In the movie about the chubby and dour middle-aged social reject without money who became the owner of a major league sports team, the lead will be played by Paul Giamatti. HBO will produce and The Iceman Coneth will win a slew of Emmys.
Everyone around the Islanders has their story about the time they first thought something wasn’t kosher about John Spano, the “Dallas” “businessman” who was “friends with Mario Lemieux” and faked out enough people to take over the New York Islanders in 1996.
Notice the lack of quotation marks around taking over the team. The question comes up all the time about this fascinating lunatic: “How did he think he could get away with it”? The answer: he did get away with it.
In the few months he was around the franchise, Spano made real business decisions that affected real people. On the hockey side, his “ownership” was established enough that he could order Mike Milbury to step down as coach so he could focus on his role as general manager. Now, before you declare that was a reasonable decision by a savvy executive, understand Spano’s true motivation – he just wanted more time to hang around with Milbury.
While everyone had their “ah-HA!” moment when they realized Spano couldn’t be what he said he was, the genius of this psychopath was knowing people like me wouldn’t be reckless enough to risk our careers by saying something about it. Our image of con men is usually charismatic characters, like Newman and Redford in The Sting, or any number of politicians. Spano used his awkward and shy persona – or maybe it was an act, who the hell knows? – to his advantage. You’d run into him getting coffee in the office, say hi. He’d always look down at your shoes and mutter something. You’d come away from the encounter wondering what this mad genius must be thinking, and whether it’s time to start sending out that resume.
It worked like a charm, and on businesspeople with major reputations. Some lost their jobs over it.
Here’s my Spano story. It’s February 15, 1997 and the Islanders are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the franchise. The team sucks that season, but this is a memorable night. The all-time Islanders team is announced, Boss and Trots and Denis and Smitty are in the barn, the new owner – our savior! – is walking around and to top it off Lappy Lapointe breaks a zip-zip tie with an overtime goal for the victory over John Vanbiesbrouck and the Florida Panthers.
After the game, the atmosphere in the locker room hallway is glorious mayhem. The Islanders legends are hugging it out in the hallway with Ziggy, Smoke, a Calder contender named Bryan Berard, Caber, Bert and the rest of the boys. It’s been a depressing season, but for one night everyone is reminded why the hockey life is beautiful. In the middle of the celebration stands a solitary man who doesn’t approach anyone, so no one approaches him.
He is focused, clearly on a vital mission. It’s John Spano, the “mega-millionaire” owner of the Islanders. He is standing in the hallway, completely oblivious, his back to the celebration. He is holding a puck, not from the game but the kind you can buy on the Coliseum concourse for 5 bucks. In his other hand is a Sharpie, as black as the suits he always wore.
“John, is there something we can do for you? I asked.
“Nah, I’m good. Just told a friend I’d get something signed for his kid by Vanbiesbrouck.”
Hmm. Picture this: owner of major professional sports team, after a big win, alone in the hallway because he wants to make sure the goaltender of the visiting team signs his puck. This is Fred Wilpon waiting outside the Dodgers locker room until Manny signs his bat. This is Jerry Jones hanging outside the Giants Stadium lot to meet Eli.
This is not how the owner of a sports team operates. They have people for that. People like I used to be.
Spano didn’t budge. With so much joy around him and his new toy, he instead chose to wait for The Beezer to do his interviews, shower, dress and make his way down the hall. VBK signed Johnny’s puck and the owner of the New York Islanders left the arena, all by himself.
This is what it took for me and my two best colleague-pals to give each other the look that’s something not quite right in the Country.
No, it wasn’t the night Spano invited the team for what we figured would be an elegant evening at the Garden City Hotel celebrating his takeover. Our wives got all dressed up and we nervously anticipated a classy night of wine and conversation with the new boss in a plush penthouse suite. When we arrived we were escorted to the meat market/dance club where nobody could hear themselves think over the pulsating “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” by C + C Music Factory. I recall paying for my own drinks and don’t recall ever seeing Spano. It was one crazy friggin’ evening.
No, it wasn’t the road trip when the Islanders had a game in Dallas and the team was invited to dinner the night before at the “Spano home” (really, to paraphrase Talking Heads – why should we believe it was his beautiful wife or it was his beautiful house?). I asked Ziggy Palffy how amazing the mansion was. “It’s okay,” said Ziggy, “but Kaspar’s house in Northport is better.”
From time to time a segment of Islanders fans will actually bemoan what could have been with Spano. They acknowledge that he was, you know, bonkers and felonious, but they also feel that he was a true fan who could have done some great things.
What a sad, sad notion. Consider this: besides the minor detail of him not having any money, John Spano lied about everything. Just because he could drop names like Trottier and Lemieux like the guy in Rain Man, how can we be certain he actually liked hockey?
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