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As seen in the Fall 2013 issue.

BREAKING INTO THE NHL:
Actor and director Kevin Connolly tells the story of how John Spano deviously purchased the New York Islanders.

By Duane Watson
 

The New York Islanders made five successive Stanley Cup appearances in the early 1980s, winning four in a row and an unrivalled 19 consecutive playoff series.

Yet in the 12 seasons that followed, they only made the post-season six times. Then in 1996, Dallas businessman, and New York native, John Spano, purchased the team for $165 million, and was hailed as the saviour of the franchise. However, a minor glitch began to unravel in the transaction - Spano didnít have the money.

After taking ownership of the team it was revealed that Spano forged multiple documents, had a net worth of only $5 million and clearly wasnít in possession of the assets required to close the deal. If this sounds like the makings of an investigative documentary, it is - Big Shot is the second hockey film as part of ESPNís award-winning ď30 For 30Ē series, airing in October.
 

Director Kevin Connolly, widely recognized from his role in the TV show Entourage, grew up in Patchogue, New York as a passionate Islanders fan. In Big Shot, he tells the story of Spanoís house of lies - deceiving a franchise, a fan base and the NHL - and chronicles how it all came crashing down.

Interviewing former players, coaches, journalists and federal investigators, Connolly crafts a story infused with his own affection for the Islanders and sheds light on one of the most bizarre corporate takeovers in sports history.

TFP:  How did Big Shot come about?
KC:  Mark Ciardi of Mayhem Pictures was one of the executive producers and my partner on this. He produced Secretariat, he did Miracle, heís like the sports movie guy. There was another director on board and I was going to narrate the film. Then the director fell out, and I slipped in there at the last second and took over the directing duties.

TFP:  How important was it for you to tell this story?
KC:  It really is a cliché the passion project thing, but it never could be more of a case of a passion project than this. It was never work for me ever, sitting down for these interviews with Clark Gillies and Bobby Nystrom and Wayne Gretzky, interviewing these guys that were gods to me growing up. Gary Bettman couldnít have been more helpful and to his credit, there was a certain amount of trust that he had. Iím telling a story that was a touchy topic for the NHL. Not that heís afraid of my questions, heís a smart guy, Iím no Mike Wallace I donít think he was afraid of my hard-hitting questions. He made the story very easy for me and he could have made it difficult. It was nice to have the cooperation of the Islanders and the NHL they were great.

TFP:  Was it difficult to get John Spano involved in the film?
KC:  He was very reluctant. The fact of the matter was in hindsight, the movie wouldnít have been nearly as good without him obviously, but him not doing it wasnít going to stop me from making the movie. I think once he realized I was making the movie with or without him, he realized it was in his best interest to have his side heard.

TFP:  What drives a man to think he can buy a $165 million dollar hockey team and not have the money to do it?
KC:  Itís funny because this is before Mark Cuban, this is before the super owner, in a nutshell that was his end play, thatís what he wanted to be. The crazy thing is, he wasnít driven by greed and thatís one thing Iím sure of. After working on this movie for as long as I have, he really just wanted to kind of roll in the club, order a couple of bottles and be the man.

TFP:  This is very much your story, you narrate it, you interview Spano, your face is on camera... Did you find you had to walk a balance between being too much of the story versus being a storyteller?
KC:  Truth be told, to me the less you saw me the better. I didnít want the story to be about me, believe me, the last face I want to look at is my own. I think it was necessary to make the point that this is the real thing for me, hereís the proof, thatís me. There were discussions where they wanted to see even a little bit more of me and I was very conscious and didnít want it to be self-indulgent. It was something that I was hypersensitive about.

TFP:  I think it was important, particularly with the shots of you as a youngster, because youíre an Islanders fan.
KC:  I was a kid hanging outside the locker room for two hours after the game, waiting for them to sign my jersey. I was a real, real fan, I didnít go to school when they would lose big games, when they lost that fifth cup I was in a coma, traumatized!

TFP:  When Big Shot airs, the Islanders will be one-year away from starting their first season in Brooklyn. Is this documentary an obituary of sorts, reminding people of the franchiseís legacy, before it moves in a new direction?
KC:  It was important to illustrate what a good team the Islanders were and how good the franchise was. Thatís no disrespect to any other franchise in the NHL, but it was a pretty established franchise that this guy was toying with. I think people have gotten used to the Islanders troubles and they forget, 19 straight playoffs series, a record that will probably not be broken, in any sport. Those are important statistics and it was just great to go through, I couldíve made the whole movie about the cup run. Itís funny, the timing of it is interesting because those developments all sort of happened during the process of making this film. The fact that now the ironic thing about the move to Brooklyn is this is happening as the Islanders are getting their stride.

TFP:  Whatís your earliest or fondest memory of the Islanders?
KC:  Obviously, I was a very young and tender fan when they were going through that cup run. But my one great moment was when the Islanders broke the record for consecutive victories before overtime. So if you were ahead at the end of the third period, that was it. The Islanders had won 14 straight and the score was tied with like a minute to go and I remember listening to it on the radio and the Islanders beat the Colorado Rockies to win their fifteenth consecutive game.

TFP:  Whatís your All-Islanders line-up?
KC:  Give me Billy Smith in goal. I canít believe Iím going to bounce Bryan Trottier out for (John) Tavares at centre, but can you imagine Tavares centering for (Mike) Bossy and Gillies? On defence, (Dennis) Potvin and I would have to go with one of the old guys Dave Langevin.

TFP:  What other projects are you working on?
KC:  I just finished directing a film in Colorado called Dear Eleanor. So I was directing that and then Iím starting a new TV show called Friends with Better Lives, itís a CBS comedy that Iím acting in. Then weíre shooting for trying to do the Entourage movie this fall.

TFP:  How excited are you for this Entourage film?
KC:  Thatís like getting asked to go back and redo your senior year at high school. Canít wait for that, weíre just trying to hammer out some of the details, itís tough lining up peopleís schedules, but weíre shooting for end of October/November, thatís the plan.

Big Shot airs on ESPN & TSN in October.

For more stories from the The Fourth Period Magazine, pick up a copy or subscribe today.
 

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