Aug. 1 was set to be the day where the New York Islanders would turn over a new leaf in their franchise. It was to be the day the Nassau County voters agreed to a referendum to allow the NHL team to build a new arena to replace Nassau Coliseum. Instead, Aug. 1 is the beginning of the end for Long Island hockey.
Charles Wang took over the Islanders and showed ambition, so much so that he led the charge for the Lighthouse Project, a multi-function complex that would include a new arena. Soon Mr. Wang was to learn that progress and New York tend not to go together so well. While the Lighthouse Project went nowhere fast, Nassau Coliseum kept getting more outdated and Wang's displeasure started to surface. Would he relocate or sell?
Nassau County stepped in, and came up with the idea to publicly finance at least the arena in order to keep the team on Long Island. What the county legislators failed to realize is that the voters' desire to not be taxed more (already the highest taxed county in the United States) was greater than hockey. With the referendum failing, where does this leave the New York Islanders?
For now, on Long Island, since the Coliseum lease lasts until 2015. (For those who don't believe they can move earlier, in 2009, Atlanta management bragged about having a 99-year lease). A few factors can move up that time line. Wang may sell, just to get out of what has turned into a mess, and part of that sale would include the lease buyout fee.
The NHL may even help broker that deal and pay some fees, since I can't imagine it wants to have a lame duck team in a city for four years.
It's not a fun day for Islanders fans, knowing this is the beginning of the end. Where does the franchise go?
1. Brooklyn—Brooklyn will have a new arena ready for the Nets. It's a move where most of the fan base can at least still be in the same television market. Whether the Island pride would translate to fans going to games in Brooklyn, or new fans turning away from the Rangers, is unknown. In terms of logistics, it would probably be the least sloppy move.
2. Quebec—Quebec City has a new arena scheduled to be built, for completion by 2015. That would fit perfectly with the Islanders schedule. Quebec also has to be encouraged by the Thrashers being allowed to move to Winnipeg. Canada is back in play, and Quebec is probably next in line for a team, unless...
3. Toronto—If the New York Metro area has three teams that would be even closer if the Islanders went to Brooklyn, I can't understand why there isn't a second team in Toronto. The funding would be there to build a new arena, and there would be plenty of fans willing to embrace a new team in a hockey crazy city.
4. Hamilton—Hamilton is probably big enough and passionate enough to house a team. I know that Toronto and Buffalo have had issues with a team there. Fan bases don't drive 45-60 minutes or go through customs to watch 41 hockey games a year. Phoenix built its arena too far away from its fan base, and that's about 30-35 minutes. Copps Coliseum would need to be thoroughly renovated, and a non-Blackberry owner would need to be found.
5. Kansas City—Kansas City probably has the best facility ready, the Sprint Center. Sports fans in Kansas City either lightly follow the Blues, relocated from somewhere else, or don't watch hockey. The plus is that any hockey team would instantly move above the Royals in terms of fan support. The good thing for Kansas City and other teams west of the Mississippi is that if the league can move the Islanders west, it can move Columbus or Detroit east.
6. Seattle—I would like to think that Seattle could be great for hockey, but what David Stern did to the Sonics makes a hockey team moving to Seattle almost impossible. Key Arena is viewed as a historic dump, even though it was renovated in the 90s. The Seattle fans are rabid about the Sounders, and would go for hockey.
7. Portland—It's not a city that will get mentioned much, but it has big corporation money, an arena that would work and a fan base clamoring for more than just the Blazers.
8. Las Vegas—With no suitable arena, Vegas is not near the top of the radar, especially with the other desert team looking to move any year now. The good thing about Vegas is that it could easily get an arena by 2015. Eventually, a team will move to Vegas, whether it be NBA or NHL.
9. Omaha—Omaha may not be a big enough city to have a major franchise, but it's a city with big corporate money just like Portland, and a very nice arena. I'm not sure the NHL wants to take a leap with such an untested hockey market, but then again, the NBA did with Oklahoma City, and so far, so good. If only Kevin Durant can play left wing.
10. Salt Lake City—Utah is one of the fastest growing states in the country, and it has a winter climate and one team. The major problem with Salt Lake City is that the hockey team would either need a separate arena from the Jazz, or a remodeling to make it up to NHL standards.
Other cities include Hartford, Milwaukee, Houston, and then the list quickly runs out. The NHL doesn't have tons of great options to relocate teams, and Atlanta isn't getting a third team anytime soon.
For all the desire to keep teams from moving like in Phoenix, eventually moving does become the only option for the NHL when a situation like the Islanders happens. It stinks for the fans, it stinks for the White Castle near the arena and it will stink for the city that wins the Islanders sweepstakes, when it receives its tax bill for its new arena.
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