It was just Kevin Connolly's luck. The longtime actor and New York Islanders fan was signed on to do the narration for the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary on the John Spano ownership saga that rocked the NHL in 1997. When the director backed out, Connolly was in the right place at the right time and took over the role.
In his many interviews for "Big Shot," which premieres Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN, Connolly managed to get NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on camera. Of course, the toughest part was trying to set up an interview about a misstep in the league's history all while the lockout was going on. "To Gary's credit, he took the interview and he sat down and answered every question I had for him," said Connolly by phone last week. "I have a lot of respect for Gary Bettman and bottom line is: the guy did my movie. So I'm grateful to him for that and I was happy with the interview."
"Gary Bettman's a smart guy. He certainly wasn't worried about facing off against me in an interview. I'm sure he's been in hotter seats than that."
You likely know the general story of what went on with John Spano and the Islanders: mega-rich guy attempts to save fledgling franchise; fanbase gets hopes up; local newspaper reveals it's all a fraud. But Connolly's "Big Shot" reveals the little details behind Spano's plan to buy the franchise. From the forged financial documents to the lack of vetting on both the Islanders' and NHL's side to his relationship with then-Islanders general manager and head coach Mike Milbury --"He was a jerk. He was an a--hole," said Milbury -- you'll find yourself wondering just exactly what Spano would do and who he would fool next.
We spoke with Connolly last week about the making of "Big Shot", his feeling about it as an Islanders fan and the future of the franchise. Enjoy.
Q. How did you sell John on being involved? Obviously having him participate brings a balance to get his side of things out there.
CONNOLLY: I think most people are afraid of what they don't know. ESPN 30 for 30 has a brand, so people can look at it and see what it's going to be. That was a big help. Had I just walked in there with a camera and just asked him to sit down for an interview, he might have been a little more hesitant. Don't get me wrong, he was hesitant, but I think ultimately the fact that it was ESPN and that it was a 30 for 30 and we were doing it, essentially, regardless. In hindsight, we needed him, but we were going to do the movie with him or without him. The combination of those things and also, too, it took him a while to just trust me that I was going to give him a fair shake to tell his side of the story.
Did you find him forthcoming in his answers or did you have to pry some answers out of him?
He and I developed an off-camera relationship. He certainly was always very forthcoming with me off-camera, and I think was he was forthcoming on-camera, but it was sort of harder to get there, and understandably so. We had to talk about some difficult things, things that he's not terribly proud of and to his credit he did it. To his credit, he did it, he stepped up and took responsibility.
Over the course of your interviews with him, did you get a sense that he was truly remorseful for everything that happened?
I think he was remorseful in the sense that he feels he let people around him down, particularly his family and his friends. So I think he's kind of remorseful about people that caught up in his mess. He really thinks he was pretty close to pulling it off to where nobody would have ever known what was going on.
Being an Islanders fan you knew about this story while it was going on. While you were researching this film, did anything surprise you that you didn't know about the entire saga?
I remember the story very well because when this news broke that this new owner was coming in and taking charge of the Islanders, it was good news. It was sort of before the "super owner". This is before the Mark Cubans of the world. You hadn't really seen this before. The guy that's going to come in and he's going to sign [Mark] Messier and he's going to build a new building and he's going to stock the team full of top rate talent. I was caught up in the hype end of it. Over the course of researching in the aftermath, some of the things that John did were just crazy. Sending a wire transfer of $17 million and then [former Islanders owner] John Pickett going there and there only being $1,700. Stuff like that was crazy, but I think it was a classic example of the perfect storm and everyone else sort of assuming the other guy was doing the vetting. The Spano incident changed the landscape for all of pro sports. It's easy to point your finger at the NHL and/or Gary Bettman, but you hear them tell it, it should have been the guy that was selling the team, John Pickett's people. It would never happen again, but at that point nobody had ever seen it.
The Islanders have this season and next remaining at Nassau Coliseum. What are your thoughts about them moving to Brooklyn? Mixed? Excited?
I went to the [preseason] game against the Devils [in Brooklyn]. It was strange. I'm not going to lie. It was a little strange. But getting to know a lot of the guys on the team, Garth [Snow] and Charles [Wang], they deserve better than the Coliseum. They've put up with it long enough. Charles Wang, as far as I'm concerned, if I were him I would have been gone a long time ago. He did everything under the sun to make that new building happen in Nassau County to keep the team on Long Island and they made it impossible for him. Nassau County made it impossible for him. They ran him out of town. So I don't blame him. I have mixed emotions. What I think happened to the new arenas is that you need some memories. I remember going when the Staples Center first opened and it was like OK, but a couple championships later and all of a sudden it becomes your house. You have to stake claim to it. I think it's going to take a little getting used to. But who knows?
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