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Before Belmont: Islanders, State, Barclays jockey over short(er)-term home

Everyone wants what they want, and then over here you have leverage and compromise

Philadelphia Flyers v New York Islanders
One last time...again?
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

So the news is official: Unless unforeseen conditions (lawsuits, bankruptcies, in-fighting, epic flood) arise, the Islanders are headed to Elmont after winning the bid to develop a new arena and more at Belmont Park. Check plenty of updates on Wednesday morning’s announcement in our earlier post.

The next question is, when? And where do they play until then?

The Islanders will certainly play at Barclays Center next season, in 2018-19. The franchise and arena operators can opt-out of the lease and/or renegotiate new terms for what happens after that.

Jon Ledecky wants to put shovel in ground yesterday at Belmont, and get that arena built as soon as possible, to begin what is a 49-year lease at $40 million in total rent. This has been his tune since the franchise submitted a bid in response to Empire State Development’s RFP.

But it’s not clear how soon a building and surrounding infrastructure would be NHL-ready -- and even if they put a target date on it today, it will be a tight timeline, and massive construction projects are notoriously subject to risk of delays.

So what’s the fallback? What if they can’t come to terms on a short-term agreement to stay at Barclays beyond next season?

It’s to be determined, and it’s subject to at least four parties — five if you include fans who would love a nostalgic revisit to Nassau Coliseum:

The State

For whatever reason (::cough:: politics, which is always driven by ::cough:: factor$), Gov. Andrew Cuomo is weighing in heavily on this. In his part of the presser today he appealed to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to let the Isles play at Nassau Coliseum, their former home now renovated to be an even smaller but slightly more luxurious home, until the new arena is ready.

He then added to that in his offices press release.

Which brings us to...

...The League

Bettman has been consistent — he’s always consistent on his talking points, until the strategic time arrives to change them — that Nassau Coliseum is not suitable for NHL hockey. “Even in its current state” he said today, it’s not where they want a team to play.

It’s clear he doesn’t want them there. It’s also clear that he will say what he needs to say to maintain leverage, which is important because...

Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment

...the operators of Barclays Center also operate the renovated Nassau Coliseum. Sure, they called themselves Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment, but through the endless shuffle from developer-sports-owner-moving-on characters that built Barclays Center and then also won the rights to change the Coliseum, they now control both. (They now call it “NYCB Live, home of Nassau Coliseum” or something.)

So the party who ultimately controls whether the Isles can play at Barclays Center beyond 2018-19 also has a huge say and interest in them returning to the Coliseum instead.

The Islanders

As noted above, Ledecky wants Belmont to be complete as soon as possible. He has always spoken of an aggressive timeline, and to some extent if one is willing to throw more money at a construction project one can get it to move at an accelerated pace.

But there are limits. You have the physics of time and mass to contend with (plus materials, labor, weather, acts of Bossy), which are almost as challenging as the regulatory hoops one must jump through to ensure the development meets requirements and isn’t, say, something that falls apart on spectators or poisons the environment, etc.

At times when asked about the Coliseum, Ledecky has cagily quoted Bettman in saying the commissioner doesn’t believe it’s suitable, as if to say “well, the decision isn’t mine.” That could be just PR for the fans who want to see some more Coliseum nights, or it could reflect a willingness to return there briefly rather than extend the Brooklyn say.

(There is also the question, since James Dolan and Oak View Group are part of the developers of the new arena, if their rival Rangers would allow the Islanders to {gulp} play at Madison Square Garden if necessary. It sounds crazy, but has been thrown out there by some. Again: leverage.)

If you buy that last interpretation of Ledecky’s public statements about the Coliseum, and if you see Bettman playing hardball as a negotiating tactic on behalf of the Isles against a landlord that owns both their current home and the Coliseum, then you can conclude the window is open for the Isles to return to their original home once again, if only temporarily.

No doubt, all parties will fight this out over the next month as the lease renegotiation deadline approaches on the Barclays Center lease. And no doubt much will depend on how quickly the Isles think they can get the arena built — including how soon they think they can bet on a date — and how much hardball the league at BSE play with each other given that information.