New York Islanders’ exit to Brooklyn unnerves ‘hockey country’ in Edmonton
Don’t worry about any Oilers move, though
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, left, Brooklyn Nets owner Bruce Ratner and Islanders owner Charles Wang announce that the hockey team will move to the Barclays Center.
Photograph by: Bruce Bennett, Getty Images
VANCOUVER — In Edmonton on Wednesday, news of a 1980s Stanley Cup dynasty moving away rather than wasting more years wrangling over a badly needed new arena must have jangled a nerve or two among the populace.
It will not escape notice that with the New York Islanders’ impending move (and 25-year commitment, starting in 2015-16) to spanking-new Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the Oilers will soon occupy the National Hockey League’s oldest building.
It’s hardly a hovel, Rexall Place — which opened as Edmonton Coliseum 38 years ago and has been substantially renovated — not by any stretch. It’s just lacking in some of the bells and whistles that would enable your modern NHL owner to commit larceny on as grand a scale as he might wish.
But for the most part, one hopes, the city has sprouted a layer or two of fortitude since the days when its innards shrivelled up at every new threat by Peter Pocklington to move the Oilers to Minnesota or Hamilton or Houston or ... well, the old bandit ran so many fanciful destinations up the flagpole, they’re all a blur this point.
History is now repeating itself in the Alberta capital, with the more respectable but no less ham-handed Daryl Katz pointing a popgun at city hall and saying “Stick ’em up, or I swear I’ll shoot.”
Is it Seattle this week, or Markham (good luck dealing with the Leafs on a relocation fee)? Maybe Houston will dance again. Where’s Les Alexander when you need him? Perhaps Boots Del Biaggio in Kansas City will ... oh, never mind. He’s in jail.
Charles Wang’s announcement that he was moving his Islanders to Brooklyn starting three seasons from now — ending what seems to have been at least a decade’s worth of acrimonious haggling with Nassau County over a replacement for the Isles’ dilapidated old barn — has its origins in the same frustrating inability to get an arena built with a minimum of his own cash.
But in most other respects, the Isles’ move is but a flesh wound. They’re relocating a 45-minute drive (or a Long Island Railroad ride) away from their former home. Some Islanders fans may be closer to the new building than the old one. Subway lines converge on Barclays Center like a spider’s legs.
The team name will remain the same, because Brooklyn is the most populous of greater New York’s five boroughs, as well as technically the western end of Long Island, so those four straight Cups the Islanders won from 1980-83 will not have to be a footnote to history.
By comparison, moving the Oilers to some far-flung location (they’re all far-flung, from Edmonton) — and not for a moment do I think it’s even a remote possibility — would be the sort of affront to decency not even Gary Bettman could shrug off. What that town has gone through, and continues to go through, emptying its pockets to keep a team that’s not only viable, but near the upper end of the revenue spectrum, positively screams “hockey country” — and the NHL isn’t in the business of walking out on markets like that (although, at the moment, it’s not in any business at all.)
Not to mention the Oilers’ five Stanley Cups, the Wayne Gretzky-Mark Messier-Jari Kurri-Paul Coffey-Glenn Anderson-Grant Fuhr teams that were surely no worse than the second-greatest array of talent ever to wear the same NHL uniform. Moving the franchise would not be quite like relocating the Montreal Canadiens, but the Oiler era was such an integral piece of the league’s modern history, as was the Islanders’, airbrushing either one out of existence or trying to transplant the roots to some new market would be more cynical than anything that’s happened in hockey since Gretzky was traded to L.A.
That Edmonton cannot afford to completely dismiss the idea of Katz making tracks — though he’d have to kiss his Rexall Drugs market share goodbye — is that on rare occasions, teams do move for no apparent reason.
The Minnesota North Stars abandoned the very heartland of American hockey — a market no one ever doubted was worthy of a franchise — for Dallas, and didn’t even get much of an arena upgrade (from the Met Center to Reunion).
Then, too, if Bettman is willing to let a franchise relocate in the middle of a lockout, what’s to say he hasn’t suddenly gone all permissive and is about to start allowing his owners to move their chess pieces willy-nilly all over the map, wherever they can find a better-looking dance partner?
It could be the new Gary.
But I doubt it.
The Islanders, if they don’t completely drop the ball with the fans, are about to go from welfare recipients to contributors in revenue sharing. The new building awaiting approval in Markham, in Metro Toronto, is a gold-mine expansion franchise waiting to happen — there’s now two NHL teams in New York, so how insecure would the Maple Leafs have to be, to dig in their heels? — and whatever transpires in Quebec, it’s hard to believe a team’s not going to end up there within a very few years.
So the NHL, for all its crying-poor owners, is probably embarking on an even more lucrative future than it could have dreamed of at the time of the last Collective Bargaining Agreement.
No wonder both sides in the labour war are taking their time sizing up the booty.
On Twitter: Twitter.com/rcamcole
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