In spite of their struggles in the standings this season, interest in the New York Islanders has hardly waned if phone calls to the "NHL Hour with Commissioner Gary Bettman" are any indication.
Virtually all season long, Islanders fans have been clamoring as to when Bettman would get either owner Charles Wang or GM Garth Snow as a guest on his show. On Thursday night, the fans got both.
Wang and Snow addressed issues regarding the team's future on Long Island and attempts to rebuild the team, first with Bettman and then nine callers who waited patiently through the show to have their questions answered and concerns heard.
Wang, who has owned the Islanders for the past decade, said he felt it was his "civic responsibility," as someone who moved to New York at the age of 8, to buy the team and attempt to make it successful in Nassau County.
However, the team has lost money over the past decade and is looking to have a new arena in place by the time its lease at the aging Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum runs out in 2015. Wang's efforts in pushing forward the Lighthouse Project, a business venture that would include not only an arena for the Islanders but offices, restaurants and other facilities, have repeatedly stalled.
"You have to have a place that people want to go to," Wang said. "You have to have a place that players want to go to. You have to do that."
Snow reiterated Wang's concerns as they pertain to his job in attracting free agents. Touching on criticism that he hasn't spent enough money to make the Islanders competitive, Snow reiterated that the team goes after top players as soon as the July 1 signing period open.
"Charles has been great. There have been no financial restrictions whatsoever," he said. "We've gone hard at the top free agents on July 1, and I'm not going to get into names, but in many instances it was more [years] and more money, but it is just a situation where they didn't choose to come here."
Asked by Bettman if playing at the Coliseum has impacted his ability to sign big-name players, Wang said, "Absolutely. This past July 1 is probably the best example, when not only myself but [Islanders captain] Doug Weight called one of our targets and he took a significant amount of money less than what we had offered, and his comment to me was, 'How much longer are you going to be in the Coliseum?' and 'When are you getting a new building?' … It's a huge concern. For players who haven't been in this organization, when they come to Long Island to play a game and they walk across the parking lot from the hotel to the rink and they think that's what Long Island is all about."
To anyone who thinks signing big-name free agents to mega-contracts represents the automatic path to success, Wang pointed out that when the Islanders signed Alexei Yashin to such a deal in 2001, it didn't pay the type of dividends the organization had hoped.
In past seasons, the Islanders have succeeded in landing impact players such as defenseman Mark Streit -- his preseason injury, as well as one to up-and-coming young forward Kyle Okposo, set the team back this season. They entered play Thursday with 20 points, tied with the Devils for fewest in the League.
"This was not supposed to be a rebuilding year," Wang said, acknowledging many Islanders fans' frustrations. "We are probably as disappointed, if not more disappointed, than all the fans. But we lost basically our No. 1 guy on the power play, Mark Streit, Kyle Okposo, our [alternate] captain, we lost both of them for a huge amount of time, and then Dougie Weight, the captain himself, gets hurt too, so we've been faced with a lot of these issues.
"But still, every time there's an injury it's an opportunity for somebody to come up through the ranks and take that position and do something with that opportunity. But some of them are very young. So this was not to be a building year -- we had tremendous hopes for it and we are as disappointed and continue to try harder."
Other issues Wang and Snow were asked to address by Bettman and/or the callers included the turnover of personnel within the organization and the departures of notable media like TV analyst Billy Jaffe and popular blogger Chris Botta, who were seen by some fans as being forced out by the organization.
"There has been turnover in my staff, whether it's been scouting, whether it's been coaches," Snow said. "But we have, on any given day or night, 19 scouts out watching draft-eligible players or professional players that will someday help us get to where we want to be. Above and beyond the 19 it's between 35 and 40 staff members that I have, and I don't know where that comes from, that we don't have enough staff, but I can tell you from where I sit that I think I've built a great bunch of people, and when you look at the past few drafts at the amateur level, we've been regarded as having one of the better drafts in the League. And when you look at the pro scouting part of that, whether it's Mark Streit or Dwayne Roloson, we've had a lot of success in those areas."
Wang added: "In any business, you have people that come and they go sometimes … you may be there a long time but there may come a time when it doesn't quite fit with the organization."
Once Bettman opened up the program to callers, the questions from Islanders fans ran the gamut of subjects from the development of prospects to the price of attending a game. Most popular, however, was whether Wang intends to sell the team if he can't get a new arena and if it would be moved off Long Island and even out of state.
"Right now we hope that never comes to any fruition," Wang told one caller. "We're working very hard to try to keep the team on Long Island because that's my home. That's where it belongs."
Wang acknowledged that a move to Queens and a possible arena near where the Mets play at Citi Field is an option, but adamantly stated, "The team is not for sale."
Asked by another fan about his commitment in pushing the Lighthouse Project and trying to see that the Islanders succeed, Wang answered succinctly.
"I'm a hockey fan. I think it's a wonderful thing to have, as I said before, major metropolitan areas have to have major league professional teams," he said. "It's just like your house, you want to fix it up and be the nicest house you can have. And that's the way I feel about Long Island."