By John Torenli
First the Nets, then the Islanders.
Though there is "no practical plan" in place to bring Long Island's NHL franchise to our borough anytime before its lease expires at the outdated and perpetually one-third-empty Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the Barclays Center, which will house the Brooklyn Nets beginning in November, continues to lay out the welcome mat.
The "75 percent complete" state-of-the-art arena in the heart of Downtown Brooklyn has already lured the Islanders for an Oct. 2 preseason game against the New Jersey Devils, who are currently in the midst of competing for the Stanley Cup against the Los Angeles Kings.
On Tuesday, word leaked out that Russia's Kontinental Hockey League would play two regular-season contests at Barclays in January, further enhancing the venue as pro hockey-ready.
KHL President Alexander Medvedev went as far as to announce that reigning league champion CSKA Dynamo, Avangard Omsk, Salavat Yulaev and SKA St. Petersburg — all elite teams on Russia's top professional circuit — were likely to "sell out" the 14,500 available seats for hockey at Barclays in the new year.
Nets Senior Vice President of Business and Entertainment Communications Barry Baum told the Eagle on Wednesday, "We have had talks with the KHL, but nothing is confirmed."
While details of the proposed deal continue to be ironed out, there can be no mistaking how hard the Barclays Center is pushing to bring hockey to Brooklyn, even if it means recruiting pro teams from billionaire Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov's native country.
"Our arena, we reached an agreement with the National Hockey League," Prokhorov, who earlier this year finished third in Russia's presidential elections, revealed during his April visit to the arena on the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues. "Now we can play hockey here. But in the time being, we have no practical plan with any other team. But we will see in the future."
The future may be as soon as 2015, when the Islanders' lease at the Coliseum expires, opening the door for Brooklyn's second major pro sports franchise since the Dodgers left for Los Angeles in 1957. The organization's proposal for a new arena on Long Island has been shot down several times, including last August.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, a Queens native and admitted fan of the Islanders during their glory years in the 1980s, has remained steadfast in his assertion that Downtown Brooklyn may not be a viable option for the financially challenged franchise. But it is Bettman's job to remain loyal to the fans who have followed and supported the Islanders in Nassau County since 1972.
Nets and Barclays Center CEO Brett Yormark shares no such loyalties.
“We feel Brooklyn is an untapped hockey market that offers the Islanders an exciting opportunity to grow its fan base,” the marketing wizard saidback in January. “Barclays Center will also afford current Islander fans with great accessibility, as the Long Island Rail Road and nine subway lines will come directly to the arena at the Atlantic Terminal transit hub.”
Former Islanders goaltender and current general manager Garth Snow, who saw the team average only 13,191 fans — second-worst in the league to Phoenix — this past season as it missed the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year, also voiced his enthusiasm for Brooklyn.
"We're extremely excited to play the first NHL game in the new, state-of-the-art Barclays Center," he said. "We already have some of the most passionate fans in the league supporting our team and we are looking forward to expanding our base into Brooklyn."
Islanders owner Charles Wang, who also happens to be a graduate of Brooklyn Tech High School, where the football field was renovated and renamed in his honor, has been flustered by the numerous failed efforts to land a new and improved arena deal in Nassau County.
"I think everyone knows how disappointed and frustrated I am with the whole process that's been going on, whether it's the town or the county," Wang said in a recent TV interview with Islanders announcer Howie Rose. "We have nothing definitive right now. We want to be in the New York area. But we just don't know. We are committed to being in the New York area."
Wang was asked whether the Islanders would be willing, or able, to play several of their regular-season contests at Barclays during the 2012-13 campaign.
"If there was an interest in doing that we would have to deal with, one, the county which we have a lease with that says we play all our home games (at the Coliseum), and also we have all our season ticket holders, what do you tell them?" he said. "I think what's nice is fans will want to come to this (Oct.2 exhibition) game and be part of history. It will be the first professional sports game at the arena, which is beautiful. I'm a little jealous honestly, which I think you can understand."
When pushed to reveal whether or not he'd had talks with Prokhorov or Downtown real estate magnate and former Nets majority owner Bruce Ratner regarding a potential move, Wang played the politics card, not wanting to further distance himself from a fan base that has been dwindling along with the team's performance on the ice.
"I don't think that that is wise to comment on at this point.," he said.
Ratner, who spearheaded the charge to bring the Nets to Brooklyn from New Jersey while getting the Barclays Center built, hasn't been shy about proclaiming his desire to bring an NHL team to play here.
"We'd love to have the Islanders," he gushed. "(Barclays Center) was made for hockey and basketball. It could easily support a hockey team."
Even Bettman buckled a bit last month, admitting that, "Barclays, I suppose, on some level, is an option," before adding that he and the powers that be at the NHL will continue to do everything in their power to keep the Islanders on Long Island. "And if we're unsuccessful at some point, then we'd have to consider the (relocation) options. But we're not anywhere near that."
Judging from the sudden groundswell in pro hockey interest at the Barclays Center, I'd say the commissioner and the Islanders are closer to Brooklyn than they think. Or, at least, are willing to admit.
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In other Nets-related news, general manager Billy King still had his fingers firmly crossed entering Wednesday night's NBA Draft Lottery. Currently slotted sixth among the league's 14 non-playoff qualifiers, the Nets are hoping to wind up with one of the top three picks in the annual drawing. Otherwise, their pick belongs to the Portland TrailBlazers due to the trade of the selection in the deal for forward Gerald Wallace last February.
"It's a big day," King admitted Wednesday morning on the team's web site. "There's a chance we'll get one of the top three picks or we won't. What the Lottery does, more than anything, is gives you certainty in what the Draft order is. Because then you can start making calls on who has what picks."
Since the lottery system was upgraded to its current format in 2005, the team holding the No. 6 spot has won the right to pick first overall twice, including 2007, when the Blazers got Ohio State center Greg Oden, whose career has been decimated by injuries. The No. 6 team moved up to No. 2 twice and No. 3 once, giving hope to King and the Nets that they won't be deprived of a first-round selection.