Autumn doesn't seem like a very good time to talk about hope, yet that's what this story is ultimately about. Hope for the losers. Hope for the truly inept. Hope for the laughingstocks. Hope is the food that sustains all expansion franchises, and in 1972-73 that was all the New York Islanders had on the table. Today they are seen as the ideal for building a pro team from scratch. No other expansion team—not even the Dallas Cowboys—has won three league championships in its first 10 years. Today the Islanders can look back at that first season and call it a foundation. A decade ago they were calling it a crawl space. In 1972-73 the Islanders won 12 games, lost 60 and tied six to break the mark for the worst record in the history of the NHL.
A lot of hope was being peddled to the hockey world in 1972. The World Hockey Association was preparing for its first season, and to diminish the WHA's impact on the New York market the NHL announced late in 1971 that it would add a team on Long Island for the 1972-73 season. (The league also placed a team in Atlanta that year.) The Islanders would play their games at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, a town of 20,000, 30 miles from Manhattan. Roy Boe, owner of the Nets basketball team, which then played at the Coliseum, was awarded the Long Island hockey franchise over several other bidders, but to all intents and purposes the Islanders were not an entity until February 1972, when Bill Torrey was hired to be the general manager. Torrey was the club's first employee. He had no office, no phone, no secretary and, of course, no players. The night he signed, Torrey left on a 23-day scouting trip during which he saw 28 games. By the end of it he had signed three scouts: Ed Chadwick, Henry Saraceno and Earl Ingarfield.
"We spent our time and effort mostly on kids," says Torrey, who as general manager of the now defunct California Seals in 1968-70 had seen the dire result of trading draft choices for established journeymen players. "I told Boe, 'O.K., you're going to go through the expansion draft and get 19 problem children. Either the guys can't play, they're too old, or they have personal problems. Second, your product is going to be constantly compared to the [New York] Rangers,' who were then the second-best team in hockey. Also, we were in the East Division with Montreal, Boston, the Rangers and four other established teams. We were guaranteed last place. But there was a ray of hope if we were patient because everyone in hockey knew that the amateur draft for the next few years was loaded. What other choice did we have?"
The expansion draft was held in June. Each of the 14 established NHL clubs protected the best 17 players on its roster, and Atlanta and the Islanders selected from among the leftovers. Bud Poile, general manager of the Vancouver Canucks in that team's first year, described the NHL expansion draft by saying, "I came in here hollering for a lifesaver, and they threw me an anchor."
That was in 1970. In 1972 things were even worse because the WHA was waiting to sign any NHL player it could get its hands on. "When the WHA became a reality," says Torrey, "I called [NHL President] Clarence Campbell to find out what hold I would have on the players I drafted, all of whom were under contract to their previous clubs. He said he had no doubt that the contracts would be upheld in the courts. At the expansion draft the press asked him the same question, and Mr. Campbell replied, 'Let the buyer beware.' I ran up to him and said, 'What the hell do you mean, buyer beware?' " The courts, it turned out, didn't uphold most of the NHL contracts, and Torrey lost eight of his 19 selections to the WHA—two of them, embarrassingly, to the New York Raiders. Atlanta, on the other hand, signed 19 of its 21 picks. Torrey was depicted in the New York press as a skinflint who hadn't done his homework, and it was widely written that the Raiders would likely field a better team than the Islanders.
The Islanders did come up with a few high-quality players, however. They snatched Eddie Westfall from the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins and Billy Smith, a little-known 21-year-old goaltender, from the Los Angeles Kings. On defense, the Islanders obtained Gerry Hart from Detroit, and later they acquired veteran Arnie Brown in a trade with the Red Wings. In the amateur draft the Islanders had first choice overall and took Billy Harris, who had gotten 129 points in junior hockey the previous season. In later rounds Torrey picked Lorne Henning, Bob Nystrom and Garry Howatt. Today all three of them have their names on the Stanley Cup.
Westfall, who assumed the Bruins would protect him, was playing golf in St. Andrews, Scotland at the time of the expansion draft. "I remember saying to myself jokingly, 'I wonder which team I'll end up on,' " recalls Westfall. "A few days later, when I was clearing customs, I could see my children waiting beyond the glass with sad, forlorn faces. Little did I know it was because Daddy was now a New York Islander." It was a cruel stroke of fate for Westfall, who 11 years earlier had broken in with one of the worst pre-expansion teams in NHL history, the 1961-62 Bruins, who went 15-47-8. Rather than move his family out of its new house in New Hampshire, Westfall bought a plane and learned to fly so he could go home when the Islanders had a day off. He was the Islanders' first captain.
Training camp was held in Peterborough, Ontario. Phil Goyette, a former forward with four NHL teams, was the coach, although he had had no experience behind the bench. The trainer was Nick Garen. Upon hiring Garen, Torrey had noted that a skilled trainer—and Garen was famous for stitching players back together while chomping on a cigar—was worth "as many as five additional victories during the season." Imagine what a season the Islanders would have had without him. Ninety-odd players were invited to camp. "We cut two the first night, before we had stepped on the ice," says Torrey. "One had a Mohawk haircut and behaved pretty badly at the hotel bar. The other guy brought his wife and wouldn't send her home. Not that I blamed him; we were all sorry to see her leave."
At the next day's practice they were all sorry—period. "You have never seen such an inept bunch in your life," says Westfall. Goyette thought, "Holy cow, what did I get myself into?" Garen muttered through his cigar to his assistant, "This is a hockey team?" That night Torrey told Gerald Eskenazi, who was covering the training camp for The New York Times, "The secret to this team is to get rid of everyone just as fast as I can."
What the Islanders lacked in skill they attempted to make up for in discipline. The players weren't allowed to keep cars at camp, so everyone—Torrey included—had to walk the half mile from the Holiday Inn, where the team was staying, to the rink. Torrey even invited Eskenazi to walk the distance, which is practically a marathon for most newspapermen. Players like Westfall and Harris, who was the NHL's first $100,000 rookie, used to park their cars a block away from the Holiday Inn and sneak back and forth to them like school kids. Torrey would catch them and leave admonishing notes on their windshields.
"The Bruins were happy if you just showed up for practice," says Westfall. "But when you're going well, you get those fringe benefits. The Islanders had us skate an hour and a half twice a day, and they still expected us to walk to and from practice. That almost pushed some of the players over the edge—like Craig Cameron. He always showed up at camp about 25 pounds overweight, but the team officials never knew it because he'd hang his big toes over the edge of the scale at the weigh-in and push down on the floor to support some of his weight. He had it perfected. That's very hard to do."
Off the ice, Garen had the Islanders do strength and flexibility exercises on the infield of a nearby harness track. One driver complained that the players were scaring the horses. "It's possible," says Torrey. "Dogs do spook horses sometimes." When camp broke and the team headed back to Long Island to start the season, Torrey decided against having names sewn on the backs of the jerseys. Needless expense. He knew there would be so much shuffling of players that season that if the jerseys were personalized, the Islanders would need a full-time seamstress just to keep up.
On Oct. 7, 1972 at the Nassau Coliseum, the Islanders lost their first game by a score of 3-2 to their expansion siblings, the Atlanta Flames, ISLANDERS BOW; ARTISTIC IT ISN'T ran the headline in Long Island's Newsday, which went on to report that "the game was much less exciting than the score indicates." The first cheer of the evening was for Flames Coach Boom Boom Geoffrion, a former Ranger. The first cheer for the Islanders didn't come until the 11-minute mark, when an Atlanta player took a run at Dave Hudson and missed.
Surprisingly, in their next game, also at home, the Islanders beat Los Angeles 3-2 on a last-minute goal by Germain Gagnon. The fans, deliriously happy over the .500 record, began chanting, "Bring on the Bruins!" The euphoria was only slightly dampened by the fact that Harris had muffed the Islanders' first penalty shot. He skated in alone, unhurried, only to have the puck hit a bad spot in the ice and jump over his stick. "I was a little teed off but I wasn't really embarrassed," said Harris afterward. The season was young. There would be plenty of time for embarrassment.
Strange things began to happen. Before the sixth game of the year, against powerful Montreal, the Islanders' Zamboni refused to start, as if it were saying, "I'm not going out there." The ice was resurfaced by two men pushing hand scrapers and a third pulling a 50-gallon water drum on wheels. Colorful, nostalgic stuff—except that when Canadien Coach Scotty Bowman inspected the ice, he refused to let his team play on it. The referee agreed with Bowman, and the game was delayed half an hour while a Zamboni was trucked over from another arena. Undefeated Montreal needed three third-period goals to win 4-3. Afterward, an enthusiastic Torrey said, "People keep saying that we're a bunch of humpties, but our guys refuse to believe it."
Before a game against the Flyers in the Coliseum, the Islanders skated onto the ice to find that the goals were missing. Earlier in the day, maintenance workers had taken the goals out back of the arena to repaint and restring them, and there they sat—red and shiny and wet, without a stitch of netting. "Someone came into my office about 10 minutes before the game and said, 'We've got a little problem with the nets,' " says Torrey. "I thought they were talking about the basketball team, the Nets. We finally had to send for some nets from a rink on the South Shore." Again, the game was delayed, but this time the Islanders tried to save face. "We faked it," says Hawley Chester, the team's first public relations director. "We told everyone that we were pushing the start of the game back 20 minutes because of a traffic jam outside."
If the 1972-73 Islanders needed any further convincing that they were, in fact, a bunch of humpties, the treatment they received when they traveled provided it. The fiascoes began with their first road trip, when they missed their flight to Boston. "We were giving the players vitamin shots, as I recall," says Islander Trainer Jim Pickard, who was Garen's assistant then. "We lost track of time and missed the plane. It was the last flight out, so we spent half the night looking for hotel rooms near La Guardia Airport."
The Islanders flew to Boston in the morning, but they might just as well have stayed home. The Bruins thrashed them that night 7-4. One of the Islander forwards, Tom Miller, ruptured his spleen when he was speared by Phil Esposito. "I remember going into the dressing room before the next game," says Pickard, "and some of the guys had taped garbage-can lids to their sides. 'What the heck is this?' I asked. 'Spleen protectors,' they told me."
The first time the Islanders flew out of Kennedy Airport, the bus driver got lost. Chester had to flag down a policeman to ask directions, and the cop, realizing that the team otherwise would miss its flight, escorted the Islanders to JFK by a back way. "We were either at the airport three hours ahead of time, or we were lost," says Henning, now an Islander assistant coach. "We never once had a bus meet us on time that season." Adds Smith, "It gave you an idea that things weren't going too well when our bus driver tried to find the 59th Street bridge and came to a dead end."
Smith earned his nickname, Battlin' Billy, that year by having more success fighting opposing forwards than he had stopping their shots. He shared the goaltending with veteran Gerry Desjardins, who complained later in the season of losing sleep because he dreamed about pucks every night. Says Smith, who that year broke the NHL record for penalty minutes for a goalie, with 42, "We used to face 50, 60 shots some games, but I had no complaints. I was fighting and enjoying it. The fans liked it; they knew they were getting their money's worth. There was no pressure. How can you put pressure on a team that's completely awful? That's one problem with playing on a winner—you can't go out and just hammer somebody because it might cost you the game. I used to have goals scored on me while I was looking the other way, trying to hit someone with my stick. So what? We were the biggest joke going, and even the players knew it. You'd go into a game knowing it was going to be a bombing. The idea was lose, but lose honorably."
Even that was difficult. One of the low points of the season came in late November, when the Buffalo Sabres, an expansion team itself two years earlier, routed the Islanders 9-2 in a game during which New York was outshot 50-16. After the eighth goal, Desjardins took the puck from the net and batted it into the stands in frustration. He was given a delay of game penalty, and the Sabres scored on the ensuing power play.
Despite the mounting losses, attendance at the Coliseum remained constant. "It was the same 11,000 fans every night," says Chester. "Everyone was practically on a first-name basis." The loudest cheers each night came when the public-address announcer said. "One minute to play in the period," and fans took campy pride in chanting, "We're number eight!" referring to the Islanders' standing in the eight-team East Division. For a long time the fans' favorite Islander was Brian (Spinner) Spencer, who had a bonus deal for "hits" on opposing players. Spencer cruised the ice looking for opponents to bounce off, but once he had a victim in his sight, he often missed the target and crashed into the boards. "I was the one counting the hits," says Chester, "and I used to give him credit for misses, too. That was all right with Torrey. At least everyone would wake up when Spence hit the boards." To show their approval of his efforts, fans hung a banner in the arena that said: SPENCE. But after the Islanders went 3-12-3 in their first 18 home games, another banner was hung beside that one. It had a huge fist with the thumb pointed down.
"The fans were very savvy," says Westfall, probably the most popular of the early Islanders. "All they asked was that you hustled. That's why they started to get on Brownie so badly."
Without question, Arnie Brown was the least popular player with the fans. He had played seven years with the Rangers and hated the New York area. All he wanted was out, and Brown made regular trips to Torrey's office to express his wish to be traded. Chester remembers once literally wrestling with Brown in the Islander offices to keep him from barging in on Torrey. "We used to have team meetings," says Henning, "and the players would, one at a time, say what they thought should be done to turn things around. When it got to Brownie, he'd say, 'I don't know about you guys, but I'm going to do everything I can to get out of New York.' And he was supposed to be one of the team leaders!"
"There were no real leaders on that team," says Smith, "so nobody really knew how to act. Most of us were just happy to be in the NHL. Then Arnie comes in the first day and says he doesn't want to be any part of it. That really blew some minds. One time he was skating behind my net with the puck, and he lost it. Brownie kept going, right around and off toward the bench. I thought he still had the puck so I followed him around, and one of the guys on the other team picked the puck up and tucked it in the other side of the goal. I looked like a complete fool. What did you expect the fans to do, cheer him?"
One group of fans identified itself on a banner as ARNIE'S DOGHOUSE, and when he fouled up, the group taunted him mercilessly. "He had rabbit ears and they knew it," says Henning. "Twice he literally started climbing the glass after our own fans. We had to pull him down." Eventually Brown got his wish: Torrey traded him to Atlanta.
The most dismal stretch of the season came between Nov. 22 and Jan. 16 when the Islanders went 1-24-3. Happy holidays. In the midst of that period, Goyette held one practice in which he skated the team an hour straight without pucks. "He had us skate 30 minutes in a circle one way, and then he turned us around and we went 30 minutes the other way," says Henning. "Then he said, 'That's what you have to do in a game, skate 60 minutes.' The funny thing was that I'd been out for a few weeks with mononucleosis, and Goyette came up to me afterward and said, 'You looked good in practice today, Lorne.' "
"The ice was atrocious before we started," says Westfall, "and we just went around and around, around and around. All you could do after a while was laugh about it. Phil's face was as red as the red line, and he just kept blowing the whistle harder and harder, and we kept laughing. Behind the net there were great ruts in the ice. Then we skated right through to the cement. I guess he reasoned there was no sense in practicing with pucks. All we'd be practicing was our mistakes."
Practices were pretty much a laughing matter all year long. The team would change into its equipment at the Coliseum and then travel by bus to one of the smaller, recreational rinks on Long Island, sometimes as much as an hour away. It was just like being back in high school. "One time we showed up at Skateland in New Hyde Park, and the Rangers were already there," says Harris, who now plays for Toronto. "So we just watched the Rangers practice until we could get on the ice."
The Islanders, criticized for not playing aggressively enough during games, sometimes showed their oats and frustrations on the practice rink. Some of the finest body checks thrown all year were by Smith, who would leave his goal and flatten a teammate out by the blue line if the fellow had shot high on him. Don Blackburn, who went on to coach the Hartford Whalers, remembers a vicious fight between Spencer and Bryan Lefley after one practice. "They had stayed out to shoot pucks against one of those wooden boards you hang up in front of an empty goal," says Blackburn. "Only this wasn't just a board; it was a wooden Team Canada goalie that Spencer had had made up. Had a little stick on it and everything. Anyway, Lefley broke Spencer's goalie, and Spencer really went after him. We had to go back out and break them apart."
Such heated moments, however, were rare. Indeed, today most of the original Islanders remember having a lot of laughs that first miserable season. "When you lose, lose, lose, you have to maintain a pretty good sense of humor to keep your sanity," says Blackburn, 'it wasn't like we were 12-60 because we had a bad year. We were so underskilled that we probably couldn't have played any better. In a season like that there could have been a lot of friction and turmoil, but management just rolled with the punches, didn't put any pressure on us, and that made it livable for the players. You have to give Torrey credit for that."
The high point of the year came when it was least expected. The Islanders had lost 12 games in a row when on the night of Jan. 18 they arrived at Boston Garden, home of Orr, Esposito and the rest of the Big Bad Bruins. Westfall, as always, received a warm standing ovation when he was introduced, and then the fans settled back for the slaughter. Final score: Islanders 9, Bruins 7. "Guys were looking at each other and laughing on the bench," says Henning. "No one could believe it, least of all the players. Boston changed goalies twice, which I'd never seen before. They took Eddie Johnston out, then they took his replacement out and put Johnston back in again."
The Islanders took a 5-0 lead in the first period and then held on for dear life. "I was more worried when we were up 5-0 than if we'd been behind 5-0," says Westfall. "I was shaking in my boots. You kept wondering when the other shoe was going to fall." The Bruins closed to 7-6 and 8-7. "I never saw so many goals scored from outside the blue line in my whole life," says Smith, who played goal the entire game for the Islanders. "Finally, when it was 8-7, Wayne Cashman took a shot from the blue line that hit me in the head. Harris picked the puck up and went down and scored, or we sure as hell would have blown it."
All around the league, TV and radio announcers working local games guffawed loudly over the misprint that had just come in off the wires: Islanders 9, Bruins 7. In the locker room, a buoyant Pickard began telling the Islanders about the time the California Seals had beaten the Bruins 2-0 and Seals owner Charlie Finley, who was at the game, came in and gave each player $400 to buy a new suit. "That was when Mr. Torrey came in and politely asked me to be quiet," says Pickard.
The Bruin victory may have been a high point, but it certainly wasn't a turning point. The Islanders quickly returned to their former ways, and 11 days after the Boston game Torrey fired Goyette. His record was 6-40-4. "I don't hold any grudges," says Goyette. "I had a taste of it. After that I said, thank you, goodby, arrivederci." Goyette, now a customs broker in Montreal, has not coached since.
"He wasn't enjoying the coaching," says Torrey. "It was affecting him mentally and physically, affecting his wife, so I just took him out of his misery." Goyette was referred to as a "silent sufferer," and his most irritating habit, as far as the players were concerned, was to explain loss after loss by saying, "I can't skate for them." In wishing luck to his successors, scouts Ingarfield and Aut Erickson, Goyette added, "They're going to need it." As the season sputtered toward its close, aspirations were adjusted downward. "Everybody used to get pretty excited when we lost by a goal," says Henning. "The owner would come in after a home loss that was close and would shake everybody's hand."
Not that Boe was on pins and needles every time the Islanders took the ice. "He didn't know any of our names," says Smith, "and God forbid if you weren't in front of the locker that had your name on it when he came in after a game. Once he asked Ralph Stewart how the kids were, and Stewie wasn't even married."
Torrey was just riding out the year, waiting to draft young Denis Potvin, who was "the type of player who comes along once every eight, 10, 14 years," says Torrey. "The last two months of the season I don't think I ever went into a city where I didn't see the headline HAPLESS ISLANDERS. We weren't the New York Islanders anymore. I thought they were talking about some town in Long Island I hadn't heard about. It's forever fixed in my memory."
Nystrom and Howatt were brought up for the last few games of the season, and their spark led the Islanders to three straight wins in March. "Before that," says Harris, "a winning streak for us was a win, a tie and a close one." Nystrom was big, tough and so unpolished that Torrey hired a Long Island figure-skating instructor named Laura Stamm to work with him. But he was one of the rays of hope.
In the penultimate game of the season, the Islanders lost 10-2 to the Flyers. "Philly was just coming on then," says Westfall, "and they didn't take any pity on us at all. Not that they should have. But when they had eight, they wanted 10." The season closed on a high note, a 4-4 tie with the Flames. The Islanders had given up 347 goals during the year, 27 more than the previous NHL record.
Then there was the postseason party. No Islander Stanley Cup fete can compare with the bash that first team threw. "When you're out of the race in November, you have one thing to look forward to," says Stewart. "It was a helluva windup to a terrible year."
It started in the dressing room following the Atlanta game and then continued on the plane ride home. When the bus unloaded the team at the Coliseum that night, eight stewardesses emerged with the players. "You have never seen such astonished faces as there were on the wives and girl friends who had come to meet the bus," says Westfall, who, as captain, was put in charge of the several thousand dollars in fine money that had been collected during the season and that would pay for the party. The entire assemblage returned to Westfall's house, which he shared with two teammates. The party lasted a week, nonstop, until every dime had been spent. Chester estimates that the team and assorted wives, girl friends and hangers-on went through 700 cases of beer.
"There was a feeling that we'd made it through the worst," says Chester. "We were glad it was over, and everybody was excited about the next season. We knew we were going to get at least two good defensemen in the draft, and that we were never going to have to go through another year like the last one again. It was a strange ending because you knew there'd be a lot of new faces next season, and that a lot of the old faces—the ones right there at the party—would be gone. That was the fastest summer I ever remember."
There are two types of hope. The first could be defined this way: If you are hollering for a lifesaver and someone throws you an anchor, you grab on and hope it floats. With the other, you let the anchor pass and hope you can tread water until something better comes along. On the morning of the 1973 draft of amateur players, Sam Pollock, general manager of the Canadiens and one of the great anchor-throwers of all time, walked Torrey around Montreal's Mt. Royal Hotel four times. Each time he made a higher offer for the Islanders' first choice. The Islanders' scouts gagged in their coffee each time Torrey passed by the hotel entrance. Finally, Torrey came inside. No deal. He had let the anchor pass. That may have been the most important moment in the Islanders' history.
The Islanders have spotted talent better than any other team over the last 10 years. In the 1973 draft they chose Potvin first and Defenseman Dave Lewis second. "My whole approach that year was to get our goals against down," says Torrey, who also picked up veteran Defenseman Bert Marshall from the Rangers. Two days before the draft Al Arbour was named coach. Today, with a nine-year record of 381-202-135 behind the Islander bench, he's regarded as the best at his job in the NHL.
During his playing days (1953-71) with four NHL teams. Arbour had been a dependable defenseman, one who seldom strayed far into the offensive zone. As a player he was disciplined, a trait that he kept when he became coach of the St. Louis Blues in 1970. The Blues fired Arbour in November 1972, and when Torrey approached him six months later, Arbour was living in St. Louis and scouting for the Flames. His initial reaction to Torrey's offer was negative. "The first thing Al didn't like was our team," recalls Torrey. "He said, 'Hey Bill, I got gassed in St. Louis when they had a pretty good team, and I'm not making a move and taking this on.' " Also, Arbour's wife, Claire, had heard a lot of unsettling tales about life in New York, and he didn't think she'd ever agree to live there. "I knew that Vancouver and Oakland were after Al, too," says Torrey, "so I told him to think about it and give me another call after his holiday."
The Arbours left that week for a vacation in Florida, and, by a stroke of fate, one day on the beach they struck up a conversation with a congenial couple from Long Island. The couple told the Arbours that Long Island was completely different from New York City, that the Island was a great place to live. When Arbour returned to St. Louis, he called Torrey and asked him if the job was still open. It was. Would it be all right if Claire came along for a visit? It was. Five days later, Claire gave the O.K. and Torrey had his coach.
"That was a very, very important move," says Torrey. "That first training camp with Al was like boot camp. I can remember Ralph Stewart literally crawling off the ice one day, and guys like Westfall were bitching something awful. That was the sign we were getting somewhere."
"The first day of camp Al told us we were going for a light skate," says Nystrom. "Two and a half hours later we left the ice. That's when we knew the fun and games were over."
The Islanders finished eighth in the East Division again in their second season, winning only 19 games, but they lowered their goals against by 100. "Teams beat us that second year, but they had to work to do it," says Torrey. The Islanders had fourth choice in the 1974 amateur draft, and this time they were looking for forwards to help out Harris. In the first round Torrey took Clark Gillies, a giant left wing, and in the second round he picked a center named Bryan Trottier.
"I don't think a lot of teams knew about him," says Torrey. "He was only 17, and he played in Swift Current [Saskatchewan], which is off the beaten track. When I went up to see Bryan, the windchill factor was something like minus 83 degrees. I've never been colder in my life, or in a colder rink. Trots didn't do much the first two periods, but in the third period he scored two goals. I decided to stay over another day."
Torrey was patient. That might be his finest quality as a general manager. He left Trottier in junior hockey the next year, although there was little question Trottier could have made the Islanders at 18. "Everyone fought me on it," says Torrey. "His father, the press, Bryan. The only person I had on my side was his mother. He was certainly as good as the players we had, but I didn't want to bring him into the atmosphere. We were still getting knocked around a lot, and I wasn't going to bring a kid that age into New York and put him under the gun."
The Islanders had their first taste of success in 1974-75. After completing the regular season with a 33-25-22 record, they upset the Rangers in the first round of the playoffs and then came from three games behind to upset the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was only the second time in NHL history that a team had overcome a three-game playoff deficit. In fact, in postseason play that year, the Islanders faced elimination eight times before finally losing in the semifinals in seven games to Philadelphia, which went on to win the Stanley Cup.
In 1975-76 and 1976-77 the Islanders continued to progress, with Trottier, Gillies and Potvin emerging as All-Stars. Montreal, however, was in a class by itself, and both years the Islanders lost to the Canadiens in the semis of the playoffs. Then, in '77, the Islanders drafted Mike Bossy. Fourteen teams had passed over him in the draft, and, remarkably, Bossy was the sixth right wing selected despite having set goal-scoring records in junior hockey.
Says Torrey, "Mike was not a complete player as a junior. He wasn't physical. All he did was score goals. That's what we were looking for; we weren't looking for defense or toughness. If we'd had first choice, we'd have taken Bossy."
Torrey had his team now. First, goaltending, then defense, then goal-scoring. He had built from the bottom up, as if he were putting up a house. All that was missing was character—a little weathering—and that was acquired the next two years in the playoffs, when the Islanders were upset, first by Toronto and then by the Rangers.
When the Islanders got off to a dismal start in 1979-80, critics assailed Torrey for not making a major move that would shake up his complacent squad. He waited until March. The Islanders needed another scoring threat at center to take the pressure off the Trottier-Bossy combination. So Torrey gave up Harris, his first-ever draft choice, and Lewis, his steadiest stay-at-home defenseman, to get the player he had his eye on, Butch Goring of Los Angeles. That was the winter the U.S. Olympic hockey team won the gold medal at Lake Placid. It so happened that the Islanders owned the rights to Ken Morrow, the U.S. squad's best defenseman and a fourth-round draft choice in 1976. Morrow, too, was a defensive defenseman. Immediately following the Olympics, Torrey signed Morrow and brought him up to play with the Islanders. When Morrow proved he could handle the NHL, Lewis became expendable, and Torrey swung the deal for Goring. The Islanders stormed through the last 12 games of the regular season and then won their first Stanley Cup, defeating the Flyers in six games in the finals. The winning goal, in overtime, was scored by the big, tough, unpolished rookie of that first season, Nystrom. Somehow, it seemed to bring things full circle.
If the story has a sad part—and perhaps it doesn't—it concerns the fate of Harris, on whose shoulders the team's hopes were initially pinned. That first year he had 28 goals, and management thought he would become a great scorer once he had some players around him. He did get 32 goals in 1975-76, but other than that season, he never equaled his rookie total.
"Some players never get on a Stanley Cup winner," says Westfall, who played on two with the Bruins but retired from the Islanders the year before they won their first Cup. "And some never play on a team as inept as we were. If you have one ounce of pride, you can't accept playing on a team like that. I'd been around, so I was able to adapt. But what about a guy like Bill Harris, who has dreamed his whole life about playing in the NHL and then comes to a team like the Islanders after having been the top amateur player in Canada? A kid in his position should be getting a lot of help from the veterans, but here he was, the guy everybody leaned on. It must have been terribly disillusioning, though Harris is one guy who has never complained in his life. Those early years could well have retarded his development as a player and be the reason that, in a lot of people's minds, he has never lived up to his potential."
Harris is now with Toronto, the once proud Maple Leafs. Another autumn has arrived and hope, once again, is the only food on his table.