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A Matter of Vision
Milbury Hands Isles Coaching Position to Bowness
By David Strauss, NY Islanders

"It's a matter of vision, a matter of what's best for all concerned."

In an emotional move both the new owner and the now-former coach termed "a mutual decision," John Spano and Mike Milbury stated their intentions. They want everyone to know that Milbury stepping down as Islanders coach was a determination made by both of them. Together. Yup, not just one of them.

"Effective immediately, I've resigned as head coach of the New York Islanders," Milbury told reporters shortly after informing his players of the change roughly 90 minutes before that night's game.

Milbury stated that he didn't want the question of his future status to get in the way of the team's play as the season wore on (hello, Bill Parcells?). He will now concentrate on his duties as GM.

Associate coach Rick Bowness, who also succeeded Milbury as head coach of the Bruins in 1991, was named to replace him effective immediately -- according to Milbury, on a "non-interim" basis.

"I had to convince myself this was the right thing to do at this time," Milbury said, stoically. "We came to a mutual conclusion, and I must say somewhat reluctantly, because I really enjoy the coaching aspects of the game, that perhaps it would be in the long-term best interests of this team to let Rick assume the head coaching position. I still think I have things to offer as coach, but we have important picks and John feels I should be very involved in the selection process."

"There are potential free agents out there, that I need to get a head start on... It's an emotional time for me, but this was the right time." According to Milbury, his desire to realize his long-term vision for the franchise outweighed his coaching passion.

The announcement came at the end of a confusing two-day period in which Milbury had visited Spano in Dallas and reportedly convinced the new owner to let him stay on in the dual role.

The day before the announcement, at the morning skate, before speaking to Spano and reaching a definite decision, Milbury said only that he wanted to have a decision on the coaching situation - one way or the other - by the end of the day. Later, when asked point-blank if he wanted to remain coach, he seemed to admit that he did.

"I would say it took some convincing for me (to step down)," he said, "because I do feel some confidence in my ability as coach... I was reluctant, being only seven points back (of a playoff spot) and because I love it."

A Dallas businessman whose net worth, according to sources, is $750 million, Spano completed the $165-million deal to purchase the Islanders just days before the announcement. That made this move seem impetuous, especially because, asked in November if his style is closer to George Steinbrenner or Leon Hess, Spano, a native New Yorker, said: "George Steinbrenner."

Last night, though, Spano said this decision was not impulsive - although many were wondering whether he was planning to hire Billy Martin to replace Milbury.

"He didn't have to convince me [of his plan]," Spano said. "I understood what his vision was. But if I don't participate in the direction of the team -- I think this is one thing everyone told me has been lacking with the club for 10 years -- this was something that was going to happen in the summer anyway... If Mike said he wanted to still stay [as coach], Mike would still be there. He felt this best for the team, for the future of the team."

But Spano did indicate that the Islanders' record of 36-75-19 under Milbury and his recent outburst and ejection by referee Don Koharski in Pittsburgh had a bearing on the decision.

"I think it had something to do with it, sure," Spano said, referring to the ejection. "It's hard for it not to... And we always wished we had won a little more. But while I think Mike did a good job with this team, I also think his expertise is in assessing talent."

Milbury stated with some degree of certainty that despite persistent media rumors, Spano wasn't looking for a quick fix for the team's current struggles.

"John really wants to get there in a hurry... but I think I know this business... and know that I have a plan. Slowly but surely, I convinced him of that plan... I got exactly what I wanted from John yesterday and today. I went to Dallas to get a mandate for my plan and my timetable and got a definition of my role. Together we got there."

In the second year of a five-year, $3.5 million contract, Milbury was the only remaining dual GM/coach in the NHL since St. Louis fired Mike Keenan a month ago. He was originally hired away from his job as a commentator on ESPN in July of 1995 to replace the fired Lorne Henning as coach. It was at this press conference where he uttered his infamous quote that immediately endeared him to suffering Islander fans everywhere, "Screw the Rangers, screw the Devils, I work for the Islanders and I could care less about those teams."

Immediately upon his hiring as coach, speculation began that Don Maloney was not long for the GM job. With the team struggling, and the Kirk Muller fiasco dragging on, Maloney was fired in December 1995 and Milbury replaced him soon after. The 44-year-old Milbury had led the team to a record of 14-23-9 in this, his second season as coach.

Spano insisted, "This is not a John Spano decision. It was a mutual decision. Mike came to me... and felt it was best for the future of the team..."

Bowness, the seventh coach in franchise history, turned 42 the day after being appointed. He led the Bruins to the Stanley Cup semifinals in 1992, but was fired for Brian Sutter after one season. He became the expansion Senators' first coach in 1992-93 and was fired in December 1995 after compiling a 39-178-19 record over three seasons. The Islanders have adjusted the remaining two years of his contract to reflect his new title, but terms were not disclosed.

Milbury hired Bowness last January to be his associate coach, and yesterday admitted the plan all along had been that Bowness would take over if and when Milbury decided to give up the coaching job.

"I have a lot of faith in Rick. I brought him here as an associate coach, named him as such, with the idea that when I stepped down, he would be the [one to replace me]. That time is now."

Some in the New York media reacted to the announcement as if it was a sign of panic. Spano was adamant this wasn't the case. "I look at this very much as a positive," Spano said. "It's not a negative at all. This is what is best for the team, best for Mike, best for Rick, best for the fans. I'm very happy that's what Mike wanted to do."

Milbury, though, sent somewhat mixed signals about his feelings. "It's emotional. It's difficult. I love coaching. I think I'm good at it... It was a draining experience. There wasn't much time for me, personally. At the same time, it has been exhilarating... As far as I'm concerned, I've done a hell of a job."

It appeared to be a very tough decision for both Spano and Milbury, who was torn between his love of coaching and his ultimate goal. "This is my life's work," he said. "I'm trying to win a championship."

Guy Charron, who celebrated his 48th birthday the day before the announcement, will remain as the assistant coach.

LCS: Guide to Hockey

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