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Laughing matter

Smith's firing just the latest odd move by Isles' Wang

Posted: Tuesday July 18, 2006 10:20PM; Updated: Wednesday July 19, 2006 7:27PM
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Long-suffering Islanders fans can be excused for suspecting that this is a photo of new GM Garth Snow attempting to drink water.
Long-suffering Islanders fans can be excused for suspecting that this is a photo of new GM Garth Snow attempting to drink water.
Mike Stobe/Getty Images
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Hey, didja hear the one about the hockey team that fired its new general manager and replaced him with the backup goalie?

There's no punch line. That's the whole joke. Unless you're a fan of the New York Islanders, and then Tuesday's surprise firing of GM Neil Smith -- he of the 40-day tenure -- and even more surprising hiring of Garth Snow to replace him, is no laughing matter. Instead, it's just another embarrassment for a franchise that already struggles with the shame of annual spring failures, John Spano and the fishsticks logo.

So heads up, Chicago. There's a new challenger for the crown of wackiest franchise in hockey. Hard to believe it was just months ago that Islanders fans celebrated the end of former GM Mike Milbury's career, secure in the knowledge that anybody hired to take his place would have to be better. Guess they didn't realize that owner Charles Wang would do his level best to make his old buddy Milbury look good. Hey, when you've got that much money, it doesn't matter if people call you mad.

And that's where the responsibility belongs in this madhouse: right in Wang's lap. Sure, the quick reaction will be to blame Ted Nolan, the new coach whose reputation for feuding with GM John Muckler in Buffalo kept him out of the league for years. But dust this scene and you won't find Nolan's fingerprints. Look at the players Smith brought on board during his brief tenure. Chris Simon? The epitome of a Nolan guy. Brendan Witt? Mike Sillinger? Those are players who'll go through the wall for a coach like Nolan. He wasn't the problem.

Instead, this probably will come down to a case of clashing assumptions. Smith assumed he was coming in to actually run the show. You know, sort of like he did when he won a Stanley Cup in 1994 with the Rangers. Wang assumed he had a better approach: a committee that includes Bryan Trottier, Pat Lafontaine, Ken Morrow, Wang himself and probably the stick guy and a couple of ushers who've been with the team since they were winners. It's always good to have guys like that around, right?

Chances are Smith was uncomfortable with that arrangement, and justifiably so. He likely made his stand this week with an offer to Mike Peca that was considerably more lucrative than the one Peca eventually signed in Toronto. And going against, or even around, the committee cost Smith his job.

Stunning, to be sure. But that's not even half as shocking as the fact that Snow was brought in to replace him. That was an "inspired" example of thinking outside the box, even for this franchise. The fact that several experienced and respected hockey men were available (paging Pat Quinn) but not given a moment's thought bears out Wang's conviction in the committee approach. Honestly, as crazy as it sounds, there's a chance it might work. Snow could turn out to be the second coming of Sam Pollock. Until we see the plan in action, we just don't know. At least there are two positives to the move. First, by retiring, Snow saves the Isles from another season of sub-par backup goaltending (even though he'll have to work around his own $750K salary cap hit for the next two years). The other: With a multiheaded beast now having input into player-personnel moves, the Isles surely will be less likely to give away young talent such as Roberto Luongo, Zdeno Chara, Wade Redden and Todd Bertuzzi in the future.

Smith managed to acquire a few puzzle pieces while he was calling the shots, and that should help the team improve on last season's dismal performance. But that's a minor comfort for the beleaguered fans of this once-proud franchise. It's clear that they now have an owner as absurdly confused as Bill Wirtz of the Hawks. And that's no joke.