Thursday, February 21, 2008

It's a Sad Day for New York Islander Fans

I am ashamed to be a New York Islander fan today.

On its face, there is nothing unusual about that statement. For much of the 1990s, shame was a default position for a once-proud team (four straight Stanley Cup titles from 1980 to 1983) that had fallen on exceptionally hard times, losing a lot of games and regularly jettisoning their best players to save money. One lowlight: In 1996, a guy bought the team, but, months later, it was discovered that he didn't actually have any money. As a result, he has spent most of the 2000s in federal prison for fraud. (You can read more about the John Spano debacle here.)

So what's the big deal about me being ashamed today? Because by nearly any estimation, other than the one thing bothering me, the New York Islanders are an exceptionally likable team, a hard-working, positive-thinking, stick-together underdog that has done well despite its nearly star-free roster. A team to be proud of.

A bit of history: In 2000, the Islanders were rescued from the fallout of the Spano debacle by Computer Associates founder Charles Wang, who bought the club and treated it like it was an important Long Island institution, rather than a for-profit venture (he reportedly loses millions each year on the franchise). Wang pumped money into payroll, as well as into the cozy-but-outdated and then-dilapidated Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. After a seven-year drought, the Islanders made the playoffs in four of five years beginning in 2002. Sure, they never got out of the first round, but Wang had done something that seemed impossible in the mid-to-late 1990s: He allowed fans to regain pride in the franchise.

After missing the playoffs in the 2005-06 season, Wang brought in Ted Nolan, who had been out of the NHL for nearly 10 years despite winning Coach of the Year honors in his second of two seasons as head coach of the Buffalo Sabres, to coach the team. Nolan preached hard work, camaraderie and discipline, and he led the Islanders, despite being picked to be at the bottom of the conference by most commentators, to an improbable end-of-season run to the playoffs (which I wrote about last April).

This year, again, on paper, the Islanders should be in last place. But led by Nolan and fortified by DiPietro, the team is in the playoff hunt with four more wins than losses on the season. The Islanders have also showed a lot of heart, winning their last five games, just after having dropped seven straight contests, and pulling off the run despite missing four of their top defensemen and their best defensive center. The players also personify the idea of "never say 'die'," having come back from 2-0 deficits in their last two games.

In short, under Nolan, the Islanders are a fun team to root for.

But anyone who has seen an episode of "E! True Hollywood Story" knows that in every fairy tale, something has to go wrong. Unfortunately for the Islanders, like an alcoholic uncle at Thanksgiving dinner, there is one person who has ruined what would be an otherwise fun season: professional thug Chris Simon.

Hockey is a violent sport in which men engage in fistfights that result only in five minutes spent in the penalty box. So it is telling that even in a sometimes brutal game, Simon is reviled for his on-ice behavior. His rap sheet would make Pacman Jones blush: In 15 NHL seasons, Simon has amassed eight suspensions, with offenses ranging from violent conduct to using a racial slur against a black opponent.

You might wonder: How does an embarrassment to the league end up on a team known for its no-nonsense coach and hard-working players? Well, Nolan, as the first First Nation member to be an NHL coach, has been selfless throughout his life in helping other First Nation individuals. That effort included coaching Simon when he was a troubled, alcoholic teen. When Nolan took over as coach of the Islanders, he brought Simon, who had spent 13 years in the league as a thug-for-hire, to Long Island.

As much as it made me sick to see Simon wearing the Islander logo on his chest, it was hard to argue with Nolan's choice. Teams do need an intimidating presence on the ice to protect their more skilled players, and Simon did have some basic hockey skills (he once scored 29 goals in a season, although eight to 14 was a more typical output), unlike most goons who are essentially street fighters on skates. But I, and many of my fellow Islander fans, viewed Simon as being on a very short leash.

After making it through most of last season without any incidents, Simon snapped against the rival New York Rangers during a game in March. Ryan Hollweg cleanly checked Simon hard into the boards. Simon's reaction? A two-handed, baseball-style swing of his stick into Hollweg's face. (You can watch it here; there is a clear replay of the whole incident at the end of the clip. Fortunately and miraculously, Hollweg escaped major injury.) Using one's stick to perpetuate violence violates every written and unwritten code of conduct in the sport. As I watched the attack, I was sickened. Simon was a disgrace to the Islanders and to hockey as a whole. The one saving grace was that his subsequent 25-game suspension would last through the rest of the season, and with Simon's contract expiring, it would be the last we would see of this glorified criminal wearing the uniform of the New York Islanders.

But like the killer in a bad slasher movie, Simon wouldn't go away. Nolan said that Simon was a high-character, gentle, respectful man when he wasn't playing, and he just had to learn to better control himself on the ice. He said Simon deserved a second (wasn't it an eighth?) chance and signed him for this season. It took only 26 games before Simon struck again. This time, in a December game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, during a break in the action, he deliberately stomped on the foot of Jarko Ruutu as they headed to the benches. (You can watch it here.) The recent gruesome accidental slashing of Richard Zednick's neck shows how sharp hockey skates are, so Ruutu was fortunate to escape major injury. Simon was hit with a 30-game suspension.

Finally, I thought, this had to be the end of Simon's tenure with Islanders, but instead of putting out a press release saying that the Islanders were embarrassed and that Simon would never wear the team's sweater again, the club sent him to counseling and stressed, once again, what a great guy he is off the ice. I was shocked and disgusted, and I knew that the day would come when Simon would play for the team again.

And that day is today. According to Canadian sports network TSN, Simon will play tonight when the Islanders host the Tampa Bay Lightning.

All I can think is: Why? Of course, the most important question is why a proud franchise would allow a player with a history of shocking behavior to continue to sully its reputation. But putting the grander idea aside, I am shocked they would bring back Simon now. The Islanders have won five games in a row, winning the last two after overcoming 2-0 deficits. They have thrived despite a spate of injuries that allowed the team to promote and give significant playing time to some of their younger players. Everything is moving in the right direction. The team has nothing but positive energy associated with it. Why would you ever disrupt the feel-good environment by bringing back a ticking time bomb? A man who in the space of 29 NHL games slashed one player in the face and tried to slice open the leg of another opponent? What about the young player who is going to lose his spot in the lineup to make room for this morals-free thug? How can anyone justify that?

So in the middle of a fun, uplifting Islander season, the franchise is about to experience one of its darkest, most shameful days. Nolan, who has consistently displayed nothing but class, dignity and sound values as coach of the Islanders, will instead have his name sullied by his stubborn loyalty to a disgraceful player. And the sad thing is, it's completely unnecessary. All it would take would be for one man to see the light, whether it was Nolan or Wang, and make a statement that they will not let one player ruin the reputation of a proud and storied franchise.

That is why I am making this plea, despite the fact that it will certainly fall on deaf ears: Gentlemen, on behalf of loyal Islander fans, please, please do not embarrass us by letting Chris Simon skate on the ice tonight. Please allow us to point to Simon being released from the club and say, "That's my team. We do the right thing." Please show me that the team's statements throughout the year on what it means to be an Islander are more than just a marketing campaign.

But until or unless Wang or Nolan step up, when the game tonight begins and Simon is sitting on the Islander bench, it will be a dark day in Islander history. Maybe John Spano will listen to the game on his prison radio and say to himself, "Wow, I have no longer done the most disgraceful thing an owner of the New York Islanders has ever done!"

Unless someone takes action before tonight, I will be forced to say that I am ashamed to be an Islander fan. And after the thrills that Nolan and the players have given me this season, that's a shame.