Al’s Islanders Taught Us More Than Just How to Play
By Chris Botta
When the date was set for Bill Torrey Night a few years ago, one of the first calls went out to Billy Smith.
“Just give me the date,” said Smitty from his Florida home. “I’ll be there.”
The legendary goalie didn’t even let the Islanders arrange a flight and hotel for him. He figured he wouldn’t have been an Islander if it weren’t for the GM, maybe even wouldn’t have had his Hall of Fame career. Nothing was going to stop Smith from being at the Coliseum when they raised a banner for Torrey, and he certainly didn’t need anyone to pick up his flight.
Happy 25th Anniversary, Smitty.
If it’s for a worthy cause, Bob Nystrom is always there. His schedule is so stuffed with charitable events that you’d think he was like Santa Claus, that there were multiple Bobby Nys. But as any of the thousands of Long Islanders that have had a moment with Nystrom can tell you, he’s an original. He’ll listen to every tale about where you were on May 24, 1980 like he’s hearing it for the first time. And then when you run into him a few years later in Penn Station or Roosevelt Field, chances are Ny will remember you and your story.
Happy 25th, Bob.
Twenty-five years later, Anders Kallur and Ken Morrow are as essential to the Islanders organization as they were when the team won the first of four straight Stanley Cups. Kallur, as elegant today as he was as a 30-goal scoring third-liner (wow, no wonder they won four Cups!), is one of the Islanders scouts that went to bat for top prospects such as Sean Bergenheim, Petteri Nokelainen and Robert Nilsson. Morrow, still unheralded, still dignified, still serious at work but with a Steven Wright sense of humor after-hours, heads up the Islanders pro scouting department that unearths gems like Jason Blake and Adrian Aucoin.
Happy Anniversary, guys.
Hard to believe it’s 25 years on Tuesday. I was home, having just finished a lunch shift as a bus boy at the Host Deli in Jericho, watching the game on CBS. It was an especially cool time for my friends and me because the four years of the Islanders dynasty were grades 9-12 for us. You know, around the time you’re just beginning to learn about life, who your true heroes are and how to parallel park. (My big brother Nick, a Ranger fan, already had his license – so he had to drive us to the four Cup parades. How great is that?)
Those Islanders meant so much to us back then and time has only increased their place in our hearts today. There are plenty of reasons why, but maybe biggest of all is that 25 years later, they continue to never let us down.
I started working for the Islanders in the 1987-88 season. I’ve been here for every banner retirement event, every anniversary celebration, every fundraiser. There’s even been the opportunity to work with some of the dynasty members.
Someone once said, “Never get to know your heroes.” But I have, and I’m so glad I did. New York Times columnist George Vecsey wrote that the Islanders were not only the best team of a generation, but had the best people to ever grace a locker room. How lucky we were and continue to be to call them Long Island’s own.
Mike Bossy has become the Islanders’ Jean Beliveau, all dignity and class. His continued campaign against violence in the sport, years after he had a personal stake in the issue, proves how much he loves the game. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that John Tonelli today remains a relentless competitor and proud Islander. Lorne Henning isn’t just the NHL’s best assistant coach of the last two decades, but also the best friend you could ever have. Duane Sutter? Two seasons ago he asked me for a copy of a picture of his brother Brent that was in the Coliseum press room. Duane was so sincere and, well, dogged in his determination, I took the Brent picture off the wall and handed it to him.
I should be torn over Clark Gillies because the reluctant brawler has surprised me a few times by not being reluctant to criticize the franchise during down times. But in the end I only have admiration for Clark. His vented frustration only comes from his deep love of the Islanders. And, like Nystrom, he does so much for the community. Among other things, the Clark Gillies Foundation made a lead gift of $300,000 towards the building of a pediatric unit at Huntington Hospital. He truly is a Long Island landmark.
It says everything about Gord Lane that whenever the Islanders have a night to salute one of their greats, the honoree always asks, “Can you make sure Gordie is able to make it”? No matter where the road may take him, it’s clear Bryan Trottier’s heart will always, always be on Long Island. Bryan will come to the Island on business for 24 hours, and still find the time to visit the family that hosted him as a rookie. When we needed an emergency replacement a few years ago in the radio booth, Wayne Merrick volunteered and wore an ear-to-ear grin while traveling with the Islanders again. When hockey returns, it sure would be nice to bring back vital Islanders like Bob Bourne and Stefan Persson and have the Coliseum crowd show them how much they meant to us. Like Bill Smith, Denis Potvin – to watch footage of him from 1980 is to watch an artist at the peak of his powers – is here with bells on whenever the Islanders ask. And it said a lot when Butch Goring returned as an assistant coach and said, “What can I say? I bleed Islander blue.”
As if being the architect of one of the greatest teams in NHL history wasn’t enough, Bill Torrey is also mentor to dozens of successful executives. How he won so much and managed to never acquire an enemy is astounding. Talk about class: on the morning of his banner night, Mr. Torrey wandered into the Coliseum alone and unannounced and thanked everyone from the PA announcer to the icemaker for the work they put into his event.
And then there’s Al Arbour. There's so much I wish I could tell you about the impact he has had on so many lives, but even at 72 the Coach still intimidates the heck out of me. That will have to be for another day, but for now I’ll take Arbour as the greatest sportsman in the history of Long Island. Yes, over Julius Erving, Jim Brown and anyone else you’d like to name – for reasons that extend far beyond the rink.
For Arbour had a lot to do with the Islanders’ greatness, no doubt. But 25 years later, it’s even more evident that the Coach also taught them about goodness.