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Family Matters: Treating alumni right makes a big difference

Making former players feel like valued parts of the team goes a long way in changing perceptions.

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Buffalo Sabres v New York Islanders Photo by Jim McIsaac/NHLI via Getty Images

You’ve probably heard by it now. A disgruntled, disgusted Sabres fan named Duane called into a Buffalo sports radio show this week and launched an angry, exasperated attack on his favorite team. It really was something else, the kind of surreal, spur of the moment caller you dream about hearing, either as a host or a fellow listener of the local sports radio gab fest; a guy who has absolutely had enough lets loose in a cutting, cathartic, and also highly entertaining way that you can’t help but share and discuss.

We’ve all been a Duane at some point, myself very much included (I mean, a Twitter handle like “@CultureOfLosing,” doesn’t happen if my team was playing well...). There comes a point when losing seems to go beyond the ice or the field and appears to take control of the entire organization from top to bottom. As Duane says towards the peak of his rage, “What the hell are we even doing?”

Duane’s anger wasn’t only about the Sabres’ slide down the standings to a probable ninth straight year out of the playoffs. It also encapsulated his feelings about the way the franchise functions as a whole these days. The stadium experience is stale (KeyBank Center is 23 years and four names old) right down to how the old seats smell, the fan perks are lame and ownership seems to have closed ranks and become highly defensive. Ironically, the Sabres had the radio station pull Duane’s rant from their Twitter account, which, of course, only succeeded in making it go slightly viral.

One of the worst sins the Sabres have committed though, has been embarrassingly dropping the ball for alumni during what is supposed to be a year-long celebration of the team’s 50th anniversary season. At a recent “Aud Night” event honoring the franchise’s original home and history, former Sabres were given visibly cheaper replica jerseys, some of which had their names misspelled on the backs. Ouch.

Fans like Duane, and our brothers and sisters at Die by the Blade, see these incidents as proof that the Sabres have become, “Second Rate.”

If any fanbase knows what it’s like to support a second rate franchise, it’s Islanders fans. For a lot of the last 30 years, being second rate would be been an improvement for the Islanders. That would have meant easily a two-or three-rate upgrade from what they normally were. Part of what make’s Duane’s volcanic call so satisfying is we can all remember a time not long ago when we felt that way about this team. We could go back through 13 or so years of Lighthouse Hockey and pull out dozens if not hundreds of articles, comments, podcasts and other forms of communication echoing the exact feelings Duane and other Sabres fans are going through right now (and if the Islanders stumble out of this long break, there might be some new ones, too).

Things have looked better on the ice for the Islanders over the last 18 months, which is the foremost aspect of having a successful franchise. And after 30 years of disappointment, they’re also finally getting the new arena they have so long waited for. You can even watch it being built! Let’s hope it smells nice inside when it’s done for the start of the 2021-22 season.

But what about the alumni? The Islanders have always had a decent contingent of former players appearing at games and events, even in the worst of times. So many players have settled on Long Island that getting one to show up and wave to a crowd is relatively easy. There probably isn’t an Islanders fan alive that hasn’t met Bob Nystrom or Clark Gillies or both at some point over the last few decades.

A few years ago, co-owner Jon Ledecky made it a special point to step up the team’s alumni relations. “Alumni Night” morphed into “Alumni Weekend,” with players enjoying not just a game but meals and other events courtesy of the team. It doesn’t matter if you played one game for the Islanders or 500. Sometimes, you didn’t even have to play any. If you were at some point in your professional hockey career contractually tied to the New York Islanders, they will find you and track you down, Liam Neeson style (minus a broken body part or two) and get you to a game.

Those efforts won’t help Barry Trotz and the current Islanders win games right now. But they do make a hell of a difference in how it feels to be an Islanders fan and, more importantly, how it feels to be a former Islander.

All that was confirmed in a great interview our own Noel did with ex-Islander Brad Dalgarno for the latest episode of his Lighthouse Lookback podcast. The whole show is outstanding, but towards the 40:30, Dalgarno discusses how Ledecky and the team have approached the alumni with the kind of attention only a die hard fan might have previously.

Dalgarno: With the new ownership, they have created, they’ve breathed life into that team and right into our alumni association. Jon Ledecky has been a spectacular voice for the team and so welcoming, so warm. And like any organization, that passion and that energy, that expectation of what it means to be a good citizen, starts at the top. And if you don’t have that at the top, in your GM, and in your coach, you’ve got a dysfunctional team, quite frankly.

After talking about the Barclays Center experience (he likes its proximity to New York City and the temporary shelter it provided, but disliked its feel and sightlines), Dalgarno recounts how he first met Ledecky and how that first impression established the new relationship between ownership and former players (slightly edited).

Dalgarno: Jon Ledecky, I met him by chance at an alumni dinner, a bunch of years ago now. The year he had taken back the majority [ownership]. And this guy knew everything about me. I mean, by a chance meeting, and I’m like “Sorry... who are you?” No one knows anything about me. I’m certainly not an Islander alumni people know much about.

And he goes, “Brad, I’m Jon Ledecky. I’m the new owner of the Islanders.” But, I’m like, “The owners of the team when I played didn’t know anything about me. So how the hell do you have time to figure out what I used to do?”

And so, from that moment on, when I realized he cared about all of us, I bought in. “What do you need? you want us to come down? Alright, I’m coming down. Whatever you need us to be.”

I respect the fact that he opened that door and are making that effort and I think that changes a lot. It makes everybody feel proud of a team when they’re playing well because they’re good people doing good things, not just a team that’s winning by chance. I think it’s a top down energy. they’ve got the right mix of players. and those guys, of course if you’re playing on a team with a positive ownership group, and a positive energy, I don’t know how that doesn’t permeate it’s way down to the people working games at the ticket booth. You feel proud of that.

Being welcomed back into the fold has given a lot of former Islanders a chance to also reflect on their memories of their time on Long Island. And according to Dalgarno (a little bit before the previously mentioned sections on the podcast), they actively have lobbied for the Belmont Park arena to mimic the feeling of Nassau Coliseum as much as possible.

[Belmont] is going to be quite something. In talking with the guys who are building the new arena, and all the alumni guys pretty much were giving them an earful. “Make damn sure that building is going to be loud.” Because so many new buildings absorb that sound and it just feels horrible. We’re like, “Make the boards rattley,” and they’re like, “We’re doing everything we can to keep that, to give basically, the fans an instrument to make that noise and show that pride.” And I think I’m excited to see what that looks like.

The Islanders recently announced plans to retire the jersey numbers of dynasty members John Tonelli and Butch Goring, ceremonies that seemed like they might not ever happen. But it’s pretty clear that Ledecky and co-owner Scott Malkin had heard from fans (and probably a few teammates) and decided that officially honoring them was a worthwhile action.

Will the ceremonies help the Islanders beat the Red Wings and Bruins on those nights in February? Probably not.

Does it mean the world to those that wore the blue and orange and make them feel a part of a big family that they can return to at any time? Hell yeah it does.

(just, uh, make sure their names are spelled correctly, okay?)