In February of 1991, Pat LaFontaine, the Islanders' best player, asked the only team he had played for in his NHL career to trade him. A team-initiated contract extension had gone terribly awry and LaFontaine wanted out. He played the rest of the season, but tensions continued to boil during the summer, eventually spilling over into a training camp hold out. By that time, captain Brent Sutter and his agent had also issued a trade request.
The stalemates soon reached the inevitable "it's not about the money" stage, but with an interesting wrinkle: both wanted the Islanders sold to a new owner.
Sutter wanted to play for a team that was committed to winning and wasn't constantly in financial limbo. LaFontaine felt that management had been disingenuous and miserly during an earlier contract renegotiation.
The twin trade demands of '91 weren't the only issues on the Islanders' agenda. They had missed the playoffs in three of the last four seasons (and made it one year with a less than .500 record). Nearly all of the dynasty team members had retired or left, with legends Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy exiting Long Island under some contentious circumstances. Nassau Coliseum, almost 20 years old at that point, was already looking very inadequate for an NHL team and general manager Bill Torrey was starting to beat the drums for a new arena.
What a difference a decade makes.
Ten years earlier, the same owner was as much an Islanders hero as Torrey, Al Arbour or any of the players. He straightened out a tangled rat's nest of legal turmoil, rallied investors, secured a new, important source of revenue and used his own fortune to keep the team on Long Island.
And now, he was less an owner and more of a ghost story.
Bill Shea knew the business side of sports. His plan to start a third professional baseball league resulted in the creation of two American League and two National League expansion teams, including the New York Mets who played in a stadium bearing his name. So, in 1978, when the general manager and new owner of the financially screwed New York Islanders met Shea at his Manhattan law office, the power broker gave the hockey guys a tip:
"If you want my advice," Shea suggested, "declare bankruptcy."
Thanks to the mismanagement of original owner Roy Boe, bankruptcy certainly seemed like the best course of action. Among a series of dubious decisions, Boe had been keeping his New York Nets of the ABA afloat by using revenues from the Islanders to cover the Nets' debts. Boe was sued by Islanders limited partner Thomas Thornton for his money juggling and was soon ousted as team president.
A judge tapped another limited partner named John O. Pickett to take over as general managing partner.
Pickett, a Texan by birth who initially bought into the Islanders for $100,000, was walking into a monetary minefield. Six years after their inception, the team still owed the NHL interest on their expansion fee, as well as interest on their territorial indemnity payment to the Rangers. They also had issued I.O.Us to 14 of their rivals and had "10 or 11" lawsuits in process against them. NHL commissioner John Ziegler had put a hold on the their transactions to prevent Boe from selling off any Islanders players the way he had pawned Julius "Dr. J" Erving to the Philadelphia 76ers to get the Nets into the NBA.
In total, Pickett was looking at a ludicrous $42 million hole before he even had a chance to print new business cards reading "Owner, New York Islanders hockey club."
But Pickett and Torrey decided against taking Shea's advice. Instead, they set about restructuring and resurrecting the Islanders' piggy bank. While Torrey kept the team humming and the players paid, Pickett worked on squaring the debts, sometimes out of his or his partners' own pockets. By the time the Islanders won their first Stanley Cup (May 24th, 1980 in case you forgot), the team's outstanding debt had been reduced to about $6.5 million and there was a lucrative new cable deal on the horizon ready to help pay it off.
That contract was with SportsChannel head Charles Dolan, who felt the Islanders were secure and stable enough to ante up even more of his own dough into the pot. Pickett and Dolan agreed to a purchase of 36 percent of the team, but the deal was blocked by several minority investors who accused Pickett of not giving them their full shares. They sued him and the deal fell through.
But the tide had turned. After years of being chased by creditors, now everybody wanted to step right up and greet the Islanders.
Without Pickett, the chances are very high that the impressive collection of talent Torrey, Arbour and their scouts had collected via the draft would have either been relocated to another market or dispersed around the NHL. After that first championship, when the entire franchise could finally exhale after years of playoff chokes and uncertainty, Pickett joked about his pivotal role in cleaning up Boe's mess.
"With that kind of money involved," he says now with a laugh, "the situation got my complete attention."
Unfortunately, once the team was on the road to recovery, Pickett's attention to the Islanders took a long, sun-soaked vacation.
Hold Outs and Holed Up
LaFontaine wasn't the first Islander to stage a hold out. In 1985, John Tonelli, the stalwart whirling dervish for the dynasty teams who had compiled a 100-point season in 1984-85, wanted a raise with a year left on his contract. Tonelli held out for most of training camp before signing a new three-year deal just prior to the start of the season. But his relationship with teammates and management had been damaged, and he was traded to Calgary for role players Rich Kromm and Steve Konroyd at the 1986 deadline.
Between these two contract impasses, Pickett had fully checked out of the day to day operations of the Islanders. Sometime in 1985, Pickett and his wife moved down to Palm Beach, Fla., where he had other business interests. Meanwhile, 1,200 miles away on Long Island, the Islanders dynasty was over and their identity, as well as their often punch-less lineup, was a question mark.
That same year, Pickett signed a lease between the Islanders, Nassau County and Spectacor Management Group, the company responsible for running Nassau Coliseum. The lease, to put it mildly, was a disaster for the Islanders, crippling the team's wallet by turning over all concessions and parking revenues, as well as 11 percent of the box office and third of the advertising, to Spectacor (now called SMG). Pickett wrongly assumed that money from merchandise, as well as the handful of luxury boxes, would be enough to sustain the team. He was dead wrong, and the lease continues to strangle the Islanders to this day.
LaFontaine was adamant that with Pickett signing the checks, the Islanders' money was no good as far as he was concerned. LaFontaine's agent Don Meehan went so far as labeling Pickett a crook as well as a deadbeat.
Meehan has charged that Pickett gets $12 million a season in cable television revenue but puts only $4 million of it back into the team. Both Torrey and Pickett have reacted with irritation to this charge, but neither has offered any specific rebuttal.
It's possible that the repeated, incessant and widely-circulated calls for Pickett's ouster were simply a negotiating tactic on the part of LaFontaine and Meehan. But when team leaders like Sutter and goalie Glenn Healy started openly criticizing Pickett, an already strong case was mounting.
A few weeks after LaFontaine's initial trade request, Pickett officially announced that the team was indeed for sale. Reports had the asking price being between $50 million and $100 million, almost twice the going rate for an expansion team. Although the Islanders weren't exactly in mint condition, Pickett was supremely confident that a buyer would be found quickly.
By now, Pickett was a full-time Floridian. He even publicly stated a desire to buy into an NHL expansion franchise closer to his home, despite the almost complete disintegration of the team he currently owned.
Nine months after the announcement and with the 1991-92 season underway, no sale was completed. Without LaFontaine at center ice, the Islanders were losing and the natives were getting even more restless than usual. On October 26, 1991, Torrey swung two huge, game-resetting deals, sending LaFontaine, winger Randy Wood and defenseman Randy Hillier to Buffalo for youngsters Pierre Turgeon, Benoit Hogue, Dave McLlwain and Uwe Krupp, and shipping Sutter and forward Brad Lauer to Chicago for center Adam Creighton and winger Steve Thomas.
That Torrey was able to make chicken salad out of the chickenshit situation is a testament to his genius, even at this stage of his career. All of the incoming players played pivotal roles in the Islanders' surprising run to the Prince of Wales Conference finals in 1993. But while the Islanders on the ice were younger and potentially better than they had been before the trades, the moves did nothing to sort out the mess behind the scenes.
It took seven years for John Pickett to finally, completely divest himself from the New York Islanders. By contrast, it took 19 days to complete the Louisiana Purchase.
After a year on the market, Pickett sold minority interest in the team to four local businessmen. The group -- which would come to be known by the Chester Gould-ian moniker "The Gang of Four" -- were season ticket-holders and fans that had been given managerial control after making a loan to the team. While everyone was happy with having current Long Islanders in charge of the club, that satisfaction masked the true underlying roadblocks keeping the team from being sold outright.
Pickett, who repeatedly trumpeted the dozens of suitors he had knocking on Nassau Coliseum's doors, was asking at least $75 million for his struggling team and would not budge, despite not finding any takers.
"I wouldn't take a dime less," he said.
A few months later, Pickett had a deal in place with Charles Dolan, who had not given up his pursuit of the Islanders and wanted to build his cable entertainment empire around them. On August 18, 1992, the sale of 99 percent of the team to Cablevision was announced and Pickett and Torrey were dismissed from their roles. Don Maloney took over as general manager, the Gang of Four still controlled the front office, and a new day seemed to be dawning on Uniondale.
Give Pickett at least a little credit. He knew very well how the separation had affected his team and, by extension, its fanbase, telling Newsday:
"Here I was, the owner of the team and I live in Florida. I didn't know anybody in the community, didn't know the businesses we were dealing with. We never had to sell tickets before. It was a no-brainer. And then, all of a sudden, we had to go out and sell a product and we had no idea what we were dealing with, what we had to do to sell it, and it hurt us."
But after a full calendar year, the deal still had not been consummated and Dolan walked away empty handed (all the way to Manhattan). The Gang of Four did make their piece official, buying 10 percent of the team in 1994 by converting their previous loan to equity. Pickett may have wanted out, but he was still in charge of the team and keeping a tight reign on the payroll. And with four guys at the ground level making decisions, his absenteeism and apathy could grow even deeper.
More than three years passed with neither a sale, movement on a new arena, nor a word from Pickett. A hockey team originally put up for sale in 1991 was still looking for a buyer in 1996. So much for "20 or 30" buyers and two live "Under New Management" announcements.
The "limbo" that so worried Brent Sutter had become the Islanders' reality. Pickett had no voice. The Gang of Four had no clue. Mike Milbury, elevated to GM after Maloney was sacked, had no patience. And the franchise, once the undisputed kings of the NHL, was constantly in a state of "will-they-or-won't-they." Will they move? Will they get a new arena? Will they pay this player? Will they trade him? Are they for sale?
Nobody had any answers. Tethered to two hefty commitments -- an iron-clad, iniquitous lease and a tantalizing but interminable TV contract -- and in a market that demanded a winner, the Islanders lumbered on slowly without direction, but with no way to stop, either.
In October of 1996, a buyer was finally found. The sense of relief from the players, the fans, the media, even Milbury, was palpable. Pickett would finally be cut loose. The era of the urban myth owner was over.
Two players, Derek King and Mick Vukota, said they never met Pickett, though they received annual Christmas cards. King has been with the Islanders since 1986-87, Vukota since 1987-88.
But if anyone thought John Pickett would finally walk away clean from the Islanders, they had another thing coming.
NEXT TIME ON LAW & OWNERS SPECIAL ISLANDERS UNIT: The Final, Fraudulent, Farcical Frontier!
Part Six of a series. Read the rest of the series here.
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