Mike Sielski of the Wall Street Journal wrote a piece yesterday you won’t want to miss called “Cutting a Star Out of the Picture.” It’s about the great Pat LaFontaine, and the New York Islanders determination to whitewash his contributions to the franchise from all memory.
The New York Islanders are a part of my own history, so I take this affront personally. I’m aware that they’ve been as bad as any organization out there for quite some time now (cellar-year after cellar-year, spending to the salary floor, Nassau Coliseum in general), but this is a new type of embarrassing. Charles Wang seems content to play around with his fun little organization like it’s some toy, or more accurately, like he’s a 10 year-old boy pulling the legs off an insect for kicks. I want him to find something else to destroy.
Pat LaFontaine spent eight years with the New York Islanders. Over those years, he scored 566 points, including 287 goals, good enough for 6th and 5th all-time on Islanders career totals lists (BTW, I’m quite proud of my Pops location on most of those lists - he was pretty okay, apparently).
As Sielski points out, we’re now a mere two weeks from the 25th anniversary of one of the biggest goals in Islanders history, the “Easter Epic” where LaFontaine put the Washington Capitals away in the fourth overtime of Game 7 of the Patrick Division semi-final in ’87. It was nearly 2 a.m. when that damn puck finally went in the net to make it 3-2 Isles.
Since then, he’s been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame (1,013 points in a concussion-shortened career of 865 games), taken up coaching the Long Island Royals youth hockey team, and has become one of the most charitable men on the Island, where he resides. I’ve personally encountered a total of zero people with negative things to say about him, and quite frankly, he’s one of the nicest men I’ve had the privilege to meet.
And the Islanders are trying to pretend he never existed? Way to pick your spots.
If you remember back before the Garth Snow era, Neil Smith was hired as team’s GM (June of 2006), and LaFontaine took an unpaid - remember that part, unpaid – role as senior advisor. When Wang wanted to fire newly-hired Neil Smith after just six weeks, LaFontaine used his position as advisor, and adamantly recommended that Wang keep Smith. He wasn’t successful (highlighting the fact that his role as “advisor” didn’t carry any weight), so he resigned just hours later, not in defense of Smith, but because he didn’t like the direction Wang wanted to take the franchise.
Wang then hired backup goalie (like, actual backup goalie at the time) Garth Snow to be the team’s GM. Zero experience. Pulled from the pipes, placed in the office. They finished fourth in the Atlantic that year, and have since finished last, last, last and last in the division. You don’t need me to draw a graph to imagine what that plot line would look like. I bet they wish they had someone to advise them now.
(By the way, here’s Mike Milbury’s quote on LaFontaine’s decision to step down from an unpaid role in a toxic situation: “Pat ran for the hills. Pat ran for cover. “It was cowardly, and it was terrible. And if Charles was [ticked], I wouldn’t blame him in the least.“)
This is a major problem in New York - Wang wants to be the GM. To fire someone after six weeks, you have to believe he didn’t like some decisions Smith was going to make, so he wanted to replace him with someone he could exert more influence on (that’s strictly my opinion, by the way). That’s a team “direction” that’d cause me to step down too.
It’s the Islanders “40th anniversary season,” so before every game they show a highlight package of The Glory Days, when the Islanders competed for Stanley Cups, or at the very least, competed - only they show no LaFontaine. The Islanders have a team Hall of Fame that inducted my father in 2005. This year they inducted Kenny Jonsson – to reiterate, despite being in the HOCKEY Hall of Fame, the Islanders have yet to induct LaFontaine. The Buffalo Sabres have already retired his number.
The public face slaps have been relentless. When LaFontaine and Steve Webb biked 550 miles for charity, the Isles website wrote about it. Except…they never mentioned LaFontaine on the website, just Webb. And the Islanders confirmed that this happened for the Wall Street Journal story, which explains all of this far better than I can.
And worst of all was when Brian Burke and LaFontaine were going to meet at an Isles game to discuss some joint charity work, the Isles denied – fucking DENIED – Pat LaFontaine a credential. The Islanders denied Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine a credential, If I may be so bold. So, Brian Burke left him a ticket, LaFontaine showed up for the meeting, and has never set foot in Nassau Coliseum since.
It shouldn’t be hard for anyone in Islanders PR to understand what a nightmare these decisions have been. This is not how you run a class organization, which the Islanders have been in the past. When my Dad was inducted, they treated me extraordinarily well. But somewhere around, oh, 2006, things really went off the rails. They may look better on the ice after Snow signed the kids to great contracts, but the team is still a dog and pony show off it.
My biggest beef is with Wang. I like the team on the ice. If Snow were allowed to spend, I have no doubt he could fill in some quality talent around the main puzzle pieces and make a picture (as I mentioned, his recent contract signings have been great). He’s just not allowed. Wang won’t spend. Instead, both Wang and Snow have conspired to run good people out of the building, media, ex-players and fans. They push Isles propaganda, but it comes off more as “Kim Jong Il had 11 holes-in-one en route to shooting 38 under” than anything else. The truth keeps coming out.
While LaFontaine is being publicly disrespected, the fans lose too. They’d love to see his old highlights in the video packages, they’d love to see his pictures on the wall, they’d love to have him involved in the organization again.
Pat LaFontaine deserves better, but I’m not sure it’s a fixable situation without a change in ownership. You can’t un-pickle a cucumber, and this grudge has been soaking in brine for years.