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Bettman makes pitch for Lighthouse Project

by Brian Compton
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- Time is running out.

That was the message NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman conveyed politely to Town of Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray and her constituents on Tuesday morning at Hofstra University during a public hearing on the Lighthouse Project -- a $4 billion vision of New York Islanders' owner Charles Wang that has the franchise's fate hanging in the balance.

Bettman, who grew up on Long Island, gave his full support to the project -- and managed to earn some friends in the process.

"Thank you to all the people that are here today ... it's not very often I get an ovation like that," joked Bettman, who was cheered loudly as he walked to the podium. "I am a native Long Islander, and I support the Lighthouse Project. I don't believe there's any place that the New York Islanders should be playing but here on Long Island."

Should the Lighthouse Project receive approval in the coming months, the first phase would include a renovation of the aging Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The entire project would cover 150 acres and include 2,300 apartments, a five-star hotel, a sports technology center, 1 million square feet of office space as well as restaurants and shops.

Naturally, Islanders fans are most interested in the facelift that the 37-year-old arena desperately needs. The capacity for hockey would increase from a League-low 16,234 to 17,500, while the concourses would be expanded and increased. The Isles' current lease with Nassau County expires in 2015.

As he has in the past, Bettman said the Isles' future is intertwined with the fate of the Lighthouse Project.

"There's probably no worse major-league facility in North America than the Nassau Coliseum," Bettman said. "This facility must be replaced, because I have no doubt that the Islanders can not and will not stay in this facility one second longer than they are legally bound to. The future of the Islanders on Long Island depends on this project going forward and this team getting a new arena. I'm here to respectfully urge that you expedite this project in any way you can."

While No. 1 draft pick John Tavares should help the on-ice product, a modernized Coliseum could certainly provide the Islanders with a much-needed boost at the box office. The Isles, who finished the 2008-09 season with a League-low 61 points, averaged just 13,773 fans per game -- dead last in that department as well. 

Bettman said the Coliseum itself helps keep fans away.

"I think attendance has been impacted by the state of this facility," Bettman said of the Coliseum, the Islanders' home since they entered the NHL in 1972. "In this day and age, when people go to sporting events and other entertainment venues, they're used to a certain level of ambience that you don't get any longer at the Nassau Coliseum.

"But look at draft day," Bettman continued. "Ten thousand people showed up to witness the Islanders draft John Tavares. I think there's a great deal of support for this franchise on Long Island."

Wang has unquestionably done his share to keep the team afloat. Despite finishing in the red each and every season since purchasing the team in 2000, the computer mogul has said remains dedicated to keeping the franchise on Long Island. The Lighthouse Project would allow him to do so.

"Dedication, perseverance ... endurance," Bettman said to describe the Isles' owner, who has reported losses of roughly $20 million annually. "He has given all of himself financially and emotionally in support of the Islanders. I don't think he ever imagined that seven years after he began this effort, he'd still be at it. But he has stuck with it. I think that's a testament to the man, and it should give people great comfort that he'll see this project through."

Just a few months ago, it seemed as if the project was at a crossroads. Since then, though, several highly-respected politicians -- including New York Gov. David Paterson -- have endorsed it publically. Former Islanders Mike Bossy and Bobby Nystrom also spoke Tuesday and pleaded with the Town of Hempstead to move forward with the project.

"It looks like the attention that it's getting and the momentum is the strongest that it's been," Bettman said. "I'm hopeful this indicates a new era."  

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