Charles Wang’s suite at Nassau Coliseum was full of surprises. Over the years, Walter Cronkite was a visitor, as were Jon Bon Jovi, Patty Hearst, Kurt Warner, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and other celebs. It was an interesting, eclectic bunch, covering Wang’s wide array of interests.
Mike Milbury, who spent the better part of 10 years as general manager of Wang’s Islanders, grew to expect the unexpected, the frustrating, and sometimes the hilarious.
“It’s fun to talk about my old buddy,” Milbury said this past week, recalling times good and bad working days with Wang, who died recently at age 74. “There was always something going on, no doubt about that.”
Wang, the Chinese-born émigré who bought the Islanders for $130 million in 2000 and sold them for $485 million 16 years later, ultimately will be remembered in the hockey world for keeping the Fish Sticks on Long Island, albeit with the current quirky second home/safe harbor in Brooklyn. Construction is due to begin next spring on the team’s new Long Island home, an 18,000-seat facility near Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y.
If not for Wang’s financial commitment and loyalty to Long Island, who knows? The Islanders, their 1980-83 Cup dynasty long faded, easily could have shipped off to parts unknown if not for Wang’s willingness to weather some steep financial hits along the way, not to mention the prison hitch served by Sanjay Kumar, his original partner in the Islanders deal.
Kumar, who worked his way “knee deep in felonies” by Milbury’s description, only last year finished a 10-year prison stay for his various securities misdealings during his days running Computer Associates, the software company founded by Wang.
Wang, said Milbury, had a penchant for occasional experimentation and creative thinking, which included such light-hearted flights of fancy as Wang considering employing sumo wrestlers as netminders. How best to stop a small rubber puck from finding its way into a 24-square-foot opening? Front said net with a 400-500-pound sumo wrestler, provided a tailor could handle the challenge of tailoring an XXXXXL blue-and-orange sweater.
“His friend was Akebono [Taro], the sumo wrestler, and he talked to Akebono about getting a training camp together to turn sumo wrestlers into goalies,” recalled Milbury. “I finally talked him out of it. I said, ‘Charles, they at least have to be able to stand up on skates,’ and he finally let go, reluctantly.”
Truth is, Wang might not have been all that avant garde in his thinking. The standard-cut NHL goalie today is of NBA length, with scouts, coaches, and GMs all but posting “no 6-footers need apply” over their cages.
“Every one of ’em’s 6 feet 4,” decried Milbury, sounding every bit the colorful NHL commentator for NBC, “and all they do is try to cover the whole bleepin’ net. Same principle, right? But, oh well, no sumo.”
Far more, shall we say, perplexing, were Milbury’s day-to-day attempts to run the Islanders in a conventional GM fashion while working for the ever-scrutinizing-over-the-shoulder Wang. In retrospect, Milbury sees that time as having the job he always wanted, but one in which Wang forever imposed himself, particularly when it came to negotiating player contracts.
“Was he right at the table with me? No, he wasn’t,” recalled Milbury. “But he was involved in every negotiation, trade . . . you name it. He would be right at a phone where he could say no. Or he could say yes. Or he could say do this, or that, and it was very challenging. And ultimately it led to me saying, ‘Look, I don’t want to do this anymore like this.’ And he said, ‘I don’t blame you.’”
Wang, said Milbury, lived by his oft-repeated command, “The dragon has but one head.” And Wang, throughout his days as club owner, wore the dragon’s suit.
It would be Milbury’s name attached to the June 2001 swap that sent Zdeno Chara, Bill Muckalt, and a first-round pick (Jason Spezza) to the Senators for Alexei Yashin. And it would be Milbury as GM forever to be associated with the 10-year, $87.5 million contract Yashin signed in Uniondale. But according to Milbury, it was all the work of Wang.
Yashin made it halfway through the deal before wrapping up his playing career with a five-year run in the KHL. Spezza continues on today with the Dallas Stars, while Big Z, 41, remains the Bruins captain and their No. 1 shutdown defenseman.
“I always say that he altered the job I wanted,” said Milbury, noting Wang’s perpetual interference in day-to-day dealings. “But honestly, it wasn’t so bad. Charles was fun to be around. Always smiling. Always telling jokes. And kindhearted to everyone. Loyal. Incredibly generous. I went to his house on many a weekend and there would be people from the office, players, coaches, managers. It was all inclusive. Not just the elite.”
Milbury, though, was in total agreement with Wang’s most grandiose vision for the Islanders, one that never came to fruition. The ill-fated “Lighthouse Project” would have produced a mecca, including an iconic 60-story lighthouse, on the wide swath of Uniondale land that is the current site of Nassau Coliseum. It would have included a new arena, along with ample residential and commercial property, similar to what the Krafts have built around Gillette Stadium with their Patriot Place project.
In the end, the Lighthouse fell flat on the ears of local politicians and many residents. The current Belmont plan, after years of wrangling, will keep the Islanders on home ice, but it’s a vastly more humble project than the one Wang envisioned.
“The politicians were — and probably still are — a complete mess,” said Milbury. “There never would have been a Brooklyn. There never would have been a Belmont. This would have been a beautiful place in the middle of Uniondale that doesn’t look like a bleepin’ strip mall. Instead, it stayed a strip mall in the middle of nowhere and those people have no one to blame but themselves.”
The project, noted Milbury, would have provided Uniondale, if not all of Long Island, with a city center feel, rather than what he calls the existing “amorphous mass.”
“Make sure that gets back to Long Island for me,” added Milbury. “I’m sure that it will put me in even higher esteem than I already am.”
Bruins’ Pastrnak a cool customer
The interference penalty David Pastrnak picked up Thursday was his first penalty of 2018-19.
Unremarkable, except when considered in the context of the increasing coverage the Bruins’ No. 1 right wing receives now that he is among the league’s top marksmen. That’s one two-minute minor in 10 games, usually with the opposition’s top checkers nipping at his heels all night. Admirable discipline by the 22-year-old.
“He’s got his wits about him for the most part,” said coach Bruce Cassidy. “He never truly snaps. He’ll get mad at himself if he doesn’t finish a play here or there, but for the most part [discipline] is not really an issue for him.”
Pastrnak, through 264 games prior to this weekend, had 104 goals and 101 PIMs. He is amazingly in lockstep with Chicago superstar Patrick Kane, the league’s No. 1 point-getter the last three-plus seasons, who entered weekend play with 321 goals and 320 PIMs. Both are right wingers and both face the most dogged checkers. As of Friday morning, Kane had but four PIMs on his 2018-19 rap sheet.
If he can keep up his hot production, and maintain his cool temper, Pastrnak will be certain to earn Lady Byng consideration.
The last three Byng winners for Boston: Rick Middleton (1981-82), Jean Ratelle (1975-76), and John Bucyk (1973-74). As a group, they averaged 91 points and 13 PIMs in their Byng-winning seasons. Pastrnak entered weekend action on a pace for 123 points and 16 PIMs.
At the other end of the scale, Zdeno Chara on Thursday not only potted two goals but posted a pair of two-minute minors. It left him with 1,853 PIMs, by far the leader among active NHLers, followed by: Cody McLeod, Rangers (1,568); Dion Phaneuf, Kings (1,298); Joe Thornton, Sharks (1,196); and David Backes, Bruins (1,095).
Chara, who exceeded 100 PIMs for seven straight seasons early in his career, has averaged 63 PIMs the last three seasons. He is likely to play at least another year or two, making him a reasonable bet to eclipse the 2,000 barrier, likely making him the last in league history to scale K2 — a mountaintop reached by only 55 NHLers.
Of those on the list, only three served out all their hours in the sin bin with one club: Chris Neil, Senators (2,522); Ken Daneyko, Devils (2,516); and Terry O’Reilly, Bruins (2,095).
None of those three, by the way, ever went home with the Lady Byng.
Worrell writes about racism
Willie O’Ree, who spent his brief NHL career (45 games) as a Bruins winger in the late 1950s and early ’60s, broke the league’s color barrier. Now 83, he’ll be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the builder’s category next month.
Hard not to think of O’Ree, and the indignities he suffered, this past week when another former black NHLer, Peter Worrell, wrote eloquently about the racism he endured along the way, particularly as a 17-year-old playing for Hull in the Quebec League.
Hull, Worrell wrote in his story for cbc.ca, played one night in 1995 in Beauport, Quebec, when a particularly vulgar Harfangs fan in the stands assaulted him with chants of “Hey, monkey!” and “Africa sucks!”
In his resolve that night, noted Worrell, he refused to allow the hateful fan to see how much those his words hurt him.
“None of my pain, my frustration or my anger would appear on my face,” he wrote, adding that he chose to live by the wisdom of his parents’ words, “Never give oxygen to a coward . . . don’t let a weak person weaken you.”
Lasting in his memory, noted Worrell, was that Ian McIntyre, a fellow Montrealer, and also black, said nothing. McIntyre was the Harfangs’ captain. Junior rinks are small. A bigot’s words would have been easy for all to hear. A captain’s word to arena security, or perhaps to a maintenance worker, would have put an end to it.
Later, during his NHL days with Florida, the 6-foot-7-inch, 230-pound Worrell was called a monkey by Washington’s Craig Berube. To his credit, noted Worrell, Berube contacted him the following day and apologized.
Claude Julien, who later became the Bruins’ coach and led Boston to the Stanley Cup in 2011, was an assistant coach for Hull that night in Beauport. Worrell particularly appreciated that Julien, then only 34, talked to him at the next day’s workout and made sure he was OK.
“To his credit,” wrote Worrell, in his story headlined, “The racist incident I’ll never forget,” “he didn’t serve up the old, ‘I know how you feel.’ He knew he could not really know how I felt. But he also knew that his player was hurting. So he allowed me to say what I had to say, and he gave me some tips to help me channel my emotions.”
Worrell, 41, now lives but two minutes from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where a gunman killed 17 in a mass shooting earlier this year. He coaches high school hockey and focuses, he said, on the good people in life.
“The others, I truly believe,” he wrote, “are on the brink of extinction.”
Matt Beleskey, unloaded on the Rangers as part of the deal that brought Rick Nash to the Bruins in February, was waived by the Blueshirts this past week and assigned to AHL Hartford. Beleskey had a brief look in training camp, showed some zip, but then banged up a shoulder that kept him sidelined for the better part of a month. With Beleskey in AHL cold storage, the cap hit on the Rangers’ payroll drops from $1.9 million to $875,000 . . . Concord’s John Tortorella, these days the Columbus bench boss, is among those who think that NHL 2018-19 is a little too touchy-feely. “It’s really frustrating to me,” he said following his club’s workout in St. Louis. “There’s no hate and, uh, I miss that. It frustrates the bleep out of me, quite honestly.” . . . The Bruins, who’ve found a lot more usefulness in Steven Kampfer than initially expected, previously might have had some interest in claiming defenseman Andrej Sustr, who was placed on waivers Friday by the Ducks and cleared waivers Saturday. Sustr (6-7, 220) was a hot commodity when he came out of the University of Nebraska-Omaha as an undrafted free agent in the spring of 2013. Tampa Bay won the bidding and he spent five years with the Lightning before signing for a year ($1.3 million) with the Ducks in July. Anaheim must now to decide whether to try to work out a trade or send him to the minors . . . No fewer than eight Hall of Famers are among the top 100 all-time PIM leaders: Chris Chelios (12th), Scott Stevens (14th), Brendan Shanahan (23rd), Mark Messier (60th), Ted Lindsay (72nd), Paul Coffey (73rd), Gordie Howe (93rd), and Rob Blake (95th). So maybe time spent in the sin bin isn’t all that bad . . . NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, upon not repealing Tom Wilson’s 20-game suspension for his hit to the head of the Blues’ Oskar Sundqvist: “Mr. Wilson is not getting the message.” Wilson carved out a niche, and was rewarded with a $31 million contract from Washington, by dishing out menacing hits, often to vulnerable players. It’s a good bet he’ll never get the message. Wilson filed for another appeal — as is his right under the CBA — so Round 2 will be coming this week . . . Alex Iafallo entered the weekend as the Kings’ top point-getter (2-5—7 in 10 games). In other words, trouble. Prized free agent Ilya Kovalchuk stood a meager 2-3—5 in his first 10 games with the Crowns. They look slow and unmotivated, with a paltry 2-7-1 record, which could spell trouble for John Stevens, only in year No. 2 as their bench boss . . . Ex-NHL president John Ziegler died this past week at age 84. Ziegler was often in Europe and unreachable at key times during his pre-Internet tenure, including the infamous “donut” playoff series between the Bruins and Devils in 1988 . . . Marc Staal, to the New York Post’s Larry Brooks, on the boisterous style of new Rangers coach David Quinn: “He’s really not yelling at anyone — he’s talking very loudly so everyone can hear him.” Reminds your faithful puck chronicler of Woody in “Toy Story” trying to be realistic about Buzz Lightyear’s flying capabilities. “That wasn’t flying,” said Woody. “That was falling with style.”