The Kevin Connolly film Big Shot chronicles Dallas businessman John Spano and his purchase of the struggling New York Islanders in 1996. Spano appeared to be the franchise’s savior, swooping in to save the storied Islanders from the NHL’s basement with his perceived deep pockets, and a commitment to keep the team on Long Island.
The latest ESPN 30-for-30 documentary, which airs tonight (Tuesday, October 22 at 8pm/ET), is the series’ second run at a hockey story. Kings Ransom focused on the Edmonton Oilers 1988 trade that sent Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings was the first feature in the 30-for-30 film series.
Spano, as it would turn out, was too good to be true for the Islanders and their fans. The would-be owner forged numerous documents and lied his way into a fortune that never really existed. With his Dallas based rental company and country club friends, Spano had fooled bankers, investors, and then Islanders owner John Pickett into believing he had the resources to buy the hockey team.
“You run in the right circles and people just stop asking questions,” Spano tells director Connolly in a one-on-one interview in the film. This was the basis of the pseudo millionaire’s existence as someone who appeared to be in the position to purchase a hockey team for $165 million.
Big Shot is possibly the best entry in the 30-for-30 so far this year. It works very well as an informative look at one of the biggest financial scandals in recent memory involving a professional sports franchise. It’s not without its faults, but Connolly does a fairly good job of riding the line between fan and filmmaker.
The film’s finest moments are the historical bit on the Islanders and their four straight Stanley Cup victories from 1980-1983, and the points in the film where Mike Milbury and John Spano are interviewed. In particular, the segment which jumps back and forth between Spano and Milbury offering their opinions of each other makes for great viewing. Their mutual hatred of one another is almost chewable.
The film suffers at times from Connolly’s narration, though. While the content of his voiceovers is interesting and informative throughout, he’s not much a voiceover presence. It’s a minor issue, which becomes more palatable as the film delves into the guts of the story, but it takes some getting used to out of the gate.
The end result is a fascinating look at deceitful person with good intentions. Spano wanted to own a hockey team and he dreamed of success. The Islanders needed an owner with the mindset of Spano, but a trail of falsified documents from a fraudulent 32-year old millionaire was what they got. Spano insisted that the Islanders would remain on Long Island under his watch, and he even cooked up a plan to build a new arena. It’s an interesting contrast of ideals compared to where the franchise is today under owner Charles Wang and its impending move to Brooklyn.
As a 30-for-30 entry, Big Shot lands somewhere in the upper end of the middle of the pack. The old footage of the Islanders dynasty is nostalgia junky’s dream. There’s some great sound bites, too, like Milbury swearing off Pickett’s four-headed ownership group and having to call three people before making a personnel decision. Funny how things worked out when Milbury the general manager was left to his own devices.
Big Shot is recommended viewing for anyone who calls his or herself a hockey fan and those who love a look at the scandalous side of sports.