The Islanders never had the largest fanbase. Nevertheless, at least from what I’ve seen throughout the years I’ve supported this team, we tend to be a very passionate one. Sometimes, that passion leads us to say things that may be overly drastic and uncalled for. The late Charles Wang owned the Islanders during some of the most difficult times this historic franchise has been through, and was, for parts of the last decade, a victim of this destructive passion. Unfortunately, many fans didn’t realize how much he did, not just to keep this franchise in New York, but alive.
Charles Wang was born in Shanghai, China, in August 1944. He came to New York when he was eight and earned a bachelors degree in mathematics and physics from Queens College. He founded, and was the CEO of, Computer Associates International, which provided internet security software to private computers and currently focuses on business to consumer software. He bought the Islanders in 2000, just years after the infamous John Spano nearly ran the team into the ground.
After details emerged that revealed that Spano did not have the capital necessary to fully buy the team, the team was reclaimed by its previous owner John Pickett. The ordeal with Spano resulted in a stricter vetting process for potential owners. Still, he found potential co-owners in Steven Gluckstern and Howard Milstein. However, Spectator Management Group, the organization which managed the Nassau Coliseum at the time, asked Pickett to confirm to the new owners that the Coliseum was safe. Pickett was reluctant to do so, since the arena indeed was in bad shape at the time. It almost prevented the deal from being realized, but with pressure from the Islanders, the NHL, and Nassau County, the team was sold in 1997.
After the sale, the new owners tried increasing payroll to bring in better players. This pre-salary cap era trick didn’t pay off however, as the team missed the playoffs by 12 points. They reversed course, again lowering payroll and traded many popular players, leading to low attendance, poor performance, and rumblings of a move out of Long Island.
Then came Charles Wang. He again raised the payroll, but GM Mike Milbury made a number of ill-advised moves with this newly gained power, most notably trading Roberto Luongo with the intention of drafting Rick DiPietro. Still, the team made the playoffs in 2002, losing to Toronto in seven games. Quickly afterwards, the team once again struggled leading to personnel changes during the 2005-2006 season in which head coach Steve Stirling was fired and Mike Milbury resigned. Garth Snow became GM afterwards and one of his first moves was signing Rick DiPietro to a 15-year deal, something Wang supported. “This is not a big deal.” he said. “You have to have a commitment to who you’re working with.”
The team managed to make the playoffs in 2007. But that summer was one of change for the club. On the ice, management announced that they would buy out Alexi Yashin’s contract. Jason Blake, Viktor Kozlov, and Richard Zednik also left via free agency. Off the ice however, Wang realized that the Islanders needed a new arena. The Nassau Coliseum was in disarray, and the team was eight years away from the end of its lease in the building. In the summer of 2007, Wang introduced the people of Long Island to the Lighthouse Project.
The Lighthouse Project likely brings back nightmares for most Islanders fans. Years of questions and lack of progress would lead to its downfall, but what most fans don’t remember, is that it wasn’t all Wang’s fault, though it was what most fans thought at the time.
The Lighthouse Project was originally supposed to cost $200 million. It would obviously include a new stadium, but other features included houses, offices, restaurants, a five-star hotel, an athletic complex, and a minor league baseball park, just to name a few. This plan became increasingly unfeasible so it was downgraded slightly, but still stressed the renovation of the Nassau Coliseum.
The plan was every Islanders fan’s dream. Their arena had become one of the oldest in the NHL and the hope was a new arena would literally revive the franchise. Still, the plan never seemed to take off, and as a result, fans were becoming frustrated with ownership, particularly Wang.
The true culprits in the Coliseum fiasco, however, were the politicians of the Town of Hempstead and Nassau County. By 2009, Wang was beginning to get upset at the slow pace of project. There was point where he considered moving the team to Kansas City or Queens if the Town of Hempstead continued to refuse to postpone the project. Things got significantly worse in 2010 when then supervisor Kate Murray created an “alternative zone” for the Nassau Coliseum property. This significantly downsized the area of the property and made the Lighthouse Project impossible.
In 2011, when all hope seemed to be lost and the Isles were on their way to one of Queens, Brooklyn, or Kansas City, Wang still held one more vote to determine if the people of Long Island would be willing to finance the project through tax dollars. Sadly for the Isles, the motion failed as only 30% of residents were in favor of subsidizing the arena.
In 2012, Wang announced that the New York Islanders would move to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn for the 2015-2016 season. It was an announcement he was likely relived to make considering the effort he had put in the previous few years. He tried so hard to keep the team on Long Island, and in a sense he did succeed. He managed to keep the team away from Kansas City, and Quebec. Even though the team would move to Brooklyn, they were still in New York. The man saved the franchise, and we all owe him a debt of gratitude for that.
Wang sold the team to Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin in August 2014, the summer before the Islanders’ final season at the Old Coliseum. They too would lead the Isles through some hard times in Brooklyn, but under Wang’s guidance (at least while he was still a minority owner), they stayed course and eventually managed to build a deal that will hopefully see the team playing in Belmont in a few short years. The best part of that deal is that the team will also play games in Nassau Coliseum as the Belmont arena is being built, something Wang would probably have loved to see come true.
During his time as owner, Wang received much criticism and, sadly, some hate as well for lack of progress and inability to keep the team in the Coliseum. Looking back now, after the team had incredible final season in Nassau, a second round appearance in Brooklyn, and despite some struggles the past two years, a new and bright future ahead of us, I think I speak for many Islanders fans when I say that we owe Mr. Wang an apology, and should thank him for all he did for our team.
Wang was a man of character, loyalty, and dedication. He showed it in his pursuit of a new life in the United States, his interactions with the people he worked with, and his commitment to the New York Islanders franchise, including its players, employees, charities, and fans. He pulled this team out of darkness and did his absolute best to put it back on a path to success and prosperity. May he always be remembered as such as this team begins a transition that he helped make possible.