Grifting your way to an NHL ownership

It seemed that I had run the well fairly dry as of late in terms of something new or interesting to watch on Netflix, Disney, Crave or Prime.

I’ve had a lot of recommendations from friends and family about shows or movies they really got into, and I have indulged some of them in investigating said titles for myself. But I’m a particular cat when it comes to sticking with a show or even finding enough motivation to start one. Sometimes I’ll even enjoy something for a season or two, and then for whatever reason never revisit it again or carry it through to its conclusion.

I have no reasonable explanation as to why I do this. Perhaps a subconscious quirk that I never finish anything? Pffft. Bet I finish this commentary without fail. You’ll see.

Anyway, I was uninterestingly perusing the same old Disney Plus titles the other night when I noticed they had made some significant adds in the sports documentary department. A good chunk of ESPN’s renowned 30 for 30 series was now available. And among them was one of my all-time favourites – entitled ‘Big Shot.’

I’d only seen it once years ago (30 for 30 was originally launched as a series of volumes in 2009); if you’re a hockey fan and you’ve never heard the semi-unbelievable story of John Spano and the New York Islanders, quite frankly you’re missing out. It’s amazing that it happened. More so, that it was allowed to happen the way it did.

To summarize, during the early and mid-1990s the Islanders were going through a fairly substantial financial crisis. Only a decade removed from four consecutive Stanley Cup titles from 1980-83, the franchise couldn’t fill Nassau Coliseum. The product on the ice was fairly terrible, the iconic old barn was getting more than a bit crumbly, and hardcore fans were worried that owner John Pickett was going to sell the team and move their beloved Islanders elsewhere.

Enter John Spano: Texas-based millionaire, hockey superfan and apparent saviour of the New York Islanders.

He agreed to purchase the franchise near the beginning of the 1996-97 season, while also promising to fire a significant payroll injection into the club (no salary cap then), and either renovate the old Coliseum or build a new barn. The underlying point was that he planned to keep the team on Long Island. Fans were euphoric. Spano was God in their eyes.

There was a slight hiccup in the whole production though. Well, slightly more than slight.

Spano didn’t actually have any money.

Mind you, he did all right in terms of the aircraft-leasing business he owned in Dallas. But he wasn’t professional sports team ownership rich. In actuality, it would later be revealed that Spano had a net worth of around $5 million, including the big Dallas house he owned (apparently absent of furniture according to a visitor) but owed around $85,000 in back taxes on.

That $5 million net worth was a far cry from the initial $17 million he needed to pay Pickett at the closing of the ownership deal the following spring. The remainder of the $165 million owed would be provided by bank loans for the most part. Spano showed up to the deal closure meeting with not a cheque in hand, but a document from a prestigious London bank essentially stating that he was good for the money and that it would be wired post haste. Fabricated, of course.

Pickett, apparently satisfied, closed the deal. And so, a professional hockey franchise was effectively in the hands of a man who hadn’t even picked up the lunch cheque, and someone whom the rest of the hockey world apparently knew very little about. They would know plenty soon enough.

Spano, ownership now in hand, began using team financial assets to bolster the Islanders’ roster, shook up the coaching staff, and renegotiated an annual cable television rights agreement which was conveniently around the same amount as what he owed Pickett. He just had to buy enough time that it got done, so he could pay his bill and essentially continue on as owner without actually using any of his own assets, which were minimal.

He made up some pretty wild excuses on a daily basis as to why that money hadn’t arrived. One of his tricks was to wire money payments of $1,700 or $5,000 and claim that the bank had screwed up the money order by missing a few zeroes. That only kept those he owed at bay for so long.

Another thing that Spano liked to do in his newfound position was party. He loved being in the spotlight and being an adored public figure on Long Island. Hotel rooms, vats of booze, ‘ladies of the evening’ – all frequently charged to the Islanders.

How long could it go on, you may ask? In actuality, not very. But before Spano’s web of lies came crashing down, he – in essence a con man, a grifter, whatever you want to call him – was the owner of an NHL team for about four months.

The media, the NHL and the U.S. District Attorney’s Office eventually put it all together. You’d think NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman would come off more embarrassed during his 30 for 30 interview, but in classic Bettman style he confidently proclaims they got it right in the end, although admitting some sloppiness on the NHL’s part. Uh… ya.

It was really a huge embarrassment for the NHL, which seemed overly desperate to embrace a man who had all the initial right answers to save a floundering franchise while not doing their due diligence in terms of, you know, background and financial statement checks. Those old chestnuts. The league significantly tightened its ownership screening process going forward. But it was still a decent black eye, if not a fantastic story.

Spano was ultimately found guilty of several forms of bank fraud in 1998 and sentenced to 71 months in prison. He served about half that.

Wayne Gretzky is famously quoted as saying, “You miss 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take.” Spano certainly took his shot, but in the end fired it fairly wide of the net.

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you back here in a fortnight.


This is a bi-weekly opinion column; for question or comment, contact Dan McNee at