After nearly two decades of pain and suffering on and off the ice, the New York Islanders and their fans -- the community still proudly known as Islanders Country -- are finally one realistic step closer to having a new home in Nassau County.
A plan was announced Wednesday at an awkward, often cringe-inducing combination news conference/booster club rally/labor union gathering at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum -- which, along with the Joe in Detroit, is one of only two arenas left in the NHL worthy of being called a "barn."
The plan, as hatched by Nassau County executive Edward Mangano and Islanders owner Charles Wang, is a little bit devilish and little bit genius. On Aug. 1, the residents of Nassau will vote on a $400 million bond referendum: $350 million for an arena built on the Coliseum property, $50 million for a minor league ballpark -- because, after all, who hasn't been crying for a Nassau rival to Suffolk's Long Island Ducks?
The majority vote has to be yes, or the Islanders will likely leave town when their Coliseum lease expires in 2015.
The majority vote, unless the Islanders and Nassau's political leadership really whiff on this empty-netter, will be yes.
The key here is Aug. 1. Think about it. The vote is not going to be on Election Day, when tens of thousands of Nassau residents would be in position for a knee-jerk rejection of a $400 million expense by a bankrupt county. (The fact is, county taxes are not expected to go up if Wang gets the dough for his building on the Coliseum property. The bond will be covered by eventual revenue from the new facility.)
The Aug. 1 date, mandated by Mangano, naturally irks the opposition. Aug. 1 is a Monday in the summer. Think about the people who will be inspired to vote Yes or No, to make the effort to drive to the polling stations to take a stand on one issue on a Monday during a Long Island summer.
The Yeas: Islanders fans, the die-hards and the moderates; the unions that approve of the jobs that will be created, and every friend and colleague the union workers urge to show up to vote; everyone in Nassau who wants to see that asphalt on the Coliseum site finally put to good use; everyone convinced by the county and Islanders' marketing campaign that this will actually lead to lower taxes; lovers of concerts and family shows. (Please feel free to add your categories in the comments below.)
The Nays: People convinced by opposing politicians and a handful (at most) of community activist coalitions insisting that the referendum is corporate welfare and Wang and Mangano are evil. (Got other ideas? Comment.)
In an unusual development, the Islanders are the heavy favorites in this game. On Aug. 1, who is going to make the effort to vote against keeping the Islanders on Long Island, vote against the creation of thousands of jobs and vote against a plan that -- as all the ads will insist -- does not raise taxes? In what figures to be an expensive sales, marketing and public relations campaign, the Islanders have more than two months to get their positive messages out to fans and residents. Mike Bossy, John Tavares and other stars of the past and future will spend part of the summer rallying support. The opposition, with no big names and with likely little funding, will not have much to engage and hold the public's attention.
Of course, Wang can help his cause by improving his hockey club. To gain momentum from his loudest supporters, Wang can finalize a long-term contract with restricted free agent Michael Grabner, the Calder Trophy finalist who scored 34 goals this season and won over fans with his daffy daily life observations on Twitter. Wang can push to sign franchise player Tavares, whose Entry Level contract ends in 2012, to a deal that sends a message to the rest of the NHL that the Islanders are in business and are here to stay. When the unrestricted free agency period begins July 1, and the trade market begins to open up a week or so later, Wang can direct general manager Garth Snow to significantly upgrade the talent and the depth on the roster.
What the Islanders don't want to do is take their fans for granted. More than any home opener in October, dynasty celebration in January or playoff game in April, the Islanders need their fans to show up on Aug. 1. That's politics. That's professional sports. Wang and Mangano must line up supporters to counter everyone who watched Wednesday's Gong Show and thought, "Wow, Charles and Ed are really pulling a fast one with this Aug. 1 thing."
"I'm extremely confident that the creation of a destination center and home for the Islanders will be realized," Wang said at the pep rally.
He has reason to be confident. But if the Islanders and Mangano somehow blow this, they'll only have themselves to blame.
Christopher Botta is the managing editor of the blog Islanders Point Blank and was a 20-year executive with the club until May 2008.