“We Want Fish Sticks: The Bizarre and Infamous Rebranding of the New York Islanders” by Nicholas Hirshon
Ice Hockey, professional, management, Islanders
December 1, 2018
5 of 5 stars (outstanding)
During the 1990’s, twenty-five professional sports teams went through a rebranding process in which they changed their team logo, uniform, colors, or any combination of these. One team that undertook this rebranding, the New York Islanders, saw disastrous results from this endeavor. The team’s failures are well chronicled in this book by Nicholas Hirshon. Through numerous interviews with people in many positions with the Islanders at that time, Hirshon tells the sad tale of this failed adventure with intricate detail and writing that is a pleasure to read.
At the time of the rebranding, which began in the 1995-96 season, the Islanders were experiencing trouble both on and off the ice. Despite making the playoffs in the 1993-94 season (where they were eliminated by their arch rivals, the New York Rangers, who went on to win the Stanley Cup that year), the team was long past its glory days of the early 1980’s when they won four consecutive Stanley Cup championships. Their arena, the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, was in disrepair and was one of the poorer rinks in the NHL for amenities, and the team ownership was led by an absentee owner in Florida and run by his associates nicknamed the “Gang of Four.”
Having seen the remarkable rise in fortunes for the Los Angeles Kings when they rebranded their franchise after acquiring Wayne Gretzky, the Islanders decided to undergo a similar transformation. They hired a consulting group, SME, who had a proven track record of success with such projects, to design a new logo for the team. While the agency did some research into Long Island history and looked at some marketing strategies, the lack of other research would prove to be the wrong move. Their review of the fishing industry of Long Island, coupled with the popularity of the Billy Joel song “Downeaster Alexa” (Joel was a Long Island native), resulted in the creation of a new logo for the Islanders.
This logo was a drawing of a fisherman with an angry look dressed in a raincoat holding a hockey stick. Forgoing the traditional “NY” logo with a hockey stick forming the “Y” on top of a map of Long Island, the Islanders were looking to market such a logo and mascot to younger fans. They even hired a young man to appear in a costume resembling the fisherman as a mascot during the team’s home games.
What they didn’t count on was the backlash the team would receive from the fans and the media about the new logo. Islander fans were upset about the removal of the old logo and the connection they felt it had with the team’s glory days. The media was unrelenting with its criticism and sarcastic barbs about the new logo, comparing it to the mascot of the Gorton’s frozen food company. Gorton’s is most noted for its frozen seafood, including fish sticks. That lead to the derisive chant by opposing fans “We Want Fish Sticks!” Naturally, that chant was started by Rangers fans the first time the Islanders played in Madison Square Garden wearing the new uniform.
This was just the beginning of a long two years in which the team posted the third-worst combined record in the league. There was plenty of controversy in the front office when general manager Don Maloney was fired in December 1995 and Mike Milbury was named the general manager. While Maloney was believed to have been too inexperienced to have made good player personnel decisions, Milbury’s moves were also questioned despite having had experience with the Boston Bruins. To further muddy the situation, Milbury also named himself head coach in 1995 and had tumultuous relations with many of the players.
Speaking of players, the book has plenty of information on their role for the Islanders’ woes during these seasons. The author talks about the players who were supposed to be key contributors to the success of the team and why they fell short. Anything from injury (Brent Lindros) to lack of promotion of good players (Ziggy Palffy) to the player just not wanting to play for the team (Kirk Muller). Readers who want to read more about the action on the ice instead of just about the front office or marketing will also enjoy this book.
It should also be noted that during the end of the “fisherman era” (as the author calls this time frame repeatedly through the book), the club had one more embarrassment in the front office. Desparate to be rid of the Gang of Four, the fans and media were excited when a potential buyer of the team was announced in 1996. John Spano, a Dallas resident who had connections to Long Island, was going to not only purchase the team but was going to invest in the required upgrades to the arena and acquire players to bring a championship back to Long Island. However, investigation revealed that Spano’s fortune was non-existent as he had defaulted on several loans and eventually was convicted on charges of fraud. The euphoria that had briefly enveloped the team and its fans was quickly deflated as the era quietly came to an end when the Islanders went back to wearing the traditional logo on its jerseys to start the 1997-98 season.
One more note about the book is that it took an unusual action by providing the entire transcript of an interview with one of the key people in designing the uniform. Pat McDarby was the graphic designer whose sketches inspired the logo. Because McDarby died one year after the interview and his high profile in the sports branding business, it was decided to print the entire interview. This was one of the best add-ons to a book I have read as McDarby’s insight into what went into the logo and some of the possible reasons for its failure made for great reading, especially after reading the entire story in the body of the book.
For readers who are interested in sports branding as well as hockey history, this is a must read. I hesitate to recommend this to any Islander fans, unless they liked the fisherman logo, as it may bring back some painful memories of a short but painful era.
I wish to thank University of Nebraska Press for providing a copy of the book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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