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[Ed. Note: Some lists chronicle the best in hockey. Others the worst. Others the most memorable or greatest or essential. What Puck Daddy’s 2016 Summer Series seeks to do is capture those indefinable, quirky, oddities that occur every season. Moments that defy prediction or, in some cases, logical explanation. Welcome to WEIRD NHL.]
Since their inception in 1972, the New York Islanders have been a thrilling roller coaster ride. The highs have taken them to uncharted success but the lows have led them to several dark places.
From the beginning, they had rocky ownership, as Roy Boe faced several financial obstacles. But then, they became the quickest expansion franchise to not only win one Stanley Cup, but four consecutive championships along with 19 straight playoff series victories. Then the Islanders hit a bit of a rough patch, but current captain John Tavares led them to their first playoff series victory since 1993. They appear to be on the right track now, but they have had plenty of weird moments along the way.
Realistically, you could ask 10 people to fill out this list and there could be 40 different moments.
5. Santa’s Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Christmas
It was December 23, 2003 and the Islanders were playing the Philadelphia Flyers. The organization offered a free ticket to anyone who showed up for the game dressed as Santa.
The Islanders thought their promotion might draw about 250 would-be Santas. Instead, double that number showed up. One Santa even brought a sign that read ‘All we want for Christmas is a new G.M.,’ a criticism directed at general manager Mike Milbury.
“The team invited the Santas to parade on the ice after the first period. Some of the Santas, many of them young men, began sliding across the ice, happy to be part of the festivities.
“Soon, however, there was trouble. A few Santas ripped off their red jackets to reveal Rangers jerseys. That was too much for the many Santas who were Islanders fans. It was as if the clock had turned back two years, and Theo Fleury, then a Ranger, was back on the Coliseum ice doing the chicken dance to mock the Islanders.
“Some of the Islander Santas swarmed the Ranger Santas. A youngster in a Santa suit was seen pulling a Pavel Bure Rangers sweater off one subversive Santa.
“When the Islanders’ Arron Asham, who scored two goals in the team’s 4-2 victory, was told afterward about the Bure sweater being yanked, he said: ”Really? That’s awesome. I hope they have that on tape.”
It shows that even Santa Claus isn’t immune to the rivalry between Isles fans and Rangers fans.
4. Garth Snow retires, becomes GM
When Mike Milbury mercifully left the Islanders in 2006, the fans believed that front office stability was on the horizon. But Charles Wang had other ideas. He hired Neil Smith to be the general manager, Pat LaFontaine as a senior adviser and Ted Nolan to be the coach.
However, just 40 days after Smith got the job, he, along with LaFontaine resigned.
“As I made clear at the press conference last month, we are running this as a business, incorporating the opinions of our hockey operations staff, including Ted Nolan, Bryan Trottier and Pat LaFontaine,” Wang said in a statement at the time. “Despite Neil’s commitment to me that he could work in this environment, he later expressed to me on a number of occasions his philosophical opposition to our business model.”
One subject of controversy, appeared to be the hiring of an equipment manager. Smith felt that it was his duty, but Wang allowed Nolan to make the hire. Supposedly, Wang had each staff member report directly to him, instead of establishing a chain of command.
After Smith’s resignation, most thought a new search would have begun but who did Wang decide to hire? The backup goaltender!
Garth Snow immediately retired and was named the new general manager.
“I spoke with Garth at length throughout the spring about the general manager’s position, and he really impressed me with his passion and his knowledge,” Wang told the New York Times back then. “When the job opened up, the choice was an easy one.
“Garth knows the league as well as anyone, has an eye for talent and understands how our staff works as a team. Most importantly, Garth is a man of integrity, someone I trust will work hard, be creative and represent the Islanders with dignity.”
While Snow’s emergence was a shock to some, former Islanders goaltender Chico Resch saw potential in him early on.
“Garth knew how to speak, be charming, engaging, obviously really smart,” former Islanders goaltender Chico Resch said. “I don’t think he would have ever ever gotten a GM job as quickly if it hadn’t been the circumstances that arose. I think if that’s what Garth wanted, he would have eventually got a shot, but he was very fortunate that it happened.”
Snow has had a mediocre career as an executive to this point, but the Islanders believe they have turned into a potential contender. If New York continues to build in the right direction, Snow’s reputation could change for the better and he might even eventually be regarded as one of the league’s top executives.
3. Islanders and Led Zeppelin combined to beat Black Hawks
During the 1977 playoffs, the Islanders battled the Chicago Black Hawks (yes, two words at the time) in the opening round of the playoffs. After the Isles won the first game 5-2, they were supposed to head to Chicago for the second game.
However, Chicago’s management did not want to move a Led Zeppelin concert or buy out the act, forcing the Hawks to host a game at Nassau Coliseum.
Neil Milbert of the Chicago Tribune wrote:
Bill Wirtz, Black Hawk boss, decided to forego the home-ice advantage rather than give Led Zeppelin’s sellout rock concert the heave-hoa. Since rules prohibited the second game from being played in a neutral rink and since the New Yorkers looked unkindly on a Chicago matinee performance Friday, It came down to tile Islanders vs. Bugs Bunny.
Bugs went hopping down the bunny trail, and with him went Chicago’s hopes of seeing the Hawks upset the Islanders on home ice.
Also, NHL by laws say the game must be played Thursday. That law would have been waived only consent of both teams.
“I felt it necessary to make the game available to our fans and not at some ridiculous time like one Friday afternoon,” said Islander General Manager Bill Torrey, referring to the team‘s road commitment with New York’s WOR-TV.
That commitment, and the fact that Chicago Stadium is booked through Sunday, combined to preclude the possibility of Game 3 being transferred to Chicago . . . if there is a Game 3.
The hierarchy’s decision to join the rock groupies obviously isn’t a morale-builder for a team that badly needs an emotional lift.
“It’s almost as though the people upstairs decided to write us off completely,” said young Bob Murray, summing up the sentiments of 17 other players.
“Sure, it’s a disadvantage that we won’t have home ice,” Coach Bill White, “a big disadvantage.”
Imagine how this would have played on social media if it existed in 1977? The Islanders buy out Bugs Bunny (of all things) while the Black Hawks refuse to move Led Zeppelin in order to host a playoff game.
The Islanders went on to win Game 2, on the road, at Nassau Coliseum to advance in the playoffs, but would eventually lose to the Montreal Canadiens in the Semi-Finals.
2. New York Radio Showdown: Mad Mike vs Mad Dog
It is quite possibly the most bizarre radio interview that an NHL executive has ever participated in. Shortly after Mike Milbury relieved Peter Laviolette of his coaching duties, Milbury went on the air with Mike Francesa and Chris “Mad Dog” Russo” on WFAN in New York.
The spot started off cordial as Francesa allowed Milbury to explain why he felt it was time to move on to a new coach after making the playoffs the past two seasons. But then, Russo dropped the first bomb:
“Mike, how are you still the GM? Let’s be fair and just say it the way it is. You have not done a good job here. And yet you continue to hire and fire coaches, your drafting is pathetic.”
The Islanders hired Milbury as coach in the summer of 1995, but by December of that year, the team also made him general manager. During his tenure, he went through almost one coach per season:
1) Mike Milbury July 1995 – January 1997
2) Rick Bowness January 1997 – March 1998
3) Mike Milbury March 1998 – January 1999
4) Bill Stewart January 1999 – May 1999
5) Butch Goring May 1999 – March 2001
6) Lorne Henning March 2001 – May 2001
7) Peter Laviolette May 2001 – June 2003
8) Steve Stirling June 2003 – January 2006
Later in the interview, Milbury attempted to explain his position on the Roberto Luongo fiasco. He defended his viewpoint and stated that if Oleg Kvasha (one player acquired in the deal from Florida alongside Mark Parrish) becomes a 60-point player, the Islanders got what they want. Well, safe to say the Islanders did not win that trade, at least by that standard.
However, one of the tensest moments of the interview came when Russo and Milbury would argue about the amount of coaches hired and fired throughout Mike’s tenure.
Russo asks, “Add them up for me. How many coaches have you hired and fired since you have been the general manager, including yourself?”
The two began to go back-and-forth whether interim coaches should count on that list. Milbury claimed they should not count. After they tallied up the total — including interim coaches — Russo says, “Mike, let me get this straight. You have been the general manager of the New York Islanders and in your nine years, you have had, under your tutelage, seven coaches. That is a disgrace.”
Russo appeared to be on some sort of crusade and would not let it go. He asked, “Do you think seven coaches in nine years is acceptable?”
Then the conversation shifted to prospects and other such details but Russo had to find a way to get one more jab in on Milbury. “This is your last coach you get to hire; would you agree with that? You don’t get another one do you?”
Milbury responded, “I thought the last one was the last one.”
Give Milbury credit for staying on the line for the entire interview, but can you think of a weirder radio segment by an NHL executive?
1. Smoke and Mirrors in the Owner’s Box
There might not be a story “weirder” in all of sports than how John Spano, took over the New York Islanders.
For those who do not know, John Spano defrauded the NHL and the Islanders. It was his third attempt to buy an NHL franchise (he previously tried to buy the Dallas Stars and Florida Panthers) but the catch was, he did not have the money.
However, that minor detail did not stop Spano as he ascended to power and was in complete control of the storied Islanders franchise for months.
Somehow, he convinced Fleet Bank in Boston, to lend him $80 million. In the ESPN documentary “Big Shot,” Spano said that money was easier to get than his first car loan.
“I set it up so other people couldn’t talk to other people, or they didn’t have enough knowledge to put two and two together,” Spano told ESPN. “The guy at the bank knew one thing. The guy at the NHL knew another. My attorney knew something else. If they would have all got together, they would have realized something wasn’t right.”
Spano was portrayed as a tycoon from Texas and socialized with Jerry Jones (owner of the Cowboys), Roger Staubach, and many others.
Islanders fans were convinced he was the savior from the ownership group that introduced the Fisherman logo (enough said). Spano had grand ideas, including renovating the Coliseum. But eventually it all came crashing down.
Right before the Garden City Hotel owner – Myron Nelkin — was about to help Spano financially – which could have extended his ownership at least one year – Newsday broke the story.
As Newsday exposed Spano, he still wouldn’t give up hope. According to the documentary, Peter Botte, reporter from the New York Daily News, received a phone call from Spano asking to meet at a New York City hotel.
Spano told Botte that his benefactor is a deceased mobster named Anthony Salerno. “But it was just an amazing thing,” Botte said in the documentary. “Even when this thing is falling apart, he is still throwing these crazy stories out there.”
Eventually, Spano ran out of possibilities and relinquished control of the franchise. Spano, was arrested months later for several counts of fraud and ultimately ended up going to prison.
But, the fact of the matter is that John Spano, fooled everybody and was the man in charge of an NHL franchise for several months, without paying for the team.
Previous Weird NHL Posts: Anaheim | Arizona | Boston | Buffalo | Calgary | Carolina | Chicago | Colorado | Columbus | Dallas | Detroit | Edmonton | Florida | Los Angeles | Minnesota | Montreal | Nashville | New Jersey
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About the author: Scott Charles is the Editor-in-Chief of Islandersinsight.com, and a beat writer for Blueshirt Bulletin. Scott had no intention of joining the sports media world until he began working for Stan Fischler. You will most likely find Scott at Barclays Center or Madison Square Garden chatting with anyone who is willing to listen. Follow him on Twitter, @Scottmcharles.