners who came before Wang, would have more to do with the team moving than everything else.

The year 2015 is more then just a team and an outdated arena. It is how Charles Wang is going to want to be perceived after this life. The story on him now is just a clueless bumbler who ruined a great team (ignoring the mess he bought into). But the fat lady hasn't sung yet, and with three years to go a lot of things can change. For Wang and for Islanders fans, hopefully the future is positive for both sides.