By Lloyd Carroll
National Hockey League officials held a press conference at Citi Field on Friday to announce that the New Year’s Day 2018 Winter Classic would be held there with the participating teams being the Buffalo Sabres and the New York Rangers. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who grew up in Forest Hills, told the press that he fondly remembered frequently going to Shea Stadium as a youngster and paying two bucks to sit in the upper deck. He then joked with Mets chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon that prices have risen a little since then. Of course, the way the Mets’ season has gone, tickets for a lot of games this season have probably been selling for around that price on the secondary market which is probably why Wilpon could only offer a wan smile hearing Bettman’s quip.
Flushing Meadows has been frequently bandied about as a potential home for a new arena for the New York Islanders so I asked Bettman why they were not asked to participate in the Winter Classic. Bettman, to his credit, was rather candid as he said that while the Islanders are a valuable member of the NHL community he had to take the needs of his television network partner, NBC, and league corporate sponsors into account. Bettman was diplomatically stating the obvious–that the Islanders have conducted themselves in rinky-dink, second-rate manner since their early 1980s Stanley Cup glory days. The cold reality, however, is that the Islanders need the exposure of playing in the NHL’s most viewed regular season game far more than the Rangers do.
The Islanders are on borrowed time in their current arena, Barclays Center, which has poorly maintained ice and wasn’t built with hockey in mind. Politicians aren’t going to lift a finger to help a sports team that only a relatively few diehards care about. Their most important player, center John Tavares, is in the last year of his contract with the team. Watching the Isles get snubbed for a marquee game in which they should have been involved only adds doubt about whether he will re-up with the team. Islanders managing partner and Bayside High School alum Jon Ledecky has to be livid about his franchise not being left out of the NHL’s biggest annual party that’s being held in his old backyard.
The Winter Classic should have a very beneficial effect for the Queens economy since it has many activities such as an NHL alumni game, various skills competitions, and perhaps a minor league hockey game, taking place the days preceding the Rangers-Sabres game, Expect a lot of Sabres fans from western New York to fly to JFK on Long Island City-based JetBlue from Rochester, Syracuse, and of course, Buffalo, to catch the game in person. It’s likely that they’re going to stay at the many Queens hotels that have opened in recent years.