clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Law & Owners Special Islanders Unit: John Spano

In the professional sports system, there are two types of owners: those who do underhanded, immoral and illegal things to win at all costs and those who get caught. Throughout their history, the New York Islanders have had more than their share of the latter. These are their stories. DUN-DUN!

"Then tell us what really happened." - Asst. District Attorney for the State of New York Serena Southerlyn
"Then tell us what really happened." - Asst. District Attorney for the State of New York Serena Southerlyn

John Spano could only have happened to the Islanders.

They were the perfect mark. Only a team desperately in need of a new direction and a new home and with a fanbase that had been beaten down by years of absentee ownership and losing could be this much of a sucker. All it took was a young guy, just 33 at the time, with big ideas, an intense passion for hockey and, more importantly, a ton of dough to spend.

After 18 years of signing checks (and doing little else for about the last 10), Islanders owner John Pickett was ready to sell. He had come close before - nearly turning his 99 percent of the team over to Cablevision founder Charles Dolan - but the complex deal was never finalized. Now he had taken a liking to a millionaire who was sure to meet his specific asking price and would be the right new owner for his faded team.

John Spano was none of these things. What he really was eventually came out in an exhaustive, multi-writer investigative report by Newsday, which blew every lid off of every lie he told. Spano was a native New Yorker who grew up mainly in middle-class Ohio. As a kid, he was known to friends as two things: a story teller and a big Islanders fan. Even then, he was weaving tales of rich relatives and waiting inheritances that he would use later to build the opulent fantasy life he wanted.

Having established a leasing business and high-living persona in Dallas, Spano made his first attempt to buy into the NHL in 1995, working with Stars owner Norm Green to purchase half of the team. Green and Spano announced the agreement prematurely and months of negotiations with him earned Green and Stars president Jim Lites nothing but headaches:

The initial plan was for Spano to buy 50 percent of the Stars for $42 million. The deal was supposed to close within a week of the announcement. One week slipped by, Lites recalls. Then another. And another.

Suddenly, Lites says, Spano began nitpicking minor budget items, questioning team structure, and challenging even the smallest executive decisions. "Our negotiations amounted to seven months of silliness," Lites says. "John Spano jacked us around like you wouldn't believe. Up until September, everything he had done was strictly according to Hoyle. And then, suddenly, he couldn't--or wouldn't--close the deal."

Green eventually bailed on the deal when it became apparent that Spano simply wasn't going to fork over any actual money.

Spano next poked around buying the Florida Panthers from original owner and videotape enthusiast Wayne Huizenga, with the sale contingent upon getting the team a new arena. But Huizenga suddenly didn't need Spano when the Panthers' magical rat-fueled run to the 1996 Stanley Cup finals helped net them an agreement on a new stadium in Sunrise.

Despite striking out twice, Spano's name was in the potential owner mix and he seemed like the perfect person to straighten out Pickett and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's problem child on Long Island.

Trust in Spano was built on layers of bogus paperwork and window dressing seen through rose-colored lenses. Spano claimed to be worth $230 million thanks to a trust set up by a very wealthy relative. He used a series of letters - from a vice president at Comerica Bank named Joseph Lynch, from a Clive Jones at British bank Lloyd's of London and from a Dallas lawyer named T. McCullogh Strother, the trustee of Spano's inheritance - to verify his wealth.

To people looking for a winner, these documents seemed legit. They were enough to not only secure Spano an $80 million loan from Fleet Bank, but to give assurances to Pickett, Bettman and anyone else that his money was as solid.

Beyond the paper, Spano's words, accessories and associations gave off the impression that he was a real player. He had a private plane, a spacious house in a tony Dallas suburb and all the latest big boy toys - and he would be happy to tell you how much he paid for each. He was also business and golfing buddies with famous athletes like Cowboys great Roger Staubach and noted Islanders-killer Mario Lemieux.

Spano's personality, described as "dour" and "nervous," didn't seem to befit a man of such extraordinary means. Books Cracked Ice by Stan Fischler and Fishsticks by Alan Hahn and Peter Botte contain some highly entertaining and flat-out bizarre examples of Spano's off-putting behavior, such as asking media members for tickets to games and letting various cronies and collaborators do his talking for him at curious times. Quirks aside, there was simply no reason not to trust him.

Master of the House

On October 10, 1996, the New York Post reported that Spano had reached an agreement with Pickett to buy the Islanders. The price would be $165 million: $85 million for the team and $80 for the television contract with Cablevision.

To Pickett, who for years had steadfastly refused to sell his threadbare team because no buyer would agree to his $75 million asking price, this was his ship coming in. He was as giddy as the fans who had taken to chanting "Help Us, Spano!" at the Coliseum. At a press conference about a month later, Spano was introduced as the team's new owner.

The pictures from the event of a smiling Spano holding up a wavy-gravy late-90's Islanders jersey will forever live in infamy.

Problem is, Spano hadn't actually bought anything. He and the Islanders were simply announcing his intention to buy the club and the closing wouldn't be until April. In the intervening months, Spano would act every inch the team owner, taking in games with friends, business associates and celebrities from his luxury box, flying on private jets, hosting media members in limousine-chauffeured lunches and holding court at parties in the Garden City Hotel.

But it wasn't just about throwing somebody else's cash around. Spano also got to work on making some real changes around the club. A friendship with Denis Potvin resulted in Spano offering him the position of team president, a title the former Islanders captain relished. Meetings with Nassau County were held to discuss building a new arena, with Spano brandishing blue prints and big plans for an extensive $180 million entertainment complex (and with a business partner of his getting first crack at the development rights). Spano also signed a Dolan-friendly extension to the contract with Cablevision through 2030.

Spano even concocted a strategy to bring one of that summer's marquee free agents to Long Island. With Colorado super duo Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg both up for new contracts, Spano wanted to use the NHL's rules for restricted free agents to snag either one of the All Stars for his new club.

Spano's plan was to attempt to sign both players to lucrative above market deals that summer, forcing the cash-strapped Avalanche to decide which player they'd retain by matching the Islanders' offer. [1]

The NHL's Board of Governors approved the sale of the Islanders on January 24th, 1997. At the closing on April 7th, Spano came through with $80 million thanks to a loan from Fleet Bank. The other $85 million was promised to Pickett in a series of installments. Pickett, finally seeing the light at the end of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and eager to wash his hands of the team, took Spano at his word and handed over the keys to the franchise.

But the real ordeal was just starting.

Things Get Weird

Three months later in June, Pickett sent a scorching letter to Bettman alerting him that Spano had yet to make any of the required payments. Not only had Spano not paid, but he used a litany of colorful excuses and convenient "mistakes" to keep Pickett at bay.

A check for $17 million bounced. A wire transfer to make up for it lost a few decimal points and showed up as $1,700. Same with a $5 million wire that arrived as only $5,000. Another check was stopped by Spano, who blamed the Irish Republican Army, his wife's chemotherapy treatments, mobsters and a bomb threat in London for other held up payments.

According to Pickett's letter, only $26,200 of the $85 million had been paid after the closing. And when this leaked to the press, the can of worms was blasted open. Suddenly, everything was under scrutiny and nothing washed. The entire transaction was a jumble of rushed decisions, half-assed pencil pushing and Spano's lies.

Lynch and Strother claimed they had not verified Spano's information before attesting to his fortune (Lynch later admitted to taking bribes from Spano). Fleet didn't see anything out of the ordinary with those verifications, did no inspecting of their own, and just handed Spano a check for $80 million. Lloyd's of London said it had no employees by the name of "Clive Jones." A few documents allegedly faxed from Comerica were actually sent from the machine at Spano's leasing office and would be admitted into evidence as clear forgeries.

The most infamous ball was dropped by the NHL, who paid between $500 and $750 to a former FBI agent to run a background check on the guy that was supposed to save a one-time crown jewel franchise.

Even Spano's home life, expertly exhumed by Newsday, was full of holes. The beautiful house in Dallas had a $1.9 million mortgage and bills amounting to $85,000 in back taxes and penalties. The cars and private plane were leased. The trust fund, the inheritance and the wealthy relatives didn't exist. He owed millions to "good friends" Lemieux and Staubach. His trips and parties were all charged to the Islanders.

And you thought Marty Reasoner was a waste of money...

Spano had essentially run a type of Ponzi scheme in which one flimsy deal would finance another flimsy deal and so on for years. When someone came calling for money, he'd get it either from another deal or a get a loan and pay enough to keep his pursuers quiet or buy himself more time. But when attempting something as conspicuous as buying an NHL team, the entire house of cards could only stand for so long. The mind reels at what could have happened if Spano had completed his purchase of the club.

To be an Islanders fan at this time was surreal. For a few months, the team's future looks just dandy. You're choosing between a Sakic or a Forsberg blue-and-orange jersey and dreaming of a new Nassau Coliseum. But as more and more time passed, you wondered what was going on with the sale. In the summer, the bottom falls out, and you're scrambling to get any and all information you can. There are rumors and reports and he said/he said. You're not even sure if you'll have a team in October.

Pickett and Spano engaged in a press war, with the latter insisting that he had everything perfectly under control. In an open letter published in Newsday, Spano cast himself as a fellow fan just trying to live his dream. He billed the full-page add to the Islanders.

After months of confusion, the end played out fairly quickly throughout July of 1997. On the 11th, Bettman stripped Spano of ownership and awarded the Islanders back to Pickett, who no doubt had his Godfather III moment. On the 17th, the feds charged Spano with bank and wire fraud, and were at his doorstep in Dallas to arrest him on the 21st. But Spano wasn't home. He was in the Caymen Islands, "withdrawing funds" for the Islanders from an off-shore account. Finally, on the 23rd, Spano returned to Long Island to turn himself in.

In a post-blow-up, pre-trial interview with the The New York Times' Robert Lipsyte, Spano's contrition sounded about as sincere as his financial statements.

"The worst moment, I think, was when Mike Milbury called me up and blasted me: 'How could you do this?'" Spano said referring to the Islanders' general manager and former coach. "He never gave me a chance to explain. Sure I made mistakes but I didn't betray him. That broke my heart."[8]

Party's Over

Spano's trial lasted longer than his ownership of the Islanders. In January of 2000, he was sentenced to six years in prison on four counts of fraud. Spano originally pleaded not guilty but accepted a deal to plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence. He was ordered to pay $12 million in restitution to some of the parties he hoodwinked including the Islanders, Lemieux and Staubach.

Pickett negotiated with Fleet Bank to pay back the loan Spano had used as a down payment. But his Number One priority was digging up yet another buyer for his unwanted club. He found some in Winnipeg Jets owner Steven Gluckstern and his business partner Howard Milstein, two guys who would scorch so much earth in such a short time that they would make The Spano Job seem like The Sting by comparison.

Spano was released from jail in August of 2004. He was arrested again in February of the following year for another scam operation, this time for defrauding businesses out of money they paid him to arrange loans and lease equipment. He was released from that sentence in 2009.

This primer isn't the first time someone has summarized what went down at Nassau Coliseum between the Fall of 1996 and Summer of 1997. In addition to the many books and magazine articles, you'll soon hear the story from Spano himself in his own ESPN 30-for-30 documentary called "Big Shot" and directed by Unhappily Ever After star and Islanders mega-fan Kevin Connolly.

That Spano and the Islanders were tailor-made for each other has nothing to do with curses or bad luck or old burial grounds. It's because of confidence. Spano sold it to everyone associated with the Islanders, who desperately hoped that he would be the guy to save the team. From the die-hards to the lapsed fans who had given up years ago all the way up the money chain to Gary Bettman. The losing, the embarrassments, the unfilled seats, the tumble from the top of the mountain to the bottom of the barrel. Enough was enough.

Everyone saw what they wanted to see until the only thing left was an empty briefcase.

* * *

White Knights, Black Hearts (or "Why do this?")

Two frequently seen comments in the previous entries in this series have been, "Why would you torture yourself like this?" and "I guess Wang's not so bad after all." I'm happy to report that my mental state is fine and that this exercise has been a fun education. I lived through six of the seven periods documented, but had no memories of some incidents and incomplete memories of others.

I only knew the late Pickett period and none of the Boe era and wanted to see for myself if a remark by commenter JPinVA about the Islanders always having terrible owners was true. I found that it was, and yet, it wasn't.

As for Charles Wang, most people made up their minds about him a long time ago, and anything short of a second dynasty probably won't change them. Whether you like Wang or loathe him or don't care either way, he has managed to solve one puzzle that has bedeviled and befuddled half of the subjects in the series. The Islanders' move to Brooklyn finally untied the Gordian Knot that tethered them to an inadequate arena in a county that didn't want them anymore. The solution may have taken 12 years of ugly politics, and not everyone likes the final result but the Islanders will remain in New York, which seemed very much up in the air for far too many years.

Wang is very much in step with his predecessors at Nassau Coliseum. All of the men that have owned (or almost owned) the Islanders have shared one notable trait: they each rode into Uniondale as white knights with trumpets blaring and were eventually fitted for black hats and, should the situation dictate, handcuffs.

What I think this says is that the value of the franchise - and its history and connection with the community - is as high as the difficulty of making big-time sports work in the suburbs is. That these men, mostly successful in other businesses, would try to make a go of taking on the Islanders speaks to the potential profits to be found on Long Island. If they didn't think they'd make money there, they wouldn't have done it.

But it also says that sports ownership is not for the weak. Not everything has a price. Not every contract can be bought out or broken. And not every threat will result in capitulation, no matter how grave.

Today's Islanders are almost at square one, working their way back into the everyday sports conversation in New York. Too many seasons have gone by without strong support from the top, derailing any traction the team ever gained. New York demands winners and those who do not will be shuffled to the bottom of the deck.

There's still time for Wang to break the "in like a lion, out like a thief" pattern. Or maybe he sells the team tomorrow and someone else breaks the pattern. Or a new owner keeps it going for another generation.

Ownership upheaval is as much a part of Islanders' history as the four Stanley Cups. But so is a fanbase that, no matter how bad things get, will always hope that the next game (or player or owner) is the one that changes everything.


The seventh and final part of a series. Read the rest of the series here.

Reporting cited in this article:

1. Fishsticks: The Fall and Rise of the New York Islanders by Alan Hahn and Peter Botte, Sports Publishing LLC, 2002
2. Cracked Ice: An Insider's Look at the NHL by Stan Fischler, Master's Press, 1999
4. "Islanders Ex-Owner Sentenced" by Robert E. Kessler, Newsday, January 29, 2000
6. "In Spano's Own Words" by Ford Fessenden, John Valenti and John Riley, Newsday
7. "Field of Dreams" by Ford Fessenden, John Riley, John Valenti and Eden Laikin, written by Riley, Newsday, 1997
8. "Spano Reflects on Deal Gon Awry; but there's a Bright Side" by Robert Lipsyte, The New York Times, October 5, 1997