Toronto calls itself "The Center of the Hockey Universe" and it takes that role very seriously. About as seriously as the church took the earth as the center of the universe when they locked up Galileo almost 400 years ago.
So it's no great surprise that Damien Cox of the Toronto Star and Sportsnet just seemed to forget that the Islanders are playing their final season at Nassau Coliseum. He's puzzled that the Islanders aren't a bigger concern. Why has this historic season not cracked the list of today's major hockey stories such as "Does Phil Kessel smile enough?" and "Does P.K. Subban smile too much?"
I mean, it's not like the Islanders are doing anything special to commemorate this season or anything.
On Friday, Cox took on the topic of the Incredible Disappearing Islanders as a public service to his readers who may also not have noticed what's going on on Long Island.
Unfortunately, a lot of what Cox wrote was odd, antiquated or just flat out wrong. Fortunately for me, I was finally able to do an article examination in the style of the late, great Fire Joe Morgan.
Let's dive in.
So much noise these days surrounds possible NHL expansion to Las Vegas, not to mention the potential relocation of the Florida Panthers, not to mention the next step in the never-ending saga of the Arizona Coyotes as they continue to wander in the desert.
Much of the noise Cox is hearing comes from other Canadian media members rubbing their hands and cackling in glee at the failure of hockey in the American Sun Belt. How many games will they let a Vegas team lose before they declare it a boondoggle and demand it be moved to Casino Rama?
Make no mistake about it - the NHL is a stable league, as stable as it's been since, well, probably since it decided to grow from a six-team league. But there are some franchise uncertainties, and there are constant discussions and rumours about teams on the move and expansion.
Obligatory "Original Six" mention.
Which makes the quiet (shhhhhh!) relocation of the New York Islanders that much stranger.
Quiet, of course, lies in the ears of the beholder, or something like that. In Uniondale and Suffolk County, home of most Islander fans, this is anything but quiet. Their favourite team, which hasn't won a playoff series since 1993, is finally looking like a team to be taken seriously again, but is leaving the suburbs next season for gentrifying Brooklyn.
Upset and angry would probably describe most of them. Frustrated, too.
In fairness to Cox, most of this is true (we'll get to the Suffolk part a little later). The Islanders' move isn't quiet to those of us who have lived and breathed this team since forever. This year, the Islanders are indeed good on the ice. And the move does conjure multiple emotions, including anger and frustration in many people.
He should have stopped here.
If there's a comparable situation in NHL history, it would be that of the Quebec Nordiques, who were horrible for years and then, just as all those draft picks or the players acquired for those draft picks started maturing, they bundled up their goods and headed to Denver.
But there was a lot of noise about that, as there was surrounding the move of the Winnipeg Jets to Phoenix. Even the relocation/dismemberment of the Minnesota North Stars - half the team became San Jose Sharks, the other have became Stars in Dallas - was both controversial and hotly debated.
The move to Brooklyn isn't anything like any of those situations. First of all, let's relax on the late era Nordiques/early Avalanche comparisons for now. The Islanders have had a very good three months. If they sweep their way to their first championship in a long time, we'll revisit the notion.
There are almost 2,000 miles between Quebec City and Denver and 1,900 between Winnipeg and Phoenix. Uniondale and Brooklyn are separated by about 25 miles, give or take. Keith made some handy maps here and here to illustrate this.
Relocating a good team an hour away isn't remotely comparable to moving a good team from Northeast Canada to the Rocky Mountain region of the United States. I know Long Island Railroad tickets can be expensive, but they're a hell of a lot cheaper than a flight from Jean Lesage International Airport in Quebec to Denver International.
A dispersal draft would be hotly debated, were it happening. It isn't. The Islanders are moving two boroughs over, not breaking up and merging with the Columbus Blue Jackets. I don't even know why Cox brings this up.
The Islanders to Brooklyn? Not so much, by comparison. It's just kind of happening. Nothing like Jim Balsillie's blustery attempt to move Phoenix to Hamilton, or the collapse of the Atlanta Thrashers and subsequent shift to Manitoba.
It's almost like Gary Bettman has said so many times he doesn't like relocating franchises that he's cleverly convinced the hockey world the Islanders aren't moving, but merely moving neighbourhoods. Or going to a new arena just around the corner so close the Islander fans will follow them (of course!) and be happier for it.
Which is sort of true. Truthy, as Stephen Colbert might say.
So, the Islanders' move is like the Nordiques moving to Denver (nope), the North Stars/Sharks dispersal draft (no again) but it isn't like Balsille jumping the gun on moving a team he doesn't own to Hamilton (true) nor is it like the the Thrashers moving to Winnipeg (except it kind of is).
The NHL could not find local ownership in Atlanta that wanted to touch the Thrashers with a ten foot pole. Enter Mark Chipman with money and an arena in Winnipeg and - boom - the Jets fly again.
Bettman has said for nearly his entire time in office that the Islanders could not continue to exist without a new arena. His drive to keep the team on Long Island (the commissioner's homeland, incidentally) contributed to him allowing crook John Spano and trio of pigs Steven Gluckstern and the Milstein brothers to buy the Islanders under the belief that they would work with Nassau County on a new coliseum. Bettman struck out both times. That led to swing No. 3, Charles Wang, who engaged in a 15-year game of political football with various elected leaders of Nassau and the Town of Hempstead that Wang ultimately lost.
Where Cox was when this was going on is unknown. I'm assuming it was the Air Canada Centre.
And, once again, the difference is 25 miles. In terms of where they could have been had things turned out differently, that might as well be around the corner.
I don't pretend to understand New York and it's boroughs, and how they relate, and how those boroughs interact as part of or separate from Long Island.
Yet here you are.
But Brooklyn sure isn't Uniondale, and while the Long Island Railroad may be able to haul fans from Suffolk County to the Islanders' new rink at the Barclays Centre, it'll be as convenient as living in downtown Ottawa and driving to see the Senators in Kanata.
Cox is correct. Brooklyn isn't Uniondale. Uniondale's burning desire to not become as dense as Brooklyn is a large factor in their rejecting of The Lighthouse Project..
But to pretend that Barclays is any less convenient to get to than Nassau Coliseum is ludicrous. The Coliseum is one of the least accessible arenas in North American sport. There are two roads in - the Meadowbrook Parkway and Hempstead Turnpike. That's it. Getting out means sitting in traffic for 20-30 minutes depending on volume. Bus service there is a sad joke. There are no trains nearby. There are no subways beyond Jamaica, Queens.
The most convenient way to get to Nassau Coliseum is to rent a room at the adjacent Marriott, take the elevator to the ground floor, and walk about 100 feet. This is what athletes and sportswriters have been doing for decades
since the Nets opened the place in 1971.
By comparison, Barclays Center is built atop the Atlantic Avenue subway station and has five lines running into at all times and four more on other schedules. There are six bus lines that stop at the door. The Long Island Railroad goes directly there from the Babylon and Hempstead stations, a change made specifically for Islanders games.
It's definitely a trip from Suffolk County. But so is getting to Nassau Coliseum from New York City, Brooklyn, Queens, Connecticut or New Jersey. And that's without the aid of the LIRR.
Also, I don't think "Suffolk County" here means what Cox thinks it means. There are many, many Islanders fans in Suffolk, Long Island's easternmost county. But I'm willing to bet the vast majority of spectators still come from Nassau, which is where the Coliseum actually is. It's in the name and everything. So while Suffolk residents aren't exactly helped by the move, they are only one demographic. Cox seems to think they're the only demographic.
Whether this will be good for the Islanders or the NHL, well, we'll see. They'll be tenants at Barclays just as they were tenants at the Nassau County Coliseum from 1972 until now. They say revenues will be enhanced, and the expectation is that fans will want to see the Isles and John Tavares play in greater numbers than the average of 14,126 fans (27th in the NHL) that see them now, down from 14,740 last season.
That's well up, however, from the 11,059 average in the 2010-11 season (30th overall), and it sure seems clear Islander fans were slowly warming up to a team that has missed the playoffs seven out of the last nine years but has both accumulated a horde of young players and - listen up, Oiler management - developed them patiently through their Bridgeport farm affiliate.
Revenues are guaranteed to increase for the Islanders after the move because they will be paid by Barclays Center to play there.
This is a little different from their lease agreement with Nassau and the Coliseum's management company, SMG, who take the lion's share of parking and concession money. Those two entities have had a lockdown on the Islanders' finances going back to the dynasty years. Until just a few years ago, when the Islanders renegotiated the lease, the county and SMG received all of the parking and concession money. The team gets revenue from luxury box sales, merchandise, most (but not all) ticket sales and their broadcast contract with Cablevision, the only consistent source of revenue they've had for three decades.
In other words, the Islanders will go from bleeding money under a Cablevision Band-aid to getting paid just for showing up.
As for attendance, here's a secret about New Yorkers: they like winners (except for the Knicks, for some reason). There are too many things to do and not enough money to flush away on a losing team on a Tuesday night in January. If the Islanders win consistently, people will come to games. If they don't, Barclays Center will be as empty as any other place.
This isn't Toronto, where fans pack the arena no matter what just to watch the home team march towards another inevitably quick exit. Sweet dig at the Oilers, though. High five!
But owner Charles Wang could never get his Lighthouse Project off the ground, and instead decided Brooklyn would be his team's new home while at the same time he sold most of it for $485 million (he bought it in 2000 for $130 million) to a pair of businessmen who will become majority owners of the team in its second year in Flatbush.
The Isles have a lease at Barclays, which is owned by Nets majority owner Mikhail Prokhorov and minority owner Bruce Ratner. Oddly enough, Ratner is spearheading a $229-million renovation of the rink in Uniondale, and says he has a deal that will see the Isles play there six times a season.
The Lighthouse Project was a failure. It was too too expansive and too radical for the provincial politicians of Hempstead, who still think of Long Island as the quiet hamlet retreat of WWII soldiers and their families. Even the private financing Wang promised wasn't enough to sway them to his side. Wang "decided" to move the Islanders to Brooklyn after haggling with the County for years and with no other options available in the area.
He can't build an arena if he doesn't have the land. He can't have the land without the go-ahead from the town. He can't get the go-ahead if he builds anything other than another standalone arena (much like the one Ratner is trying to build). With just an arena, the team makes less money in the future than Wang is happy with. And after spending 15 years with the same crappy landlord, he wanted a new set-up.
To focus on the Lighthouse Project diminishes all the years in which no solution was presented. Wang's not a likeable guy, and is often too stubborn for his own good. But he got further than anyone has against the wall of apathy and incompetence put up by Nassau for years. The last gasp referendum wasn't a rejection of Wang, as Cox had written at the time. The people of Nassau, taxed out their collective wazoos, were unwilling to pay any more, as anyone would be. And for their efforts, their taxes will be raised anyway once the Islanders leave.
This is a convoluted business, and former Islander great Clark Gillies mused a little while ago about maybe the Isles moving back to Uniondale one day.
Sorry, Jethro. I don't see it happening. The people in charge dragged their feet for years while the team, rudderless and terrible, made it easy for them to sweep the issue under the rug. Much like writers like Cox have done.
The decision-makers of Nassau are perfectly happy to live without the Islanders.
Relocations, needless to say, have been part of the Bettman administration's time in office. Maybe the Nords and Jets moved too easily, and the commish made up for that by holding a hard line in Edmonton, in Phoenix, in Nashville.
When they've happened, they've been dramatic and usually traumatic.
But not with the Islanders, at least not to anyone out of Suffolk County. A team that joined the league with Atlanta and saw teams come and go in that southern city not once but twice while they held fast finally was ripped from its moorings.
In October of 2012, Bettman, Wang, Ratner and then New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg called a surprise press conference to announce the Islanders would be moving to Barclays Center at the conclusion of their lease with Nassau Coliseum.
In the succeeding two years, Islanders fans and the rest of the hockey world have had plenty of time to get used to the idea of the Islanders playing in Brooklyn. Cox must have missed all the hipster hockey jokes that have been flying around since then.
The Islanders played two pre-season games at Barclays that they themselves called "dress rehearsals." This isn't something the Islanders just announced on a Friday evening last week like one of the Department of Player Safety's sneaky suspensions.
Even before the official announcement, we - the fans that followed this team long after they were abandoned by Canadian hockey media - knew that something had to give. The Islanders couldn't play at the Coliseum as it is presently constructed forever and the 2015 lease closing date loomed. Once the Barclays Center was complete, the possibility of the Islanders moving there became greater and greater until it was finally reality.
This is absolutely traumatic for a certain and often vocal segment of the fanbase. Spend enough time with enough Islanders fans and you're bound to hear vows of never seeing a game again. And, for those of us that are excited for the move, vows like that certainly come off as dramatic.
Damien Cox hasn't spent any time with Islanders fans. At least, not for this story. If he did, he would know where they stand because within seconds they will bring it up. It's kind of a huge deal.
I would say the same thing to Cox that I say to fans opposing the move: the only thing stopping you from seeing the Islanders play at Barclays Center are your own hang-ups and dogma. The means are there. The team is there. The time and money are there, the same way fans from outside of Nassau have found time and money to go to games for decades.
The Islanders have been "ripped from their moorings" and moved to another marina an hour away. The longest distance in this transfer is measured in attitude, not miles.
The Isles became famous in the early 1990s, but have mostly just been sad this century. Until now, that is, and now they'll soon be Islanders no more, at least not the same Islanders.
(Note: this has since been corrected to say, 1980's. Still funny, though.)
Quietly, hockey history is being written, and a hockey town is being left behind.
Writers like Damien Cox left the Islanders behind a long time ago. The franchise is only of use when talking heads can call them a "tire fire" on a national trade deadline show. Or when they want to lament the loss of one of the NHL's last old barns and tie it back to the ancient history they know so well.
But for those of us on the ground level, the last thing the Islanders move is quiet. It factors into everything the team does everyday. Newsday has written more about the Islanders this season than they have since the 2002 playoffs. Fans are coming from all over to take in one last game at the Coliseum. I know because I'm one of them and we hear more from others everyday. That they're winning this season makes the sweet part of "bittersweet" all the more flavorful.
After every game, the Islanders players have remarked about how loud the building gets and how supportive the fans have been for the season's first half. They say they feed off of the noise, and that might just be lip service, but when you're there and you feel the pulse of the game from the opening puck drop straight on through to the final horn, you know you're experiencing something profound.
The only things that are quiet in relation to the Islanders' move to Brooklyn are Damien Cox and his colleagues when they're asked to speak about it.