A low-revenue team with dwindling attendance and run on the cheap could see a key player walk away as a free agent after the season. Islanders fans know the scenario very well. But those conditions may have started earlier than most people might expect.
In 1981, the Islanders were the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions. They had finished first in the NHL that season with a 48-18-14 record. Mike Bossy scored 68 goals and Bryan Trottier, Clark Gillies, Bob Bourne and Anders Kallur all had over 30 goals apiece.
And yet under the hood, all was not running smoothly and columnist David Fink of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was on the case.
On May 30th, 1981, Fink wrote the Islanders are simply too cash-poor, under-supported and disadvantaged to continue their run of titles, stating that, "the team that has won back-to-back Stanley Cups has a financial base that is much too weak to absorb the high price of success."
The Islanders are considered second class (some say third class) tenants in their home building, and their rental agreement with Nassau Coliseum is said to be shabby enough to prove it. In short, the Islanders lease is apparently so unfavorable that they must reach the Stanley Cup finals to make a profit.
Fink was also keeping an eye on the Islanders' disappointing attendance figures in which the people of Long Island had grown bored with the team's rampant success.
That aspect of their financial plight isn't helped by the fact that, despite winning the regular season title in two of the past three seasons and despite reaching the Stanley Cup semifinals six times in the past seven years, the Islanders seldom sell out the 15,008 seat arena during the regular season.
The good news for the Islanders is that their contract with their cable broadcast partner is keeping them afloat. Wait. What year is this from again?
Meanwhile, they are still paying off the heavy debts (at least $5 million, but probably $9-10 million) left behind by the franchise's previous owner, Roy Boe. Without a solid cable-TV contract, they would already be hard-pressed to prevent their bank ledgers from becoming awash in red ink.
Despite having the best team in the league two years running, the Islanders front office had to get by on less money than most teams could spend.
With such financial pressures confronting them daily, it is not hard to understand why the Islanders are reputed to be the tightest team in the NHL with a buck. So far, General Manager Bill Torrey and Coach Al Arbour have been able to overcome these oppressive financials and produce consistently outstanding teams. But now the Islanders penny-pinching ways seem likely to catch up with them.
The real focus of Fink's article is that the skinflint, destitute Stanley Cup champion Islanders could end up losing one of their key pieces over money. Bob Bourne was about to hit free agency and could demand more than the Islanders were willing to pay. Not only could Bourne walk away, but Torrey's decision would impact the futures of Bossy, Trottier and Denis Potvin in the near future
On most clubs he would be considered an excellent investment and immediately showered with a lucrative long-term contract. But the Islanders aren't most clubs, and most clubs won't be faced with the expensive task of signing superstars like Bossy and Denis Potvin as well as such valuable players as Mike McEwen, John Tonelli, Anders Kallur, Bob Nystrom and Garry Howatt a year from now.
And there's the rub. Should Torrey trade Bourne for draft choices and, in the process, save some money that will be badly needed next year? Or should he sign Bourne as a good-faith gesture for the future?
Before you go shooting Fink any long overdue hate mail, you might want to stand down. The point of bringing this up isn't to troll a guy over a 30-year-old article, but to take a detailed look at a gilded age.
Both the team's lease with Nassau Coliseum and their cable contract are still relevant today, although the former will come to an end at the conclusion of this season, allowing them to move to Brooklyn. Money from Cablevision has been the Islanders' only consistent form of revenue for decades, through even the most dark and shunned times in their history.
The negotiations with Bourne weren't a secret back then either, with multiple teams - including the Penguins - contemplating signing the speedy winger. Eventually, Bourne returned to the Islanders on a five-year, $1 million contract. Yes, you read that correctly.
But it is surprising to see issues that recent fans are very familiar with be discussed during a time we assume the Islanders were on top of the world. While the players were crushing the competition, Torrey and then-owner John Pickett were collecting change from between the seats at Coliseum and keeping all the pieces together.
The Islanders' run of Stanley Cups would last two more seasons and came within one series of a third. Pickett's run as the Islanders benefactor wouldn't last much longer than that. Torrey would leave the Islanders in 1992 after 20 years as GM.
David Fink is the sports copy editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he no doubt became very familiar with the complex financial problems of occasionally great NHL teams.