It's hard to believe Long Island GM swap not a joke

Updated: July 20, 2006, 4:35 PM ET
By E.J. Hradek | ESPN The Magazine

On Tuesday afternoon, there was a collective laugh around the NHL. New York Islanders owner Charles Wang, the nutty professor of new wave sports management techniques, got back to his screwball roots, firing general manager Neil Smith on just the 41st day of his tenure.

Wang, the guy who authorized the league's first (and only) 10-year player contract and seriously considered sending team execs to Japan to scout Sumo wrestlers with the idea of turning them into NHL goalkeepers, explained his decision by saying that he and Smith had "philosophical differences."

Those differences were pretty straight forward. Wang is blindly committed to a different, nontraditional type of team management; Smith expected to do more than nod his head and change the paper in the fax machine during his second chance as a GM.

But Wang's decision to fire Smith (who refused to resign when confronted by Wang on Tuesday morning) was just the set-up to the latest Islander joke.

The punch line?

Garth Snow.

Nothing against Snow, who's a pretty sharp guy, but just about everyone who received the club's bombshell press release on Tuesday afternoon thought it might have been some kind of gag. I had to eyeball the e-mail message two or three times to make sure it was legit.

Snow, who gave up his other job as the club's backup goalie, comes to the new position with no management experience. None. (Ironically, despite his retirement, Snow's $750,000 annual salary will count against the club's cap in each of the next two seasons.)

In Wang's sports management-by-committee fairyland, the fact that Snow is a novice might not hurt him too much. After all, if he has any ideas, they'll have to be vetted through the club's management board. And, if they get "board" approval, the owner clearly retains the right to do whatever he feels like whenever he feels like doing it.

In the hours leading up to Wang's decision to fire Smith, former Isles management board member/ex-special adviser to the owner Pat LaFontaine got a taste of the owner's prerogative. LaFontaine had advised Wang to give Smith a little more time. Then, failing that, he advised Wang to take some time in choosing a new GM.

Wang did neither.

Now old No. 16 might have been hit in the head a few times during his stellar playing career, but he's no dummy. LaFontaine had a quick glimpse into his Islander future, and he didn't like what he saw. He resigned his somewhat informal post a few hours after Smith's dismissal.

To be clear, it wasn't Smith's departure that directly caused LaFontaine to walk away. In fact, several sources say LaFontaine wasn't thrilled with Smith, either. But, the former Islander star center just didn't like the way the whole thing went down.

In a strange way, LaFontaine is a winner in this mess. The perception will be that he was too smart and too classy to stay involved with such a sideshow. One league exec went so far as to say he was "very impressed" with LaFontaine's quick action.

Smith, who's out a job and likely will have to battle the club for full payment on his three-year contract (worth nearly $1.5 million), comes out bruised but not forever damaged.

In phone conversations, several league executives told me they felt Smith was lucky to be away from such a mess. And, in fact, the decision to hire a novice (Snow) presents the impression that Smith's managerial skills and experience weren't appreciated on Long Island. If Smith doesn't get another kick at the GM can, it won't be because of this 41-day stint.

Perhaps the biggest winner in this mess is former GM Mike Milbury, who somehow still holds a position of prominence within Wang's sports business and remains a close confidant of the owner. The two men were seen chatting outside the Nassau Coliseum after Wang's late-afternoon media session.

Six weeks ago, at the press conference announcing the arrival of Smith, LaFontaine, player development director Bryan Trottier and new head coach Ted Nolan, Milbury sat quietly at the end of the dais. It appeared he had been pushed out of the loop. Now, with Smith and LaFontaine so quickly out of the picture and the inexperienced Snow in the GM's chair, Milbury again will have a larger voice in the hockey operations. In learning the job, Snow will have to lean on someone. That someone likely will be Milbury, who's the only guy in the building with any GM experience.

If I were a full-time conspiracy theorist (I'm only part-time), I might wonder just how Milbury managed to move back to the head of the class. Hmmm?

Oddly, Nolan might be damaged a bit by Wang's decision. In the close-knit hockey community, right or wrong, Nolan is still viewed by some as a "GM-killer." In this case, Nolan's hands seem to be clean. Yeah, there was an in-house dispute over who should hire the equipment manager. (Wang sided with Nolan over Smith on that monster decision.) And, Nolan opted to quickly hire his two junior assistants, Dan Flynn and Dan Lacroix, rather than heeding Smith's good advice to take a little more time and interview a few more guys with recent NHL experience. However, sources with knowledge of the situation say neither issue was important enough to cause a major rift.

Still, there will be execs around the league who'll wonder if Nolan played a part in this mess. For some, that could be the perception. And, that perception could become reality in those minds. That's not good for a guy trying to re-establish himself after nine years out of the league.

Snow, meanwhile, says he's "ecstatic" about his new gig. And, really, he should be. It's not every day you see a guy go directly from the ice to that position. He certainly doesn't have to worry about high expectations, which makes his transition a little easier. And, his lack of experience doesn't guarantee that he'll fail. It just makes it a lot more difficult for him to succeed. Let me say that again. It makes it a lot more difficult for him to succeed.

Snow will need solid hockey guys around him. Director of pro scouting Kenny Morrow can be counted among that group. Unfortunately, after Morrow, that list isn't very long on Long Island.

All this brings me back to Wang, who really should've hired a competent hockey guy to run his team. Oh, wait, he already did that. Then, he fired him just 41 days into that guy's tenure. Maybe somewhere down the road, the Isles' mad chemist of an owner will get the last laugh. For now, though, the joke is still on him.

EJ Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com. Also, click here to send EJ a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

E.J. Hradek

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
E.J. Hradek is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, joining the staff prior to its launch in 1998. He began covering hockey as a writer/editor for Hockey Illustrated in 1989.

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