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On Sports Ownership and the New York Islanders: Or, life after Charles Wang

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SELL THE TEAM! Er, wait, I mean: SELL TO A DIFFERENT BILLIONAIRE WHO MEETS MY PARTICULAR BUT POORLY INFORMED PRE-APPROVAL!

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Rocky Wirtz: The rare case where the heir improves the franchise.
Rocky Wirtz: The rare case where the heir improves the franchise.
Bruce Bennett

Our Keith Quinn asked a question of the Twitterverse recently, and both the query and one particular response raised a point I hit often when the subject of New York Islanders ownership is raised:

With all the struggles and disappointing seasons since Charles Wang bought the team (though to be fair, his tenure included an immediate escalation in investment and, heh, more playoffs than his circus predecessors), there is a significant portion of the New York Islanders fanbase, and an even larger percentage of the North American hockey commentariat, which frequently and happily rips Wang at every chance.

I couldn't care less.

It's not that I jump to defend the man, nor necessarily like him (I've never met him, and he's distant enough to be a curious puzzle for me, rather than someone to distantly revere or revile. Maybe if I saw his Danish backhand, however...). Nor is it that I feel any obligation to give him a long leash because he bought (and saved?) the franchise when no one else would -- though I am grateful for that -- and ultimately invested far more than anyone else had.

Rather, it's that from a sports fan perspective, I don't trust sports owners.

Don't Know This Guy...Don't Know the Next Guy

They are caretakers of the silly branded things in which we invest so much time and money, but their terms are as up and down as the next guy -- sometimes much better, sometimes far worse.

Therefore, by logical extension, I sure as hell don't trust their unnamed hypothetical replacements.

Sometimes that replacement is from the latest hot industry (oops!). Sometimes it's an heir who wants nothing to do with it, or hasn't a clue regardless (Rocky Wirtz in Chicago is that rare, successful inversion of this scenario.). And sometimes it's a person oddly approved by Gary Bettman and the NHL cabal.

I have followed enough sports teams in my life, and had enough of them break my heart and skate all over it, to know there is no such thing as "anyone but him would do!" No. For an example, look no further than Islanders history itself. Crooks, land grabs, opportunists, frauds ... and a billionaire with sincere investment but too addicted to loyalty and quick to blacklist enemies real or perceived.

Tom Gailsano "saved" the Sabres after the Rigas family -- the previous "saviors" -- were tossed in jail. Eugene Melnyk "saved" the Senators when no one else would, now he is an annual target for fans. I probably shouldn't even get into the series of characters who have been convinced to buy (and quickly sell) the Panthers.

From my own childhood and father's roots, the most fan- and player-friendly owners the St. Louis Blues ever had were the original ones back in 1967: They loved the team so much, it ended up near bankruptcy after chasing first Scotty Bowman, then Al Arbour, away.

The firm that "rescued" the Blues tried to move them to Saskatoon within five years. The guy who rescued the team from those guys added red (RED?) to the colors at his wife's behest, and ran the team on a shoestring budget that alienated stars and helped build Calgary's lone Stanley Cup champion. We're not even to the 20th anniversary of the club in that timeline, but I could go on about rich guys who loved the team but did dumb things, even richer guys who squeezed them out out of spite, and oh so much more.

(But while I'm at it: The guy who spent the most on payroll really wanted them for the building and the hope to bring an NBA team in. When that NBA bid failed, he bailed on the team and forced them to sell Chris Pronger for pennies on the dollar.)

I've had people canonize the Steinbrenners to me, but of course even there: 1) It's very, VERY rare for an ownership or ownership family to stick with a franchise and hobby that long (and often, the offspring who take over after death are incompetent or disinterested -- that's why God made the estate tax), and 2) Even The Blowhard er, Boss created his share of crappy times for the Yankees.

Don't Waste Your (My) Time.

The point is, forgive me for not wasting my time clamoring for the next owner, but ... I don't know him (and neither do you), and I sure as hell don't know whether he'll actually improve the team.

I've been harassed through Twitter and other avenues before because of this view -- or rather, because of emotional fanatics' faulty interpretation of this view, thanks to our era and Twitter/illiteracy/ooh look squirrel. By their delightfully inverted logic, I am an unworthy fan and a shill for ownership because I haven't turned Lighthouse Hockey -- a site dedicated to covering and discussing what happens to the New York Islanders -- into a daily campaign to remove Wang. (As if I'd have a say either way.)

Sorry, I don't really have a say. Neither do you.

Now, theoretically we all do have a say on a collective level if we decided to stop following and spending any money toward the team en masse. (Heh, this "collective say" always works well in democracy...). But the whole affliction of "fandom" and all its emotional and half-informed trappings is generally not conducive to a logical long-term action that would have enough financial impact to alter a billionaire's intentions.

Any fan that has survived the dark '90s and the playoff drought at the end of the last decade is not the type of hobbyist who would turn away from this distraction just because the wins didn't come, and the money wasn't spent on Brad Richards Scott Gomez Vincent Lecavalier some player who would fix all our problems.

So no, I'm not an ownership apologist. I'm a realist. And I'm persnickety about how I waste my hobby time and my advocacy energy.

Given that I don't have any influence on changing who owns my favorite sports teams, and -- equally important -- I've no idea whether the next owner who earns the trust of the Board of Buddy Governors will be any better, I prefer to focus on the stuff that drew me into this pastime in the first place: The on-ice play, the decisions and talent that lead to them, and the unending entertainment -- some glory, much farce -- of following a team in a sport I love.