Meanwhile, last Friday the NHL said that Pickett worked out an arrangement with Fleet to repay the $80 million loan and now will try to find another buyer.
Spano appears to have grown up comfortably, not extravagantly, first on Manhattan's Upper East Side—he claims to have played peewee hockey in Central Park—and, when he reached his teens, in rural Madison, Ohio, near where his father, John, managed a small business.
After graduating from St. John's High in nearby Ashtabula and then, in 1986, from Pittsburgh's Duquesne University with a degree in business administration, Spano took a succession of modest-paying sales jobs in Pittsburgh and Dallas. Nothing would seem to account for his claim of accumulating a net worth in the nine figures, all within six years of establishing Bison Group in 1990. Spano says much of his wealth comes from that mysterious trust, which he has described as part of an inheritance from his grandfather "Angelo"; exhaustive research by Newsday into Spano's background, however, turned up no wealthy ancestors and no grandfather named Angelo.
Denis Potvin, the former Islanders defenseman whom Spano had befriended and reportedly had hoped to make president of the team, says in hindsight that one thing about Spano had troubled him: "If he had that stature, why didn't he have staff working with him? He seemed to work very much alone."
During a six-month period in 1995 Spano flirted with buying a half interest in the Dallas Stars, becoming a regular around the Stars offices. But he was always coming up with an excuse to keep from closing the deal, remembers Stars president Jim Lites. "The excuses were laughable," Lites says. "One time he called and said he couldn't close without a copy of the operating agreement with the Kalamazoo [Mich.] Wings, our minor league affiliate. Then it became 'My partners in South Africa have to come in and meet everybody.' One guy showed up and 'cheerioed' us for a whole day. I can laugh now, even if it didn't make any sense.
"Usually con guys have the whole suave thing going," adds Lites. "You know—fast lane, wife with fake breasts, the whole thing. John Spano is 33 but seems more like a 60-year-old. He's the most dour young man you'll ever meet. His wife is smart, clean-cut, hardly a bimbo. He didn't seem flamboyant enough to be a con artist."
But if the charges are true, there was at least one telltale sign. "I've been running teams for 15 years," says Lites, who was vice president of the Detroit Red Wings from 1985 to '93, "and one thing that always happens when you go to a restaurant with an owner of a pro sports team is that he picks up the check. Out to dinner with [Red Wings owner] Mike Ilitch, you'd have to shoot him to get the bill out of his hand. [Dallas Cowboys owner] Jerry Jones, same way, even if it was dinner for 1,000 people. John Spano is the only prospective sports owner I ever saw who wanted you to pick up the check."
As president of The Staubach Company, former Cowboys great Roger Staubach's Dallas-based real-estate firm, Jim Leslie went in on several deals with Spano, including one as a would-be partner in that never-consummated purchase of a stake in the Stars. Leslie says that Spano owes him and several partners more than $1 million for a loan they granted in April in exchange for the rights to be master developer of a new arena for the Islanders. "Had we known about his bad-faith dealings with Pickett, we wouldn't have done the loan," Leslie says. "But by the time we gave him our money, he had purportedly been checked out by both the NHL and the banks." Gravante refused to comment on those or any other specific allegations.
Bob Gutkowski, a sports-marketing executive whose New York-based Marquee Group did consulting work for the Islanders at Spano's request, also became suspicious when $20,000 owed his company by Spano never arrived. "He'd talk a good game," says Gutkowski. "You'd ask him, 'John, are you sure you have the money to do this?' And he'd become indignant and say something like 'I have a private plane. Of course I have the money. Why would I be having this conversation if I didn't?' "
Such persuasive bluffing enabled Spano to be taken seriously when, after striking out with the Stars, he made a play for the Florida Panthers in May 1996. His bid failed when Panthers owner Wayne Huizenga decided not to sell the team, but Spano continued to impress NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who in April called him "the type of person we want as an owner." Said Bettman last week when reminded of that remark, "To say that I'm as unhappy about this as you can be is an understatement."