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Musings: Ending the Islanders’ Bridgeport Sound Tigers Lease

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The latest threat renews a long-standing AHL tradition for one of its “stable” markets.

Tigers vs Lock Monsters
Memories.
Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

This doesn’t seem terribly likely, it’s a summer “What if...?” exercise, but nonetheless: What if the latest disagreement between the New York Islanders (and Sound Tigers) ownership and the city of Bridgeport leads to a premature end to the AHL team’s lease in the Connecticut city?

For the Bring Pro Hockey Back to Long Island set, it’s another glimmer of hope, maybe. Though “hope” is a cruel thing for a populace that was blessed with four Stanley Cups followed by 30+ years of areener trauma.

Background: It could always happens because things like this happen

With the way and frequency of franchise shuffling and relocations in the AHL, the Sound Tigers are actually one of the longest-running unmoved (and same affiliated) franchises in North American hockey’s top minor league.

That they haven’t moved (nor won a playoff series EDIT: since 2003, but that’s another matter...) since their inception in 2001 is almost a miracle in itself. (Seriously. They are part of an “Original Six” survivors from when the IHL and AHL merged.)

With the Islanders leaving Nassau [gloriously unsponsored, at least at the time] Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Nassau County putting a new coat of paint on the old barn, and coat-of-paint developer and circus ring leader Bruce Ratner crowing about hockey in the new (old) Coliseum, there was much talk, and in some circles hope, about the Brooklyn-based Islanders relocating their AHL affiliate to Uniondale.

Of course, that never jibed with the reality on the ground, which includes a Sound Tigers lease/operating agreement for Webster Bank Arena “that demands an AHL-or-equivalent team here through 2021,” as Michael Fornabaio of the Connecticut Post reported last summer, among other occasions.

That entire Post report holds up well even a year later, in terms of describing the AHL landscape and the Sound Tigers’ place within it:

The franchise shuffle still leaves a net loss of a New England franchise. There were eight as recently as 2010; that’s down to four. But the landscape of the league in general has become unrecognizable the past few years.

[...]

Most franchise moves have brought teams closer to their parents, like last summer’s five-team exodus to California. It’s a short ride from Bridgeport to Long Island, whether to Nassau County or Kings County. But it would be a shorter ride from the Island itself. For the past few years, the conventional wisdom has had the Sound Tigers moving to Nassau Coliseum after renovations are complete; the latest target date for that is early 2017.

All that seemed to drop to the backburner last year, especially with the new (old) Coliseum itself getting off to a less than impressive rebirth and Ratner doing that thing that developers and developers-who-become-president tend to do. (Hype, hype, flee.)

The Latest: Violation of lease threat

Alright, but then fast-forward to Thursday’s news.

Throughout the new Islanders ownership’s tenure, they’ve been rather quiet about their own Brooklyn (NHL) arena issues and the now very obvious fact that they’ve looked at both Queens and Belmont Park for a possible new arena escape.

But they went public (albeit necessarily) this week with their threat to claim the (AHL) Bridgeport lease may soon be violated. The violation hasn’t happened yet; they’re just saying if the city of Bridgeport goes through with a new proposal to turn the baseball Ballpark at Harbor Yard into an amphitheater, then it will be a declaration of war.

Per Brian Lockhart of the Post:

...the team organization operates the arena, a concert and event venue next door to the Ballpark at Harbor Yard. Both are easily recognized landmarks along Interstate 95.

In a letter Wednesday to Ganim and City Council members, Tigers [ed.: and Islanders co-] owner Jon Ledecky wrote that the amphitheater plan was a “grave development” and would violate the hockey team’s operating pact with Bridgeport.

There is talk of non-compete clauses (an amphitheater would clearly offer concerts that the arena could easily hold) and more, but the kicker sentence from Ledecky is this one (emphasis mine):

“For if the city accepts the proposal, the Sound Tigers will be forced to exercise all of their rights under the operating agreement.”

Yikes.

To add to the theater, Lockhart also notes the team and city are already “embroiled in a legal battle over rent and investments in infrastructure,” and the proposed developer of the would-be amphitheater is previous Sound Tigers owner Howard Saffan.

(I don’t have too many rich friends and I’ve never had the luxury of a shrinkage-embarrassment weekend in the Hamptons, but I do recall how sometimes the rivalries of the wealthy can get more petty and bloody than two humanities professors vying for the same grant money or refurbished office desk.)

There’s also the matter that since the AHL’s NHL Pacific-led exodus to the West Coast, there are suddenly several more plausible New England markets available for relocation.

So, who knows what the Islanders ownership’s true long-term goal is for their AHL affiliate. As with their negotiations with Barclays Center, much comes down to posturing and leverage. But while the chief priority is John Tavares and a hockey-appropriate long-term home for the NHL club, don’t sleep on the latest Sound Tigers (re)location drama.

That’s an AHL tradition and Bridgeport is overdue.