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Playing in his first game after returning from injury, Rick DiPietro #39 of the New York Islanders waits for faceoff against the Toronto Maple Leafs on December 26, 2008 at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) (Bruce Bennett/2008 Getty Images)
Playing in his first game after returning from injury, Rick DiPietro #39 of the New York Islanders waits for faceoff against the Toronto Maple Leafs on December 26, 2008 at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) (Bruce Bennett/2008 Getty Images)

Big Apple Hockey Part I

Sinking Isles need lifeline Add to ...

Quebec City radio personality Vince Cauchon is bringing more than 20 busloads of "Nordiques Nation" fans to Uniondale for Saturday's game between the New York Islanders and Atlanta Thrashers. The group reportedly will be wearing blue shirts and making a commotion at the 15-minute mark of each period, to mark the number of years it's been since the Nordiques moved to Colorado and became the Avalanche.

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The hungry-for-hockey Quebeckers smell blood. The Islanders are seemingly operating at the whim of owner Charles Wang and, right now, they are barely operating.

The Islanders have lost 18 of 19 games and rank 29th in league attendance. Last season, after the Isles missed the playoffs for a third consecutive year, the club jacked ticket prices by about 20 per cent. This season only the Phoenix Coyotes are drawing a worse average crowd than the Islanders' 10,770 a game - which is down almost 2,000 from last season.

Compounding matters for Wang, the team is ineligible for revenue sharing that would relieve an estimated $20-million-plus (U.S.) in annual losses, due to its location in the New York market. The worth of the team has descended about 20 per cent from the price paid by Wang 10 years ago, to $151-million, according to the latest Forbes magazine valuations. Newsday reported last year that Wang had spent $209-million - an average of $23-million annually - to keep the team operating.

Quebec, Hartford, Kansas City, Winnipeg and perhaps nearby Queens, N.Y., are pursuing a franchise, but Wang doesn't appear to be making even a token effort to sell his team, nor to improve it. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said there are no plans to speak to Wang, let alone intervene by taking over the team, as the NBA announced it would do with the New Orleans Hornets this week.

Daly said recently that the Islanders cannot be competitive without a new arena. Yet, because Wang intends to honour the terms of his lease through 2015 at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, there's no point speculating about the team's future.

Ever since the town of Hempstead, N.Y., derailed Wang's proposed $3.8-billion Lighthouse Project - a commercial, retail and housing development that would have included a rebuilt Coliseum - the owner has seemingly zipped his wallet. The Islanders operate with a payroll of $42.7-million, near the floor of the NHL's $59.4-million salary cap. But the actual payroll is about $10-million less because the official number is inflated with the buyout costs of former players Alexei Yashin and Brendan Witt, as well as the cost of injured players the team won't put on the long-term list, and bonuses.

The team is operating without a president or a director of amateur scouting. The Islanders have become so irrelevant in the market, the New York media paid more attention to general manager Garth Snow's banning of popular blogger Chris Botta from games and practices than to most of the team's games.

The state of affairs is a far cry even from 2006, when the mercurial Wang, who declined to be interviewed, declared he put together a committee to bring the Islanders back to glory. The Isles won four consecutive Stanley Cups in the early 1980s, but haven't won a playoff series since 1993, and haven't been to the postseason since 2007.

The hockey decisions were to be made by a group composed of nominal GM Neil Smith, head coach Ted Nolan, adviser Pat LaFontaine, player personnel director Brian Trottier and former GM Mike Milbury. Smith lasted six weeks, as did LaFontaine. Trottier was the last to go when his contract was not renewed last summer.

Four years later, Wang is surrounded by a small group of friends who are all on the team payroll. Snow was promoted from backup goaltender to GM. While many in hockey believe Wang makes every decision, Snow insists otherwise.

"I've never had a financial restriction in any manner regarding the addition of players, whether through free agency, through trades or through waiver pickups," Snow said. "I have total autonomy to do what I think is in the best interests of the hockey club."

Snow says injuries contributed to the team's woes, which included a 14-game losing streak. Young stars like John Tavares, Matt Moulson and several prospects mean "our future is extremely bright."

Some observers wonder if Tavares, 20, will leave as soon as he qualifies for unrestricted free agency. He says no.

"I've got a bright future and the team has a bright future," Tavares said. "That is other people talking and I can't let it affect me."

Snow and goaltender Rick DiPietro, who is also close to Wang, say things would be better if there was a new arena in sight. DiPietro signed a 15-year deal in 2006, and has since been affected by injuries.

"I have absolutely 100-million-per-cent confidence in Garth Snow and Charles [Wang]" DiPietro said. "[Wang]has never failed at anything in his life and he's not going to start now."

The plans for a new arena are unclear. Nassau County executive Edward Mangano is said to be working on a plan that involves a rebuild of the Coliseum, along with a casino to be built by the Shinnecock Indian Nation. But Wang has not spoken publicly about it.

All that is known for sure, as Snow says, is the Islanders' lease for the Coliseum expires in 2015, and "we won't play in this building one day longer than we have to."

On Monday, Part 2: A profile of New York Rangers GM Glen Sather, by Roy MacGregor

Follow on Twitter: @dshoalts

 

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