Although things have settled a little bit on the Neil Smith/Garth Snow debacle emanating from Long Island, there's still an air of mystery and conflicting reports as to exactly what happened, who's the bad guy, and how in the hell Garth Snow got this job. Off Wing Opinion has excellent coverage of all of the minutiae involved. While everyone criticizes the team for firing Smith so soon, we think this is the best thing the Islanders could have done. Certainly not for the team. Nope, they basically come out of this looking like a joke. But this event has been a god-send for the NHL.
Fans love the athletes, but they've always carried the stigma of being a yard short of converting a 4th & 4. When an athlete does something stupid, it's expected. Front office people, specifically GMs, and owners are supposed to have something going on upstairs. They're supposed to be a shot of bland, calming, uneventful middle-management types in a culture filled with eccentricies. It's the suits that break the mold who become celebrities themselves, and enhance the personality of their respective league.
Some people may think that the NBA enjoyed its renaissance this past season due to stories like the emergence of young stars, the triumph of Shaq and Pat Riley, and inspired play. Really, the NBA got by on two men -- Isiah Thomas and Mark Cuban. Thomas, as we all know, is the one man in the league who can illicit hearty laughter with just the mention of his name. His exploits with the Knicks have become fodder for everyone in the nation, to the point that sports outsiders who aren't aware that Thomas was in fact once a very good player and former NBA champion STILL know that he's an utter failure as a personnel man. And Cuban disrupted the NBA scene by being a hands-on owner -- one who's fashion sense and knack for abrasive humor fall more in line with the teenage fans sitting around him than his peers in the skyboxes. Cuban isn't afraid to say what he wants, when he wants, no matter what sort of fine or negative attention from the press it'll bring. Even players on his team have admitted that it might be beneficial if Cuban toned it down, because his actions were distracting for the team.
The only solace for Lions fans last year was a grassroots campaign with the concisive name, "Fire Millen." Detroit sports fans expanded the anti-Millen propaganda beyond Ford Field, bringing signs to Pistons and Red Wings games and integrating their efforts into the cultural fabric of Detroit. This attracted more attention to the Lions franchise than their play had all season long. And in Dallas, Jerry Jones has always been more than silent in running the Cowboys, getting into power struggles with his coaches, starring in commercials, hogging the limelight at press conferences, even going so far as to reconstruct his face for headlines. When the Cowboys introduced the player Who Heretofor Will Not Be Named to the media this offseason, the only head in the room big enough to match said athlete's was Jones'.
Of course, only one man in baseball has the name power to tower over even the most popular, recognizable franchise in the history of sports. Every year, by staying in the hunt for every free agent and in every trade scenario, and by not backing away from calling his team out when they're underperforming, Steinbrenner is ever-prescient.
The American public hasn't really latched onto hockey because they think it's just too vanilla. There's not enough scoring, there's a serious glut of electric personalities, blah blah. The actions of Charles Wang, Islanders owner, are perfect for the sport. In this incident, Wang has borrowed the best of the aforementioned illuminaries -- the overbearing approach of Cuban and Jones, the impatience of Steinbrenner, the charming ineptness of Thomas and Millen -- and has spun them into a dizzying hybrid. The story has so much comedic depth -- not only was Smith, an experienced and Stanley Cup winning GM, replaced for the team's backup goalie, but he was replaced after only 41 days without ever seeing his team step on the ice. And, if that wasn't enough, in doing so Wang went against the advice of his consigliore (and Isles hockey hero) Pat LaFontaine, who advised the owner to not only keep Smith around, but to take his time in finding a replacement when Smith was canned. After being rebuffed on both pieces of advice LaFontaine, who had to retire because of excessive damage to the head, still had enough wherewithall to get the fuck out of Long Island -- he promptly quit. The result of the whole thing has been phenomenal -- I've seen more hockey talk revolving around Wang's recent exploits than I have since Todd Bertuzzi decided to play Gallagher, using Steve Moore's face as a watermelon.
Everyone's gotten quite a good laugh at the Islanders' admittedly hilarious offseason. It's a win/win situation for the all involved -- Wang has made a national name for himself in the sports world (by the way, if you're rich enough to own a sports team it doesn't matter what the public thinks of you), the general public gets another eccentric owner to love, the NHL gets headlines it sorely needs (NOTE: "everyone" doesn't include Islanders fans, who we feel terribly sorry for). Plus, there's the added bonus that he's Asian, meaning we get to enjoy lots of "Wang can't drive the Islanders franchise" and "Wang steers the Isles into a mailbox" jokes. Really, it's fun all around.
Wang's the first hockey figure to become iconoclast to the non-hockey public because of such laughable ineptitude. And he did it with the perfect team -- the Islanders have been an afterthought in hockey since their four consecutive Stanley Cups from 1980-1983, long before Wang entered the picture. They've always had to struggle with being second best in their state, and fourth best in the tri-state area after the Devils, Rangers, and Flyers. They're in the oldest and most putrid arena in sports, and they spent two years with the Gordon's Fisherman in their logo. The front office shuffling has gotten hockey attention at a time no one would otherwise think to dedicate to the ice. What's so bad about potentially alienating one NYC borough of hockey fans for the well-being of the sport? Take it like a champ, Long Island. You're now the loveable losers owned by the guy with the buffoonish grin. You'll be known as hockey's saviors -- the gangrenous limb of the NHL willing to be amputated in order to save the rest of the body.