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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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The Con Man Who Almost Took The Islanders

When I learned New York City mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio was born Warren Wilhelm, it was as if someone told me the president of the United States used to be Barry Soetoro. Oh, wait.

The vetting of a political candidate — who is this person, and how did they get here — is an important part of the electoral process, but figuring out who’s on the other side of a major business transaction is also pivotal. The latter wasn’t always the case in the National Hockey League (NHL).

Big Shot, an engaging documentary about John Spano’s audacious attempt to purchase the New York Islanders in the 1990s, is airing on Tuesday, Oct. 22, at 8 p.m. on ESPN as part of its acclaimed “30 for 30 Series.” John Spano’s name, it became clear as the 1996-97 Islanders season unfolded, was about the only thing that checked out.

Directed and narrated by Kevin Connolly, a Patchogue native and lifelong Islanders fan who made a name for himself as an actor on HBO’s Entourage, the 77-minute film features a lively mix of interviews with former Islanders players and front-office executives as well as NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. They recount how Spano, through a mix of bluster and forged financial documents, made it appear as though he had the $165 million needed to purchase a majority stake in the Islanders. The commissioner seems unconcerned throughout Big Shot about Spano’s ability to enter, undetected, the NHL’s inner sanctum. You would think Commissioner Bettman would be embarrassed, even years later, at the NHL’s inability or unwillingness to do the least bit of due diligence into Spano. If you thought that, you’d be wrong.

“You run in the right circles, people stop asking questions,” Spano, now 49 years old, explained to Connolly, when asked why so few questioned a 32-year-old Spano’s ability to buy an NHL franchise, in an interview that is Big Shot’s centerpiece. Born in New York City and raised in Ohio, where he played on the same high school football team as current Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer, Spano graduated from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. He then grew somewhat prosperous in Dallas, Texas, through a leasing company called the Bison Group, according to the federal investigators who discuss the case in the film.

Before setting his sights on the Islanders, the capital-challenged Spano made brief runs in the mid-1990s at buying the NHL’s Dallas Stars and the Florida Panthers. Neither deal materialized. One Stars executive who’d interacted with Spano expresses amazement in Big Shot that no one from either the Islanders or the NHL called him to discuss Spano, about whom the Stars were supposedly very wary. Um, don’t they have phones in Dallas? The Stars could have placed a call and shared their suspicions with Islanders management and the league, too.

Well, the Stars kept quiet, and it set into motion a subsequently embarrassing series of events, with Spano officially announced as the Islanders’ prospective new owner in October 1996. Given his newly exalted status, Spano started lining up financing — Fleet Bank was right there to lend him $80 million — and living large at The Garden City Hotel. I imagine Big Shot will only confirm what the then-Mrs. Spano suspected Mr. Spano was doing late at night in Garden City while she remained in Texas. An interview with his ex-wife would have fleshed out this saga, although I can understand why a woman once married to this guy would not want to relive it.

Connolly wisely focuses on Spano’s epic scramble to secure the other $85 million, and how John O. Pickett, the Islanders majority shareholder whose stake Spano wanted to acquire, showed endless patience as Spano resisted putting any of his own money on the table. There was even talk of having Spano pay $17 million, in five installments.

Spano’s undoing came about in 1997 as Pickett prodded the NHL to take action against Spano, and Newsday began publishing stories about the real John Spano, based on voluminous documents dropped off at the newspaper’s editorial office about Spano’s checkered past. A guilty plea and jail time awaited Spano, but be sure to watch Big Shot to the very end because the film’s postscript shows Spano learned little from his dalliance with the Islanders.

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: MFBARRY@optonline.net