Islanders a perfect fit in Brooklyn

BY Sam Gardner • October 24, 2012

This summer, the NBA’s New Jersey Nets relocated to Brooklyn, becoming the first professional sports team to call the New York City borough home since Major League Baseball’s Dodgers left for Los Angeles in 1957.

Now, less than a month after moving in, the Brooklyn Nets have learned they’re getting new neighbors.

On Wednesday, New York Islanders owner Charles Wang announced that his team and its four Stanley Cup championships would be relocating 25 miles west to the brand new Barclays Center, which they’ll share with the Nets starting in the 2015-16 season.

The deal is a 25-year agreement that Wang called “iron-clad,” meaning the Islanders won’t be going anywhere for the foreseeable future once they leave the decrepit Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale. Wang's announcement also ended growing uncertainty about the Islanders’ future, and whether New York was even going to be part of it.

“We had many offers that we looked at, but our first priority was that we wanted to stay in Nassau County, and then in New York, and we’ve always said that consistently,” Wang said.

“Our goal from the outset was to have the Islanders play in a local, world-class facility that presents the amenities that our fans deserve, and I’m happy to announce that we have achieved that goal.”

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman commended the Islanders’ decision to relocate, specifically praising Wang, who graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School in 1962 and has been the Islanders’ majority owner since 2004, for his dedication to keeping the team in the area.

“Charles devoted 10 years and — not including the losses he had been sustaining with the Islanders by operating in an antiquated facility — I think he must have spent at least $30 million (trying to stay in Nassau County),” Bettman said. “At some point you have to get on with things, and this is a terrific opportunity for this franchise.

“(Wang) is as passionate about this area as he is about his Islanders and the Islanders fans. So (for him) to finally be in a position to say, ‘New York Islanders fans, you don’t have to worry about the future of this club’ … is a dream come true.”

Some on Long Island, where the Islanders have played since the team was founded in 1972 and won four straight Stanley Cups from 1980-83, undoubtedly will be upset by the move. But relocation of some kind has been inevitable since Nassau County overwhelmingly voted down a referendum to build a new arena on the site of the current one in Uniondale.

Brooklyn actually is the western-most (though distinctly more urban) part of Long Island, so at least the team's name will remain relevant — and yes, Wang did confirm it will keep the “New York Islanders” name after the move. (Though the team may have to tweak its map-like logo to actually include the borough.)

And certainly, Brooklyn, which can be reached from Nassau County in less than an hour via the Long Island Railroad, will be an easier commute for die-hard Islanders fans to make than to Quebec or Kansas City or Seattle — other rumored destinations.

“(Staying in Nassau County) was a longshot, and you guys all know it, but we tried,” Wang said.

“We tried everything. We tried private (funding), we tried public, we tried private and public, we tried public and private. We tried everything we can. We didn’t have the opportunity to do it, (but) we have this great, great, great alternative.”

Of course, the big question isn’t why the team is leaving the Coliseum, or how the fans will support a lame-duck team over the next three years, or whether the move is a sign that Wang is turning his back on the storied history of the franchise.

Rather, the focus should be on what this relocation to Brooklyn does for the team’s future and whether a new arena and a new influx of fans on top of the dedicated old fanbase can help save the Islanders in the same way that it repainted the future of the Nets.

Over the course of one summer, the Nets have undergone a transformation from NBA basement dweller to Eastern Conference contender, and the hope for the Islanders is that the promise of a more stable situation — economically and otherwise — will result in an improved roster.

Not only does the Barclays Center give fans an arena they want to watch games in, it also gives current and prospective players an arena they want to play in, too. And every little bit counts for a team that hasn’t won a play off series since 1993 and has finished last in its division in each of the last five seasons.

“We believe that with this kind of a move into a facility like this, we will do better,” Wang said. “Because the fans will be better, and you can get free agents … and you don’t have to overpay, because he wants to come to a place where he says, ‘I’m playing here.’ ”

Added Bettman: “I know for a fact that they’ve tried to recruit free agents and have been having trouble doing it because of the facility they were playing in.”

The Islanders currently have five players under contract who still will be on the team when it moves to Brooklyn — most notably, franchise center John Tavares and former 50-point man Michael Grabner. And they’ve got a number of promising prospects who are likely to stick around, including former No. 5 overall pick Nino Niederreiter, who played in 55 underwhelming games for New York last season.

With a new arena luring players to come play in New York City (and not for the Rangers) the Islanders have a rare and valuable opportunity to change their image going forward. For the first time in a long time, the Islanders will be — dare I say? — cool again, and though it may come at the expense of uprooting the team from the only home it's known, it’s a move that simply had to be made.

“You can’t un-ring the bell; it is what it is,” Wang said. “We did the best we can, and it came to a wonderful conclusion that I believe is the right one.”

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