Hartford offers to host Islanders if they’re left homeless, gets into this headline

With the New York Islanders potentially homeless starting in 2019, it was only a matter of time before other cities eager to lure a hockey team started throwing their hats in the ring. And first up is … nope, not Quebec. Not Seattle, either. Think closer to home — yep, you’ve got it:

[Connecticut] Governor Dannel Malloy and [Hartford] Mayor Luke Bronin … sent a joint letter addressed to New York Islanders ownership Friday inviting the NHL club to play at Hartford’s XL Center…

“This is a ready market anxious for an NHL team, eager to fill seats, buy merchandise, and support your team,” Malloy and Bronin wrote to Islanders owners Jon Ledecky, Scott Malkin and Charles Wang (who owns a minority stake). “Your AHL affiliate is in nearby Bridgeport, allowing quick and easy access to your minor-league players, and represents a footing in Connecticut of the Islander franchise.”

I mean, worth a shot and all, but Hartford is pretty much completely inaccessible to the Islanders’ fan base on Long Island (at least until somebody builds that Oyster Bay-Rye Bridge); and if the team’s owners really wanted to up and start over with a new fan base, Quebec and Seattle both have newer arenas and larger populations to offer. Hartford might make a tiny bit of sense as a temporary emergency move if the Islanders had no where else to play, to lure in some Connecticut fans to attach themselves to the team, and then once they’re back in a permanent home they’d travel down to … nope, still no bridge. Okay, this mostly makes sense as a way to put out a press release with “Hartford” and “hockey” in it, and I just fell for it. Damn — well played, Dannel and Luke, well played.

Arena could evict Islanders in 2019, leaving nowhere for Brooklynites not to go watch hockey

Last year, following the revelation that the owners of the New York Islanders and the owners of the Barclays Center had a mutual out clause to escape from their 25-year lease in 2018 or 2019, I wrote at length about why the Islanders owners might and might not want to avail themselves of this option. (Might not: They didn’t have anyplace better to go. Might: At least it could provide them some leverage to demand improvements to Barclays for hockey.) What I didn’t expect was what happened yesterday: Bloomberg News revealed that the arena owners were preparing to ask the Islanders to remove themselves from their place of residence, effective following the 2018-19 season:

The arena, which is already home to the NBA’s Nets and one of the world’s top-grossing concert venues, would make more money without the National Hockey League team, according to people familiar with the facility’s financials.

Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who owns the building and the Nets, has since November been seeking an investor to take a stake in both. As of earlier this month, a financial projection shared with potential investors showed the Islanders won’t contribute any revenue after the 2018-19 season — a clear signal that the team won’t play there, the people said.

That’s a little hand-wavy as evidence goes — that financial projection could just have been accounting for the possibility the Islanders owners might choose to leave, and the lease out clause requires the two sides to be engaged in “good-faith negotiations” before it can be triggered — but let’s give Bloomberg’s unnamed sources the benefit of the doubt and assume there’s something to this. Given the weird lease deal between the Isles and the arena where Prokhorov pays the team a guaranteed $53.5 million a year and in exchange for its revenue from ticket and suite sales, and the fact that the Islanders haven’t been able to draw flies (outpacing only the sad-sack Carolina Hurricanes and Arizona Coyotes), and that the arena has maintained a busy concert schedule (even if by offering steep discounts on rents), it isn’t all that crazy that Prokhorov might think, “Go play in the street, Islanders, it won’t be hard to find some musicians who can sell more than 12,000 tickets at a time.”

As for where the Islanders would go, that’s the excellent question that the news media spent most of yesterday asking. There’s been talk previously of building an Islanders arena on the Willets Point land near the Mets stadium in Queens that is currently being cleared of its venerable collection of auto shops by eminent domain, something that was again raised by Queens borough president Melinda Katz in her state of the borough address last week. (In case you’re wondering what power a borough president has to build an arena: Mentioning it in an annual speech is about it.) Nobody’s offering to pay for an arena in Queens, mind you, and building one with your own money seems daft in a metro area already suffering from arena glut, but it can’t entirely be ruled out.

There’s no way a Queens arena would be ready in two years, though, so in any case the Islanders would need somewhere to play starting in the 2019-20 season. That could be Nassau Coliseum, the same building they left in a huff two years ago, but which has since been sold and renovated by Bruce Ratner, the same guy who signed the Islanders to their Brooklyn lease before selling that arena to his then-business partner Prokhorov*. The Coliseum will only hold 13,000 for hockey in its new configuration, but that’s not all that much smaller than Brooklyn’s hockey capacity (15,795), and the Islanders aren’t drawing that many fans anyway, and at least there everyone would be able to see both goals.

And then there’s this:

The recurring fear then among the yo-yoed fan base, of course, would be an outside city such as Quebec or Kansas City or Seattle or Hartford, making and snaring a bid for relocation.

My gut feeling says all this is jumping the gun just a bit: While the Islanders owners and their landlords may indeed be contemplating a divorce, there’s a lot of time for haggling between now and 2019, and this could still all just be a negotiating tactic. What this does mean, though, is an intensification of talk about a new arena somewhere in the NYC area — which almost certainly means the Islanders owners, Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin, will try to get a good old-fashioned bidding war going among New York City, Nassau County, and anyone else they think they can rope in. (Quebec? Probably not, since New York is such a lucrative TV market even when fans aren’t showing up, but sure, use Quebec as a threat, can’t hurt.) This could get almost as ugly as the view from those obstructed seats.

*CLARIFICATION: Prokhorov has since bought operations of the Nassau Coliseum from Ratner as well. This could be a problem for the Islanders owners if you think this is about a feud, or not if it’s just about both sides realizing that Brooklyn isn’t really working all that well for either side. It certainly complicates the leverage aspect, though.

Islanders can actually leave Brooklyn in 2018, this is gonna be fun

So it turns out the New York Islanders lease doesn’t actually say the team can opt out of its Brooklyn lease after four years as previously reported — Newsday has discovered it says the Islanders can leave after three years or four years, as they so choose:

After the Islanders finish their second season in Brooklyn, the two sides have until Jan. 1, 2018, to renegotiate the terms of the current deal. If no new deal is reached, the two sides can stay with the current deal or choose to opt out. Each side would have until Jan. 30, 2018, to deliver an opt-out notice in writing.

If the Islanders decide to opt out, the team can choose to leave at the end of either its third or fourth season. If Barclays triggers the opt-out, the Islanders would have to leave after the fourth season. The team just completed its first season in Brooklyn in May.

The two sides need to be engaged in “good-faith negotiations” for either side to trigger the opt-out, but, of course, that’s what this opt-out would be all about: The Islanders’ new owners Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin, who haven’t been quiet about their “challenges” they say their team faces at the Barclays Center, want a renegotiated lease that gives them either a bigger cut of revenues or more hockey-friendly renovations of some kind or both, and there’s been talk that they might build their own arena in Queens or Long Island or even move back to Nassau Coliseum to create leverage.

That would be complicated, though, notes Newsday, by the clause requiring good-faith negotiations: It means Ledecky and Malkin couldn’t agree to a new arena deal before January 2018, and there’d then be no way to build an arena by fall of 2019 in time for the team to move. So the Islanders would presumably have to play somewhere else for a year or two — Nassau Coliseum would be available, but undersized for the NHL in its new configuration, though the Barclays Center is also undersized, and it would only be for a couple of years, so…

All this is no doubt going to be lurking in the background whenever the Isles owners and Barclays Center (and Brooklyn Nets) owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s people sit down to start those lease talks. Ledecky and Malkin don’t have great leverage, but they do have some leverage, so we’ll just have to see what they do with it. A couple of things are for sure: Former owner Charles Wang was apparently lying when he called the Islanders’ 25-year lease in Brooklyn “ironclad,” and he wasn’t such a terrible negotiator after all.

Nassau could try to bring Islanders back to Coliseum, or Post could be on the pipe again

Hey, check it out, it’s yet another unsourced New York Post rumor about the New York Islanders moving somewhere!

Despite the team’s new ownership giving no indication it was open to such a move, county officials are in talks with the team’s current landlord about a move back to the Nassau Coliseum, sources said…

Mikhail Prohorov, who owns Barclays Center, the team’ s current home, and operates the Coliseum — which is undergoing a top-to-bottom $260 million renovation — supports the concept of the Islanders moving back east, two sources close to the situation said.

The Post has a long history of “exclusives” that never panned out, but sure, maybe? “In talks with” just means somebody put in a call to somebody, after all, and with Prokhorov (the Post couldn’t be bothered to spell his name right) running the Coliseum, presumably his people are regularly talking to Nassau’s people anyway. So it’s completely feasible that along the way somebody said, “Hey, if the Islanders wanted to move to Nassau would you be cool with it?” and they said “Sure, whatev.”

The more interesting bit here is tea-leaf reading to try to figure out who among the multiple sides at work would have chosen to leak this to the Post. Nassau County officials? Sure, it lets them remind people they still have an arena (albeit downsized in ongoing renovations) and a bunch of Islanders fans, so why not? Prokhorov? As a gambit to tell the Islanders owners “We don’t care if you’re threatening to move to Queens,” possibly, though that seems a bit convoluted.

The reporter breaking this story is a Post business writer, not a sports writer, so that would tend to indicate government official more likely, but really it could be anybody, including the guy in the next cubicle. It’s all gamesmanship and clickbait right now, so don’t take anything too seriously until it comes with some actual money attached, or at least a named source.

Islanders move threat looks like big game of chicken, doesn’t mean no one’s going over cliff

If you wanted to hear more from me on the subject of whether the new New York Islanders owners will go through with threats to move to Queens if their Brooklyn arena isn’t made more hockey-friendly, you can check out my article at Vice Sports. Short answer: probably not, but it’s at least conceivable; long answer: read the article already!

Writing about the Islanders move threat for Vice also afforded me the opportunity to research teams that spent the shortest time in a new home before skedaddling to greener pastures again:

If the Islanders actually leave Brooklyn after four years, this will be, to be sure, one of the shortest honeymoons in sports history. Not counting expansion teams like the Seattle Pilots or New Orleans Jazz that barely got the shrinkwrap off before they’d been repurposed for a new city, the shortest pit stops I can find are the Milwaukee Hawks (moved to St. Louis in 1955 four years after relocating from Tri-Cities) and San Diego Clippers (six-year stopover between Buffalo and Los Angeles). In the NHL, the record shortest stay between two other homes is the Colorado Rockies, who lasted six seasons after departing Kansas City before ending up in New Jersey with a nickname honoring a mythical winged goat.

I probably should have given honorable mention to the Phoenix Coyotes, who lasted a little over seven seasons in Phoenix before decamping for Glendale — similarly in a beef over an arena that wasn’t built to comfortably house hockey. The lesson hear seems to be that if you’re a hockey team you probably want to play in a hockey arena, and if you’re building an arena and want to be able to host hockey you should probably make it big enough to do so, but I guess owners figure why worry about that now when there’s always time for more gamesmanship later? Or they just don’t think beyond “But I’m mad now!

Islanders owners discussing new arena in Queens or LI, all hell about to break loose

So when new New York Islanders owner Jon Ledecky answered questions last week about the team’s future — previously planned to include staying in Brooklyn but playing six games a year in a renovated Nassau Coliseum — by saying “Barclays Center is our home,” I called it “noncommittal,” on the grounds that 1) Ledecky was still pretty gripey about the flaws of the Brooklyn arena and 2) “Barclays Center is our home” could mean either “we would never leave a place with so many important memories made over the last nine months” or “it’s where we live, we have to deal with it until we figure out something better. It sounded like typical owner weasel words, a way to keep your options open without actually saying you wanted to keep your options open.

But even I didn’t expect this, just a week later:

The New York Islanders are in talks with the owners of baseball’s New York Mets about building a hockey arena adjacent to Citi Field in Queens, people with knowledge of the discussions said.

Willets Point is emerging as a persuasive alternative to the team’s current home at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center if the Islanders’s owners and arena officials can’t agree on a series of hockey-specific improvements, said the people, who asked for anonymity because the negotiations are private.

That was from Bloomberg News, but the anonymous sources were soon talking as well to Newsday (which cited “two people familiar with the situation”) and the New York Post (just “sources” — the Post doesn’t get too hung up on attribution). The Post’s article also included this tidbit:

But if that doesn’t work out, Islanders owners Jonathan Ledecky and Scott Malkin could move the team to Elmont, LI, sources said…

A state source confirmed the Islanders have made preliminary inquiries about moving the club to vacant state-owned land near Belmont Park. That is near another parcel being eyed by the Cosmos for a soccer stadium.

With all this, a clearer picture is starting to come into focus. When Ledecky and partner Scott Malkin bought the team from Charles Wang earlier this year, they inherited Wang’s lease on the Barclays Center, which he had agreed to despite the building’s problems for hockey — it was deliberately “value engineered” to be too small for the sport, in order to save on construction costs — because he was sick and tired of fighting with Nassau County officials over a new arena there. They also, however, inherited the opt-out clause that Wang had negotiated to allow the Islanders to break their lease in 2019 — and that’s the kind of leverage that you’d have to be crazy as an owner not to try to use.

So is an arena next to the Mets stadium feasible, and what would it take to build one? The parking lot to the west of Citi Field is already designated for the giant “Willets West” mall, but that’s currently held up in court because the lots are technically still city parkland. Could the Mets try to build an arena instead if the mall is nixed? Would the courts allow that more readily? Who knows?

Then there’s Willets Point proper, to the east of the Mets stadium, a melange of auto repair businesses that the city has been working to seize and evict for years to make way for a mixed housing and commercial development. Could the city agree to incorporate an arena as well? And on either site, would it provide the land for free, and leave it exempt from property taxes, which might be enough to entice the Mets and Isles owners to actually build this thing? And if they did, could it possibly be successful in a metropolitan area already glutted with arenas (Madison Square Garden, Barclays Center, the New Jersey Devils‘ Prudential Center in Newark, plus soon the redone Nassau Coliseum) and only so many concerts to go around?

Of course, Ledecky and Malkin may never have to determine if a Queens (or Elmont) arena project is feasible, if they can use the mere possibility as a hammer to get Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov to redo Barclays for hockey. The Isles owners haven’t come out and said what “improvements” they want, but to make a genuinely NHL-scaled space you’d need to knock down the entire west end of the structure and build it out another 50 feet or so, which wouldn’t be cheap, and would also entail shutting the arena for an offseason or two and losing out on revenue from those dates. So to get it done would require quite a formidable threat, and “we’re going to take our puck and go to Queens” might be the kind of thing that gets the attention of their current landlords.

Either way, though, it looks like we have a war on, one that’s likely to drag out for months or years as the various combatants (Ledecky and Malkin, Prokhorov, the Wilpons, the city, maybe Elmont) jockey for position and remake alliances. That should at least help tide everyone over until the final season of Game of Thrones.

New Islanders owner noncommittal about playing in Brooklyn, Long Island, anywhere

When developer Bruce Ratner signed a deal in 2013 to take over and renovate the Nassau Coliseum, then-home of the New York Islanders, it included an agreement for the Islanders to play six home games in Nassau even after moving to Ratner’s Brooklyn arena in 2015. Ratner doesn’t own Brooklyn’s Barclays Center anymore, though, and the new co-owner of the Islanders, Jon Ledecky, tells Newsday that he’s not 100% sure he wants to go through with playing home games on the Guyland, either:

“I think the key is neither party’s principal [representative] was there when that deal was made,” Ledecky said at a meet-and-greet luncheon with reporters at 21 Club in Manhattan. “In other words, that deal was between Bruce Ratner and Charles Wang at the time and now we’re the owners of the Islanders.”

Besides, Ledecky can’t say enough about how great it is to be in Brooklyn, and is totally not considering jumping back to Nassau County when his lease out clause kicks in starting in 2019, right?

“Obviously we’ll never be able to replicate the home feeling of Nassau Coliseum and I think in the first year people longed for that,” he said. “I know I did. Bluntly, I missed the Coliseum.”

But Ledecky was encouraged by the atmosphere in the playoffs, saying he thought it was even louder than the Coliseum got, and he believes Barclays Center is willing to work with the team to make necessary improvements.

“There were challenges last year,” he said. “I would be lying to you if I said there wasn’t. Does that mean you blow up Barclays Center and leave? No. You try to improve the home you have.”

Yeah, that sounds less like “commitment” than like “keeping your options open.” The Islanders are stuck in Brooklyn for another three seasons, and are surely going to try to build a fan base there and figure out how to make hockey work in an arena that was built solely for basketball. If it doesn’t work out by 2019, though, Long Island is still there. If nothing else, it’s leverage to try to get Brooklyn arena owner Mikhail Prokhorov to do some hockey-friendly upgrades — assuming Prokhorov cares about having hockey there instead of booking more concerts. At least it’s nice to see rich guys exerting leverage on each other for once, instead of on the public, so enjoy this while it lasts.

Islanders may look to break Brooklyn lease already, claims terrible excuse for newspaper

The owners of the New York Islanders are already looking to get out of their lease at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center in their first season there, according to the New York Post:

The lease includes a little-known out clause that kicks in after the fourth season that both sides could take advantage of, sources said.

“I don’t think either side ever believed the full lease would be honored,” said a source briefed on the matter. “I just didn’t think we’d be talking about this the first year in.”

Although the Islanders own one of the NHL’s top home records, their fans have been quite sour about the move, complaining about obstructed-view seating, jacked-up ticket prices, the nixing of longtime team traditions and feeling like second-class citizens in a building monopolized by the NBA’s Nets.

Jonathan Ledecky — who heads a group of investors set to replace Wang as the team’s majority owner July 1 — apparently is listening. A source close to the Islanders and other industry sources say he’s enamored with possibly moving the team to Queens or back to Long Island.

If you’re reading carefully, you’ll notice that the above report comes with a major caveat — namely, “according to the New York Post,” which has never been known to pass up an “EXCLUSIVE!” just because it’s not so much actually true. (Past Post reports based on unnamed sources have included the imminent construction of an MLS stadium in Queens and the possible purchase of the Nets arena by AEG, neither of which ever happened; Islanders blog Lighthouse Hockey notes that the co-author of this story, Josh Kosman, himself previously reported the Phoenix Coyotes being about to move to Las Vegas and the NHL taking over control of the New Jersey Devils, which also turned out to be vapornews. And don’t even get me started about the “beggar invasion.”) A new arena in Queens is extraordinarily unlikely to happen — the cost would be prohibitive, and there are no available sites with good transit for both drivers and transit riders — and the Nassau Coliseum is in the midst of being renovated down to 13,000 capacity, so there are some major roadblocks here.

Still, new owner, new strategy, maybe? Wang only moved the team to Brooklyn out of frustration with not getting a new arena out of Nassau County; it seemed like a dubious idea at the time given that the Barclays Center was designed specifically not to fit hockey, and it hasn’t been all that popular with fans, so sure, if there’s really an out clause in the lease, this might be a good time to use it. It’s hard to see Ledecky getting much of a local bidding war going for his team’s presence, but hey, he can always start rattling the Kansas City saber.

Islanders play a hockey game in Brooklyn, sky doesn’t fall

The inaugural exhibition hockey game at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center was held on Saturday — Brooklyn’s soon-to-be home team, the New York Islanders, got creamed 3-0 — and if media reports can be trusted, fans were alternately impressed, unimpressed, and just generally weirded out:

  • “To me, there’s still no better place to watch a game than Nassau Coliseum, but we’ll see how the new place works out,” longtime Islanders season ticket holder Andrew Caprio told the New York Times.
  • “There’s no place for tailgating,” Long Island resident Megan Leach complained to the Times. “You get the creature comforts of a new arena, but I was unimpressed with the spectator area. There were a lot of terrible sight lines.”
  • Islander forward Colin McDonald’s dad Gerry says “the sight lines look good for hockey.” (Maybe he had better seats than Leach?)
  • Hockey’s debut in Brooklyn seemed to be met with positive feedback from players and fans alike.
  • “The fact that I can sit here talking to you in the corridor here and not get bumped into, standing in front of a men’s room with no line, at a sporting event, that’s everything,” one unnamed season ticket holder from Yonkers told the New York Daily News.
  • “It’s a hockey rink crammed into a concert hall,” Chris Elwood told ESPN, complaining that he and his daughter and her friends had a hard time seeing the puck at one end of the ice.
  • Season ticket holder Amy Zaum of West Hempstead managed to encapsulate the entire range of fan opinion, telling Newsday that the Brooklyn arena is “pretty cool,” that she hopes “they can put the scoreboard on something that moves so it’s not off-center” (don’t hold your breath), that it’s “very sad” to see the Islanders leave Nassau Coliseum and that she’ll “absolutely” go to games in Brooklyn.

If I had to sum it up, given that the game was a sellout and tickets were sky-high (one reason I didn’t check it out myself), it sounds like Islanders fans have given the move a tentative thumbs-up, or at least a tentative “What choice do we have?” For more, see Atlantic Yards Report’s Norman Oder’s excellent report on the opening game — and while you’re at it, check out his analysis of the Daily News’s thinly sourced look back at the Barclays Center’s first year in action, which focuses on anecdotal stories of fan spending but ducks issues like local stores being displaced by landlords seeking all these arena-related riches they’ve been told to expect, but which haven’t so much materialized.

Islanders return to Nassau unlikely, but shared custody could work

Now that Forest City Ratner, owner of the Brooklyn Nets‘ Barclays Center, has been picked to renovate the Nassau Coliseum, there’s been increasing speculation whether this could mean the New York Islanders staying in Long Island instead of moving to Brooklyn in 2015. It’s mostly thanks to this Tom Van Riper piece in Forbes, which noted that 1) the Islanders were previously going to stay put if they got a renovated arena, and now FCR plans on renovating the arena; 2) at 13,000 seats, FCR’s arena plans wouldn’t take much expansion to beat out the 14,000 that Barclays will seat for hockey; 3) FCR can make more money selling signage at two arenas instead of one; and 4) the Islanders at least have a fan base on Long Island, and who knows how they’ll fare in Brooklyn?

All of which are reasonable points — as is the one that with Barclays Center doing bang-up business with concerts, they might no longer be so eager to jam up winter dates with hockey on top of basketball — but right now this is still just some Forbes writer thinking out loud. Bruce Ratner has come out and said that a renovated Coliseum will be too small for hockey, and the Brooklyn move is way too far along at this point to just up and abandon it for fear that fans won’t show up.

Ratner has indicated that the relocated Islanders could play six home games a year in Nassau under his plan, though, which leaves open an easy strategy to for him and Islanders owner Charles Wang to hedge their bets: Watch attendance in Brooklyn vs. Long Island, and tweak the number of home games hosted at each as they fit. (Ratner could even shift some games last-minute if, say, Beyoncé suddenly needs Barclays for some dates, but that would risk pissing off Brooklyn Islanders fans who have no idea where Nassau is and how to get there by artisanal transit.) It’s probably not a long-term solution — eventually the team needs to have an identity, and Brooklyn and Long Island are very distinct markets — but it would be one way to keep their options open.