FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

bruce mug shot 1By Bruce Berlet

The financially strapped New York Islanders and their top affiliate Bridgeport Sound Tigers might finally have got some much needed/desired help Wednesday.

The Islanders’ lease with the Nassau Coliseum doesn’t end until 2015, but concern about the NHL franchise has been going on for years. But Islanders and Nassau County officials announced a $400 million development and job creation plan on Long Island that includes building a world-class sports-entertainment destination center on the site of the antiquated Coliseum with a new sports arena and minor league baseball park at the nearby Mitchel Field Athletic Complex.

Nassau County executive Edward P. Mangano also announced the construction of an Indian gaming casino at Belmont Park, site of the third leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown.

“Redeveloping the Hub is critical to creating jobs in our County and stimulating the local economy,” Mangano said at a press conference in Mineola, N.Y. “With the support of business and community leaders, I am advancing a County-wide public referendum. This referendum will allow residents to decide whether we should build a sports-entertainment destination at the site of the Nassau Coliseum that retains our Islanders, construct a minor league ballpark and create thousands of jobs.”

The referendum will be held Aug. 1, when voters also will decide the fate of the Islanders, Long Island’s only professional sports team, who face the possibility of having to leave Nassau Coliseum in 2015 when their least expires should a new sports arena not be built. More than 3,300 construction jobs would be created, which caused union workers attending to stand and chant, “Build it now!”

If the measure is approved, construction is estimated to begin in 2012 right next to the Coliseum so the new sports arena could open no later than 2015. Revenues generated by the new facility would help pay off the $400 million total that is to be divided with $350 million going towards the arena and $50 towards the minor league stadium. The new arena would hold 17,500 for hockey, which is 1,250 more than the Coliseum’s current capacity.

“Without a new arena, we will lose the Islanders, shutter the aging Coliseum, and besides losing present jobs, will lose the currently substantial economic benefits including all the existing arena and secondary jobs,” Mangano said. “The construction of a new home for the Islanders and the development of the Coliseum site will generate thousands of construction and secondary construction job plus thousands of permanent jobs.”

The referendum will ask residents if they would like to partner with the county, Islanders and minor league ballpark by providing the financing for capital improvement to the Hub. The Islanders will compensate residents by paying the county share of each dollar generated at the new sports arena. All contracts to operate county-owned facilities in the Hub also will require operators to compensate the county. The revenue-sharing payment requirement, coupled with sales tax generated from the new facilities, will produce revenue that exceeds the financing required to construct the job generating improvements and establishment of a sports-entertainment destination center. So the plan requires private sector operators to compensate the county the cost of financing the plan.

Islanders owner Charles Wang has been trying for years to get a new facility to replace the Coliseum, which opened Feb. 11, 1972 in Uniondale, N.Y. The New York Raiders, intended to the flagship franchise of the fledgling World Hockey Association, was initially scheduled to play in the new facility, but Nassau County didn’t consider the WHA a professional league and wanted nothing to do with the Raiders. Nassau County retained William Shea to get an NHL team to play in the building, and the NHL responded by hastily awarding a franchise to Long Island, which forced the Raiders to open in Madison Square Garden in the shadow of the Rangers. In 1980, the Islanders began a four-year run as Stanley Cup champions.

“It has been a long journey to get to this point, and I am extremely confident that a new home for the Islanders will be built and a destination location will be achieved,” Wang said. “Building a new home for our Islanders is critical to the future of Long Island and its only professional sports team. The fans deserve it, and our local economy needs it. Long Island needs an iconic structure and destination, and the new arena will be just that.

“My commitment has never wavered. Long Island is our home, and the New York Islanders are out team. I am happy to partner with County Executive Mangano and contribute a significant portion of our revenue streams to the country for the construction of the arena.”

A separate component of the plan includes the gaming casino, developed by the Shinnecock Indian Nation, which hopefully will be an economic boon for the western end of Nassau County. Once approved by federal and state officials, an Indian gaming facility is expected to create thousands of new jobs and result in hundreds of millions of dollars being invested in local schools, the state, the county and the community.

“With recent federal recognition of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, a casino on Long Island is likely,” Mangano said. “It is important that Nassau taxpayers benefit from the thousands of jobs and millions in annual revenue a casino will generate for the state and county. Belmont Park is ideal for such a facility.”

The Shinnecocks, located on the east end of Long Island adjacent the town of Southampton, site of one of the world’s best golf courses, Shinnecock Hills, received federal recognition on Oct. 1.

“The Shinnecock Nation has always made clear that we are ready to partner with communities that want to partner with us, in both Nassau and Suffolk counties, as we pursue economic opportunities for our people that also provide jobs for our neighbors,” Shinnecock Indian Nation Tribal President Randy King said. “We welcome the support from Nassau County Executive Mangano and Senators (Dean) Skelos and (Jack) Martins. We are prepared to discuss sighting a facility at Belmont with the state, the local community and all the stakeholders there.”

These positive developments could trickle down to the AHL’s Sound Tigers, who recently took over the operation of Webster Bank Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport. The Sound Tigers have missed the playoffs four of the last seven seasons, including this season, in large part because the Islanders have been unable/unwilling to spend money to provide quality players if the team sustained injuries or had several call-ups to the Islanders. And they haven’t won a playoff series since 2002-03, their second season.

Now if only Whalers Sports and Entertainment chairman and CEO Howard Baldwin can get the Foxwoods to end its sponsorship of the WNBA’s New York Liberty and put that money into the Connecticut Whale, the NHL might be back in Hartford sooner than later.

GORDIE SURPRISES RED WINGS GOALIE

Gordie “Mr. Hockey” Howe has been known to have quite an impact on teammates and foes, whether it’s a goal, assist or fight that led to a hat trick named in his honor.

Just ask Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard.

Howard got a stunning surprise and was left speechless while talking to reporters after a 3-1 victory over the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday night that forced a Game 7 in their Western Conference semifinals.

As Howard sat in his stall in the locker room, Howe, a Red Wings legend whose 32-year pro career ended with the Hartford Whalers in 1980, appeared out of the blue, extended his right hand to the man who had just made 24 saves and said, “Congratulations.”

Howe then looked at the assembled reporters and said, “Forwards don’t like him.”

Howard smiled, stammered and lost his trend of thought.

“I forgot the answer,” Howard said with a smile. “I forgot what I was saying. Gordie will tongue-tie you. It caught me by surprise. I didn’t see him coming around the corner.”

So is this what the Red Wings are all about?

“It’s special to have a man like that come in the dressing room,” Howard said. “He came in this morning, so just the tradition and guys that have played prior to us and come around and show their support means a lot to us.”

When asked how special it would be to see the Red Wings win Game 7 in Vancouver on Thursday night, Howe said, “Expect it. Play like they did tonight. No doubt they make it. Eat well and get a good night’s sleep and kick your butts. I think it’s going to be interesting.”

The Red Wings will try to join 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, 1975 New York Islanders and 2010 Philadelphia Flyers as the only teams to win a playoff series after losing the first three games. The Flyers accomplished the rare feat against the Boston Bruins in the first round last year on the way to the Stanley Cup finals, where they lost in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks, coached by former Whalers defenseman Joel Quenneville. The Bruins got some revenge earlier this month when they swept the Flyers in the second round.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Sharks will be facing the same test as the top-seeded Vancouver Canucks, who won three in a row and then lost three straight before winning Game 7 in overtime in the first round against the Blackhawks. So Sharks captain Joe Thornton insisted pressure is the last thing the Sharks are thinking about.

“Just ask Detroit,” Thornton said. “They lost three in a row and their confidence wasn’t frayed. We’re a confident group, still. You work 82 games to get home ice in these Game 7s. Now we just have to make it work.”

But even 41-year-old Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom has a chance to accomplish something new in his brilliant career.

“I haven’t been in a situation like this before, but I’ve played in Game 7s in the past and know the importance of the game,” Lidstrom said. “It’ll be a fun game to go out and play.”

Bet Mr. Hockey would certainly agree with that.

JAGR TRICKS USA IN WORLDS CHAMPIONSHIPS

Former Rangers captain Jaromir Jagr almost single-handedly ousted the United States from the World Hockey Championships.

The 39-year-old former NHL standout had a hat trick in leading the defending champion Czech Republic to a 4-0 victory over Team USA in a quarterfinal in Bratislava, Slovakia.

“We didn’t play that well as in the previous games. We had a little bit of luck,” said Jagr, a two-time Stanley Cup winner the Pittsburgh Penguins whose team is 7-0 in the tournament largely because of goalie Ondrej Pavelec of the Atlanta Thrashers. “Ondrej was great and had several great saves in the first period. We looked a bit sleepy.”

Pavelec had 29 saves, which was six fewer than former Wolf Pack goalie Ty Conklin, an unrestricted free agent who played for the St. Louis Blues the past two seasons. One of Pavelec’s best saves came on a glove stop when Rangers standout rookie Derek Stepan centered the puck from behind the net to a wide-open Craig Smith in the slot.

By then, Jagr had scored what turned out to be the winner with 1:15 left in the first period and then got his second on a power play in the second period after the Czechs killed a 5-on-3 power play for the Americans.

Tomas Plekanec of the Montreal Canadiens made it 3-0 before setting up Jagr’s fifth of the tournament for his hat trick with his second assist of the game.

“He’s still got it,” U.S. captain Mark Stuart said. “He’s hard to play against, one of the hardest guys ever to take the puck off.”

The Americans, who averaged 24.2 years old and had only two Olympic returnees in defensemen Jack Johnson and former Springfield Pic Mikc Komisarek, couldn’t overcome the skill and experience of the Czech Republic. They also were missing Rangers standout right wing Ryan Callahan, who sustained a broken right leg when hit by a shot by Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara with 1:45 left in a 5-3 victory on April 4.

“We had a young team and the future of USA Hockey looks great,” Komisarek said. “We fell short, but the experience of playing in the quarterfinal against such a good team was good.”

So, too, would a return to the Penguins, who reportedly want to reconnect with their former star during their annual summer alumni golf outing, which will serve as a reunion for members of the 1991 Stanley Cup championship team. Jagr, the Penguins’ first pick in 1990, played for that team as an 18-year-old rookie and scored 27 goals in the regular season and added 13 points in the playoffs.

Jagr spent his first 11 NHL seasons with the Penguins before being traded to Washington and then the Rangers. He has spent the last three years playing in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia but doesn’t have a contract for next season.

But during an interview Tuesday, the five-time NHL scoring champion sounded like an ex-Penguin who would be happy to get back in touch with his former team even though he was booed in Pittsburgh after being booed after being traded.

“The fans in Pittsburgh, they all wanted to help me and they all like me when I was younger,” Jagr said. “Plus the biggest thing is I had a chance to watch and play with the best player ever (Mario Lemieux), and that’s probably the best thing that happened to me in my life.”

But Jagr wouldn’t say if he plans to play next season.

“It’s too early for me, I don’t really know what I want to do next year,” Jagr said. “I don’t know where I want to play. Right now I just want to concentrate on this tournament. It’s not going to be more than one week. Then I have to make a decision.”

Though he hasn’t played in Pittsburgh in 10 years, he name is listed on banners honoring past scoring champions and MVPs and is one of six former Penguins Hall of Famers whose pictures are part of a wall outside the team’s dressing room – Lemieux, Joe Mullen, Larry Murphy and former Whalers Ron Francis and Paul Coffey. Jagr, whose 1,599 points are the most by a European-born NHL player and ninth overall, is expected to join them in the Hall of Fame after his retirement.

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