There aren’t many constants that an NHL fan can rely on these days. We know that the season starts in October (unless there’s a lockout), and it ends when the Stanley Cup is handed out in June (unless there’s an even longer lockout). The puck is black (unless it starts glowing), the ice is white (unless they sold too many ads), and there will be banners hanging from the roof (unless we’ve decided to play this one outside).
And then there was the closest thing a modern-day hockey fan has had to a sure thing: No matter what else happened, no matter how much everything else might change, the New York Islanders and the Toronto Maple Leafs would find a way to embarrass themselves.
Both franchises have become punch lines over the years, although the setups are slightly different. The Islanders were the rudderless ship, wandering around a decrepit and half-empty arena in embarrassing fishstick uniforms, clutching laughable long-term contracts signed off on by questionable owners. Meanwhile, the Leafs were the league’s arrogant rich kid, strutting down their preplanned parade route while telling anyone who would listen how wonderful they were, seemingly unaware that the rest of the hockey world was laughing at them.
And both teams, needless to say, were terrible. In the decade since the 2004 lockout, the two teams combined have yet to win a playoff series. The highest point total either produced in that span was a measly 92 (by the Islanders, seven years ago). And the only time they’re seriously talked about as contenders is when the league holds its annual draft lottery.
All of which is why it was so stunning to watch the headlines roll by on Tuesday afternoon. The news was all about the Islanders and the Leafs, and for once the news was actually good.
Let’s start with the Islanders, whose story was the bigger one even if it may not receive the deluge of attention that every Maple Leafs move inevitably gets. News broke on Tuesday that majority owner Charles Wang had agreed to sell a stake in the team to former Capitals co-owner Jonathan Ledecky and an investor. Wang will remain as majority owner until 2016, at which point Ledecky will assume the role. (The deal still requires approval from the league’s board of governors.)
That essentially spells the end of a Wang era that dates back to 2000, when the tech tycoon bought a minority share in the team (he became the majority owner in 2004). You could hardly call his time in Uniondale a success, at least in terms of results on the ice, and he was often ridiculed for some of his more outlandish ideas. He was the owner who gave Rick DiPietro a 15-year deal that ranks among the worst in NHL history, and he was roundly mocked for promoting backup goalie Garth Snow to the position of GM in 2006. (It’s worth pointing out that Snow has done just fine in the job, and still holds it today.) Perhaps the most memorable Wang story, which may or may not actually be true, had him instructing then-GM Mike Milbury to look into signing sumo wrestlers as goalies.