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NHL Viewers Club: ‘Big Shot,’ that time a con man briefly owned the Islanders

In 2013, director Kevin Connolly’s “Big Shot” was released as part of ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary series. It chronicled the fraudulent attempt by a Dallas businessman named John Spano to buy the New York Islanders for $165 million, and the subsequent fallout. It was notable for featuring a sit-down interview with the infamous Spano himself.

This week, with no live games to watch, “Big Shot” is our selection for the NHL Viewers Club and can be streamed on ESPN+. Follow along below with our guide to the many angles in the doc:

Describe “Big Shot” in 10 words or fewer

Emily Kaplan: Guy with no money buys Islanders, cons everyone. It’s nuts!

Greg Wyshynski: The only mistake Gary Bettman admits making as NHL commissioner.

What part of Spano’s scam secretly impressed you the most?

Kaplan: How easily he falsified documents — and how brazen he was about it. “In today’s world, I don’t know if it would be as easy,” Spano said in the documentary. “But back then, with faxes and everything else, it was surprisingly not as difficult as you might think.”

Honestly, what it came down to was a lack of communication. At least, according to him: “I set it up so other people couldn’t talk to other people, or they didn’t have enough knowledge to put two and two together. The guy at the bank knew one thing. The guy at the NHL knew another. My attorney knew something else. If they would have all got together, they would have realized something wasn’t right.”

Wyshynski: Initially, it was his stalling tactics. For example, Spano would be required to send $17 million to the Islanders’ previous owner, and then — whoops! — he would actually send $1,700, claiming a variety of different mistakes. That would buy him extra time to raise more money or for the next diversionary scam. But my favorite grift was Spano’s taking a loan from Pittsburgh Penguins star Mario Lemieux, whom he claimed was one of his best friends, and then using that money on the Islanders rather than on the business for which it was intended. I repeat: He scammed the captain of an NHL team to fund a conference rival. He had to pay $1.25 million back to Mario when he pled guilty.

What was the most Long Island thing you saw?

Kaplan: The “Save the Islanders Coalition,” the fan-driven lobbying group founded just to publicly embarrass ownership into improving the team’s performance. They organized rallies and had a 300-circulation newsletter. The home-video footage from one of their council meetings in 1996 is pure gold.

How’s this for a rallying cry: “The only leverage we have is negative publicity, which we’ll heap upon this organization until they change the logo!” Yes, grown adults gathered to complain about the fish stick logo.

Wyshynski: The Garden City Hotel, aka the place to see and be seen on Long Island, apparently. Spano would walk into the place and be treated like royalty while being surrounded by women. The owner of this mecca of Long Island social life also came alarmingly close to giving Spano the money he needed to further his scam ownership of the franchise.

What was your favorite moment of hockey nostalgia?

Kaplan: The clip of a younger Mike Milbury climbing into the stands at Madison Square Garden as a Boston Bruin in 1979 and slapping a New York Rangers fan with the fan’s shoe. Is this incident necessary for the documentary narrative arc? Not really. It’s used to illustrate Milbury’s disgust of the Rangers, which is questionable on the relevancy front. But do hockey fans love any excuse to relive this infamous tale? Absolutely.

Wyshynski: The SportsChannel logo. For those who don’t remember: SportsChannel secured the national NHL rights in the U.S. for four seasons. The problem? Over two-thirds of the country that could watch the NHL in its previous TV deal didn’t have access to SportsChannel. It was a disaster, and the league left the fledgling network in 1992.

Kaplan: I honestly don’t mind the logo, or even the colors, but I think the fatal flaw was timing. You don’t introduce a rebrand while the fans are already disgruntled by the product on the ice. Imagine if they debuted the “fish stick” guy in the middle of their dynasty. Mike Bossy comes out at a pep rally, sporting a jersey with the new logo. It would have been iconic! Fans would’ve eaten that up.

Wyshynski: The logo was never the problem. It was tight, if not exactly on par with the team’s classic crest from its dynasty days. That the fisherman looked like hockey historian Stan Fischler was a bonus. The colors were the problem, because the Islanders suddenly looked like a tube of Aquafresh; and the lettering was a problem, because no one should require Dramamine when reading a player’s nameplate.

What quote from Kevin Connolly most reminds you that “E” from “Entourage” is narrating this thing?

Kaplan: “But John Spano didn’t want to just be rich and famous. He wanted to be extraordinary.”

Replace Spano’s name with Vincent Chase, and imagine this is E sitting at The Belvedere, doing a pre-interview with a reporter from the Hollywood Reporter. “Aquaman 3,” again starring Jake Gyllenhaal, is about to hit theaters and E is setting the spin zone for why Vincent was better off leaving the franchise.

Wyshynski: “And den, all of a sudden, everything stahted looking up!” This would be right before the boys toasted their bottles, while looking out on a sprawling Los Angeles, because Vinny Chase got the funding he needed to make “Queens Boulevard.”

Who was the documentary MVP?

Kaplan: Jim Lites, the Dallas Stars‘ CEO. It’s a brief cameo by Lites, who is still in the same role, but it’s a memorable one. Spano had an agreement in principle to purchase the Stars, but as Lites blatantly states: “The longer we got to know him, the more bizarre he became.” Lites seemed to sniff Spano out as a fraud just by the mere fact that when they went to lunch in New York and Spanos didn’t pick up the lunch check. Hey, it tracks!

Wyshynski: Mike Milbury, then-New York Islanders general manager/coach. How great was Milbury in this thing? He called Spano “full of s—” for claiming that he took the coaching reins away from Milbury, and then said Spano didn’t have “the cojones” to actually take away the gig from him. He spun a tale about how Spano was going to bring some women to their hotel during a hockey operations meeting for extracurricular activities. He bragged about physically throwing an Islanders critic, whom Spano hired for a job he wasn’t qualified to do, out of the team’s offices. Hart Trophy effort from Mad Mike.

If they made a fictionalized movie for “Big Shot,” who plays John Spano?

Kaplan: Paul Giamatti. Not the perfect casting, but Giamatti is an ace at playing a villain — either subtle and dry (which seems like the real version of Spano) or bumbling and cartoonish (perhaps better suited for a Hollywood version). Depends on which way the director wants to go.

Wyshynski: Jeremy Strong. I see your Chuck Rhoades and raise you a Kendall Roy. Strong has the hangdog look you need for Spano, and we’ve watched him hustle to keep an empire from crumbling though nefarious means for two seasons on “Succession.” Now, do we get Matthew Macfadyen or Nicholas Braun to play Milbury?

What are your lingering or unanswered questions after watching “Big Shot?”

Kaplan: Did former Isles star Denis Potvin really push Spano toward his old franchise after Spano’s deals to buy the Stars and Panthers fell through? If so, this storyline did not get enough exploration. I have so many follow-up questions.

Wyshynski: As someone who covers the NHL HQ side of things, I’d love to know what Gary Bettman’s real reaction to all of this was behind closed doors. Spano worked the NHL’s flawed system for vetting potential owners. Bettman said Spano didn’t “trip any of the circuit breakers” that would potentially catch a fraudulent bidder. Spano claims the league’s due diligence was calling his lawyer, asking if Spano was worth what he claimed he was worth, and the lawyer confirming it based solely on the fact that Spano told him that’s what he was worth. Which is incredible.

In Jonathon Gatehouse’s book “The Instigator: How Gary Bettman Remade the NHL and Changed the Game Forever,” Bettman explained how Spano changed the way they vetted owners. “We learned from that, and we have better ways of checking now. We use private investigators to probe people’s backgrounds — have they been arrested, have they done anything they shouldn’t, talk to their references and neighbours, so you know what you are getting. And we use forensic accountants to dig in and make sure the money is really there,” he said.

Yet this all almost happened again when William “Boots” Del Biaggio III attempted to buy part of, and potentially more of, the Nashville Predators in 2007 through fraudulent means. But that’s fodder for the “Big Shot” sequel. (Might we suggest “Boot Scoot?”)

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