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Whatchu talking 'bout, Willets?: Questions regarding a potential Islanders move to Queens

A report about talks raises questions, concerns, exhaustion and dreams about another Islanders move.

We'll see about that.
We'll see about that.
Nick Laham/Getty Images

If I sounded a little burnt out in the article I posted yesterday about Islanders owners Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin "talking" to Mets owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon about possibly building an arena at Willets Point in Queens, it's because I am.

I stupidly thought that after years and years of arena turmoil, my team had finally found a place they could stay regardless of all the complaints many have issued, both major and minor. I guess I should have known better.

As tiring as it is thinking about going through all of this rigamarole again, thinking about it is exactly what we're all going to be doing for the next little while now that the cat is out of the bag.

The idea of the Islanders moving to Queens raises many, many questions as I thought about it. I don't expect this list to be comprehensive or complete, but just some of the things that came across my tiny mind as I tried to wrap it around this latest curve in the road.

Will it get built?

I hadn't been keeping up with the Willets Point renovation project and in reading about it now, I'm getting PTSD-like flashbacks to the old battles over the Nassau Hub area. The situations aren't exactly similar, but they do both suffer from lots of voices and lots of politics stifling one project after another over a depressingly long period of time.

To make a very long story as simple as possible, the land next to CitiField is city-owned parkland. Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg planned to have the area be home to a shopping mall. His successor Bill de Blasio wants affordable housing there. Sterling Equities, one of the parties designated to develop the land in conjunction with Related Properties, is owned by Fred Wilpon and subsequently owns the Mets (but not in the sense that Daniel Murphy now owns the Mets).

Lots of other options and ideas have been thrown around over the years, including an arena for the Islanders back in 2010 under the now-concluded ownership of Charles Wang. There are also city councils involved because there always are.

The best and most tantalizing aspect about this whole crazy idea is that the Islanders could finally have something they've never had in the franchise's lifetime: an arena built specifically for them.

But the stalemates haven't been broken and currently the area known as the "Iron Triangle" is a wasteland of concrete, run down buildings, junk yards, sewage and pollution. Sounds like paradise.

For the Islanders to get an arena there, they would have to break through a decade's worth of red tape and obstacles that no one - including the Wilpons and two separate New York City mayoral administrations - could manage to solve. I hate to break this to you but the Islanders' record in endeavors such as this isn't very good, either.

Would the Islanders move?

I won't bother listing all of the complaints about Barclays Center again because every visiting media outlet has written the same exact story as they passed through it last season. Just look one up.

Beyond the harumph of the rabble, things get a little bit more complicated.

As reported last summer, the Islanders have an unusual arrangement with the folks who run Barclays Center. The arena gets the revenue - ticket sales, sponsorships, marketing, etc. - and in turn pays the Islanders an annual sum amounting to over $50 million a year. Whatever Barclays pays the Islanders, it's more than the team ever made at Nassau Coliseum, where it was routinely in the red thanks to a suffocating lease with Nassau County that lasted for most of the team's 43 years there.

So while tales of obstructed views and off-center scoreboards and clogged Long Island Railroad cars get tons of ink and no doubt cause the owners headaches, ultimately a move would have to make financial sense to the Islanders. Malkin and Ledecky paid $485 million for the club and the last thing they want to do is immediately start flushing money down the toilet.

Would an arena at Willets Point be a moneymaker? Who knows.

I put the word "talking" in quotes at the top not to impugn or criticize the report in Bloomberg News by Scott Soshnick but to highlight the vague nature of entire situation and how little we know. "Talking" could mean a friendly phone call exchanged between Ledecky and one or both Wilpons or it could mean walking off a 200-by-85-foot concrete slab trying to figure out where the jumbotron will hang over center ice.

Pertinent questions such as who will build, own and control the arena are questions for another time, apparently. And god help us if public funds start getting thrown around as a solution. More than anything, these will determine whether the Islanders actually get something done.

Don't print those, "Goodbye, Brooklyn" shirts just yet.

So why are they talking?

Most seem to agree that the talks are probably more about leveraging Barclays Center into making changes to better accommodate hockey rather than about the team actually moving.

But ever since the team first announced the move in September of 2012, there have been questions about the various issues that would have to be dealt with while fitting a professional hockey team into an arena not specifically built to host one. Barclays CEO Brett Yormark has listened and made several changes during the season based on fan feedback, but he has clearly said that material changes can't be made to the building's structure to make the viewing experience any better.

We don't know what kind of changes Ledecky and Malkin might want Barclays Center to make or even if they can be made. If the Willets Point gambit works and crews start work on Barclays seating arrangement next summer, great. But that might be a tall or even unfillable order.

What about "Our home?"

Yeah, this is a tricky one. Just last week, Ledecky made the media rounds and was adamant that "Barclays is our home." But he also talked openly about the issues the team dealt with last season and about fixing what needs to be fixed to keep the fans happy.

Ledecky and Malkin have been minority owners for two years now and Ledecky has done a lot of listening to fans. His town hall meeting ticked off a lot of boxes specific to Islanders fan anxiety because he's current on the issues to a refreshing degree. In talking to the Wilpons about Willets Point, he knows exactly what he's doing.

Privately, he's going to keep his options open about doing anything to make his team better. Publicly, he's not going to burn any Brooklyn Bridges, especially if this Queens thing doesn't happen.

Ledecky left himself an out by also stressing that the team plays in New York, which, still, is better than them playing anywhere else. Seriously, I thought we were done with this stuff. Oops.

Does New York really need another arena?

This is probably just me thinking too much, but adding yet another arena to a crowded marketplace might end up being a can of worms everyone regrets opening.

The Islanders have 41 regular season home games, plus a maximum of 16 playoff games if they go on a long, arduous journey to the Stanley Cup with home ice advantage in every round. That's 57 dates. What's going on in that brand spanking new arena on the other 308 days of the year?

Between Madison Square Garden, Barclays Center, the eventually renovated Nassau Coliseum (keep your pants on. We'll get to that, later), as well as Radio City Music Hall and other concert-only venues, there are a lot of places for events to take place. A ride on the bus or PATH train opens up a few venues in New Jersey, too.

There are probably enough acts to go around, but the competition is going to be fierce. There's only one Lady Gaga. Even she can only be in one place at one time. If she's doing two nights at Barclays and two at the Garden, is she also going to do two at this arena?

Maybe. Maybe not. Again, it all goes back to what's in it for both the arena and the artist.

Would Queens be a good fit for the Islanders?

Queens is closer to Nassau County than Brooklyn is and there's no shortage of Mets fans already used to the travel from Long Island proper to CitiField. Maybe there will be some blue-and-orange synergy happening if the Mets and Islanders become neighbors.

My personal experiences at Barclays Center have been positive and a lot of that has to do with the mass transit that makes it exponentially easier to get there than it was to get to the Coliseum for those of us outside Nassau County. Branching out beyond the Meadowbrook Parkway can only be good for the franchise's longterm growth.

But forgive me for thinking that the same vocal complainers that have been throwing temper tantrums about getting on LIRR trains that go directly to Atlantic Avenue would also throw tantrums about taking those same trains (or even more with transfers) to Willets Point. And if you thought ticket prices are high at Barclays Center, wait until that box office money has to go to paying off a few hundred million in construction costs.

Historically, the Islanders have only drawn packed houses in two instances: when they host the Rangers and when they're in the playoffs. In the final year at Nassau Coliseum, with nostalgia pouring out of the walls and 100-point team on the ice, they finished 25th in average regular season home attendance. If - again, huge IF - a new Queens arena gets built and the team still draws less than capacity a game, what happens? Do they start to look into moving to Rockaway Beach?

The best and most tantalizing aspect about this whole crazy idea is that the Islanders could finally have something they've never had in the franchise's lifetime: an arena built specifically for them based on their exact needs and desires. That includes structural, logistical, financial and cosmetic needs. Playing in pre-built arenas is something that's set the team apart for a long time.

If Ledecky and Malkin can make a new one happen (while keeping everything above board so that nothing comes back to bite them in their asses years later), they will be heroes of Long Island hockey fans. Maybe then will more seeds be planted for future generations.

What about the renovated Nassau Coliseum


Whenever it's finished, Nassau Coliseum 2.0 will be smaller and just as remote as the original version was. Most importantly, it will also still be owned by the same county that, for 43 years, helped keep the Islanders a pauper in their own home. No thanks.

Whether they're in the Brooklyn or Queens, the days of ten-minute family car trips to Islanders games are over. Nassau and the Town of Hempstead had a chance to have a privately-funded arena, business and housing complex built at its center and they decided against it. Enjoy the NBA D-League's Long Island Nets.

Are we really doing this again?

Unfortunately, it seems so. It's clear now that the story has a good deal of validity.

Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin are the owners and, as they should, are probably exploring all the ways in which they can make their team a better, "world class" organization. Needless to say, I hope they're successful.

But to be honest, this whole thing is depressing to me, not because I'm married to Barclays Center but because this team and this fanbase desperately needs some stability. "Talking" about moving the team one year after it has already moved might be the right thing to do, but that doesn't make it any less unpleasant a proposition.

You can already hear the "I told you so" snickering coming from Canada and all points West, mainly by people that don't know Atlantic Avenue from the Atlantic Ocean. Almost three decades of arena issues are far too many for one franchise to have and the stigma of being a second-class team will endure as long as they continue. And yet here we are again.

More than a new arena, the Islanders need to establish that they are a real contender worth paying attention to beyond their home market. Now, we've just added another side story to a long list of distractions.

I don't think I have to remind everyone about the John Tavares clock ticking in the background of all of this.

So what do we do?

We wait. We wait and see. We wait and see and react and parse what sounds real from what sounds like bullshit. Just like we did during the Spano year and the Milstein Brothers/Gluckstern era and Lighthouse Project saga and the move to Brooklyn. Sadly, this should be second nature to us by now.

I know it's futile to even say this but I hope this story doesn't permeate the season, when the actual hockey is going on. Wherever they play, this is still the New York Islanders, still your team and, yes, they're still pretty good.

Watch them, enjoy them, want more from them. Let this latest chapter go where it has to.

Update: Most of the above (everything but the driving part, I guess) also applies to anything the Islanders might want to do at Belmont Park, with whom they also have been talking per a report in Newsday.