Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Forgotten Dynasty

The Stanley Cup Final began this week, and while there will be lots to say about it when it is done, I have a history of acknowledging SCF's by remembering Stanley Cup greatness from the past.

When I recount any historical hockey moments, I usually indulge myself by recounting my own team's accomplishments, like when I wrote about the Lightning's first Cup or the first Lightning squad to make the post-season. But this spring marks the 35th anniversary of the final Cup won by one of the greatest teams ever assembled, and because that team often gets overlooked and I am a stickler when it comes to remembering history, today I feel compelled to write about it.

I am talking, of course, about the New York Islanders dynasty that once ruled the world of puck.

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The very first time I watched a hockey game was February 22, 1980, a grand total of 39 days after my ninth birthday. I watched that game on television -- on ABC, to be exact -- and it proved to be an exhilarating affair that would become known as the Miracle on Ice.

I vividly remember watching Mike Eruzione beat Vladimir Myshkin on what proved to be the game-winning goal, and vividly remember watching players from Team USA toss their sticks in the air as time expired.

I also vividly remember Al Michaels speaking with excitement in his voice as those waning seconds ticked away, though if I'm being honest, I don't truly remember the specific words of his now famous call -- Do you believe in miracles! -- registering in my brain at the time.

What mattered was that I was instantly entranced by the sport. Shortly after those Lake Placid Olympics were over, I got my hands on a paperback about the game I had watched and read it over and over. It was from reading the book that I decided Dave Christian and Dave Silk were my favorite players. I also figured that Jim Craig must be the greatest netminder in history, and when I imagined myself playing hockey I pictured myself being a stud goalie like him.

Three months after Team USA struck gold, the first Stanley Cup of my hockey-cognizant life was won by a New York franchise that was not from New York City, but instead from the 'burbs on the middle of Long Island. It was the first championship that club ever experienced, and after seizing it they won the next three as well.

That feat -- winning four consecutive Stanley Cups -- has not been duplicated since. In fact, no team since then, not even the eternally lionized Oilers of Gretzky & Messier, has managed to win even three in a row. In other words, those Islanders were a team for the ages. Yet, strangely, they don't get the recognition they deserve.

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The early 1980's were a different era. Cable TV was new, the NHL did not have a national TV contract on this side of the 49th parallel, and the Internet did not exist. For a kid in Florida to follow hockey was difficult, and for that kid to find a live broadcast of a hockey game was nearly impossible.

Nonetheless, I knew who Mike Bossy was.

Way back in January of 1945, 96 days before Hitler offed himself in the bunker, Maurice "Rocket" Richard of the Montreal Canadiens blasted a puck into the net behind Boston goaltender Harvey Bennett. It was Richard's 50th goal of that season and it came in the season's 50th game, marking the first time in history any player had gotten to the 50-goal mark that early in a season. As impressive as that feat already was, the alliteration of the phrase "50 goals in 50 games" caused it to achieve stratospheric status almost immediately, and the phrase itself took on a legendary air as three and a half decades went by before anybody pulled it off again. The man who finally did it was Michael Jean Bossy, who was born in Montreal in 1957 and drafted by the New York Islanders in 1977.

Bossy achieved 50 in 50 during the 1980-81 season, eleven months and two days after I watched the Miracle on Ice. Like Richard 36 years before, he pulled it off not in the season's 48th or 49th game but in the actual 50th. The Quebec Nordiques guarded him extraordinarily close that night and held him without a shot until late in the third period, when he backhanded the puck past Ron Grahame with 4:10 remaining, breaking a 4-4 tie with his 49th goal of the season.

Two minutes and 41 seconds after that, Bryan Trottier fed him a perfect pass and he fired it past Grahame for number 50. Nassau Coliseum erupted in cheer, for everybody in attendance understood the significance of the puck that had just gone in. Bossy's 50 in 50 was a much bigger accomplishment than the Isles winning the game, and today it seems perfect that he accomplished it during a season that would end with them winning their second of four consecutive championships.

It also seems perfect that his 50th came on an assist from Trottier, the center iceman who played with Bossy on his right wing and Clark Gillies on his left to form one of the greatest (and best named) lines in hockey history: The Trio Grande.

That line was formed in training camp prior to the 1977-78 season and remained a unit all the way through the Islanders' 1980's title runs. It was an almost perfect conglomeration, with Bossy serving as the virtuoso shooter, Trottier bringing the most complete all-around game, and Gillies playing the role of intimidator with his reputation for bruising up the opposition. But they were much more than those pigeonhole descriptions, for Gillies, despite his enforcer-like reputation, was skilled enough that he finished two separate seasons with more than a point-per-game average; and Bossy, despite being known as a skills guy who deplored fighting, proved his physical toughness by gutting out his last few seasons playing through excruciating back injuries.

But as big a deal as The Trio Grande was (Bossy, Trottier, and Gillies are all in the Hall of Fame) it was only one part of the dynasty. Those Islanders also featured Denis Potvin, one of the best defensemen to ever lace up a pair of skates, and Billy Smith, a ferocious goaltender who earned the nickname "Hatchet Man" for hitting players who dared enter the crease (and also has the distinction of being the first goalie to be credited with a goal during an NHL game). They too are Hall of Famers, and it is worth noting that Potvin got into New York Rangers' fans heads so much that all these years later they still chant "Potvin sucks!" because of a clean hit he laid on Rangers centerman Ulf Nilsson that resulted in Nilsson breaking his ankle -- a hit that occurred way back in 1979!

And since I opened this post talking about the Miracle on Ice, I have to mention that a player from that gold medal squad was also a member of the Islanders dynasty: Mere days after the Olympics ended, Ken Morrow, a defenseman who grew up in Michigan and played NCAA hockey for Bowling Green, signed with the Isles and played a key role solidifying their blueline through the end of that regular season and throughout the post-season run to their first title. Thus Morrow became the first person to win an Olympic gold and a Stanley Cup in the same year, and he went on to be a major contributor to all four Islander championships. This spring, a reminiscing Denis Potvin called Morrow "the best friggin' defenseman I've ever played with, ever seen. Nobody's better than him inside center ice."

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Like many champions, the Islanders were haunted by misses and failures before they finally stuck gold.

The Canadiens won the Cup in 1976 and 1977, and while it has to count for something that the only playoff games they lost across those two seasons were all to the Islanders, there was still the thought that for all their talent, the Isles simply didn't have what it took to get past the "real" champs.

Then came 1978, when the favored Isles suffered a first round upset loss to Toronto in overtime of Game Seven. Then 1979, when they suffered yet another upset playoff loss, this time to the hated Rangers -- after a season in which Bossy led the league in goals and Trottier led it in total points.

Naysayers, who are always aplenty, were not shy about asking whether the Isles lacked character and mental strength.

But fortunately for the Isles, Karma can be a blessing as well as a bitch. They did have character and strength, and Karma would reward them for their toil -- reward them in spades.

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The 1979-80 NHL season was the first one in which helmets were required and the first one with more the 20 teams, as the absorption of four WHA franchises brought the NHL's total up from 17 to 21. The Philadelphia Flyers had the best regular season record with 116 points, compared to the Islanders having the fifth-best at 91 points. The Flyers' season included a steak of 35 consecutive games without a loss, which still ranks as the longest such streak in all of professional sports in North America, and they were heavily favored when the two clubs met in the Stanley Cup Final.

Game One went to OT and was won by New York when Potvin rifled a shot past Philly goalie Pete Peeters. After surprising the experts by building a series lead of three games to one, the Isles got a bit of a scare when the Flyers won Game Five handily to pull within 3-2, after which Game Six went to overtime deadlocked at four.

7:11 into the extra session, Bob Nystrom, a hard-working centerman from Sweden who had already earned the nickname "Mr. Islander," put the puck into the net over Peeters's blocker by redirecting a pass from John Tonelli. Finally, just like that, Lord Stanley's Cup took up residence on Long Island; and on a side note, Nystrom became #2 on the NHL's all-time list for most playoff overtime goals.

And here's something you probably don't know: That first Islanders Stanley Cup squad was also the one that created the now hallowed tradition of playoff beards. It was started mostly by Morrow, fresh off the gold he'd won in Lake Placid, and 19-year-old right winger Duane Sutter, whose beard barely grew. That pair decided not to shave during the playoffs until their team had either won it all or been eliminated, and other teammates liked the idea and opted to jump on board. Morrow's overgrown whiskers eventually became iconic, but prior to that particular team, there was no such thing as a playoff beard.

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I have already mentioned several players who were major factors in the Islanders' dynasty, but there is one I have not mentioned and definitely need to: Butch Goring.

A somewhat undersized (5'10", 165) but country strong stalwart from Saint Boniface, Manitoba, Goring is generally recognized as the final piece of the puzzle that transformed the Islanders from playoff underachievers to playoff legends. He was in his ninth season with the LA Kings when he was dealt to New York on March 10, 1980 -- just 29 days before the playoffs started -- in exchange for Billy Harris and Dave Lewis.

During his time in LA Goring established himself as one of the best two-way forwards in the league; had clutch performances in several playoffs; and won both the Bill Masterton and Lady Byng trophies. He was an even bigger institution in LA than Marcel Dionne, and the thought of getting dealt was the furthest thing from his mind. Speaking many years later about the trade, he said: "My initial reaction was one of anger and disappointment...Once I was able to get the emotions out of it, I realized it was a tremendous opportunity."

Goring made the most of that tremendous opportunity. He slid into the center ice position on the Isles' second line, giving them elite depth down the middle, and they went undefeated (8-0-4) in the 12 games between the trade and the end of the regular season, after having been good but inconsistent for much of the season leading up to that.

Then came the playoffs, when he asserted himself by tallying 19 points in 21 games and playing a major role in guiding the Isles to that first Cup, which had so eluded them for several seasons.

All these years later, the Goring trade is still considered the gold standard for trade deadline acquisitions and it's easy to see why. Not only did he play a major role in bringing home that first Cup shortly thereafter, he played a major role in bringing home three more as well.

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The following season, 1980-81, was the one in which Mike Bossy got his 50 in 50 -- and the one that ended with the Islanders having the NHL's best record with 110 points, 19 more than the year before.

When the playoffs faced off, Goring, 31 at the time, bore down even better than he had the previous spring. When those playoffs ended he had notched "20 in 20" (20 points in 20 playoff games, on 10 goals and 10 assists) and won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP. The Islanders won their second straight championship, seizing the Cup by chucking aside the Minnesota North Stars four games to one in the SCF. They scored 5+ goals in all but one game of that final and averaged 5.39 per game across the post-season as a whole.

Then came 1981-82, when the Isles again had the NHL's best record but ramped it up even more by finishing with 118 points and winning 54 games, while the next closest team (Edmonton) had "only" 111 points and 48 victories. Billy Smith won the Vezina, and Bossy took the Conn Smythe by lighting things up with 27 playoff points (17, 10) in 19 games. The Islanders' opponent in the SCF was the Vancouver Canucks, and they blitzed 'em with a four-game sweep while outscoring them 18-10.

Make that three Cups in three years.

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I just mentioned that Edmonton had the league's second-best record in 1981-82. Which is significant because those Oilers were a rollicking, gunslinging, take-no-prisoners bunch that was dead set on winning it all. As you might have heard, they were led by the likes of Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier and Paul Coffey.

After coming up short in that season's playoffs -- courtesy of being upset in the first round by LA -- the Oilers came out like gangbusters in the 1982-83 season and finished with 106 points, tops in the Clarence Campbell Conference. The older and more battle-wounded Islanders finished with 96 points, significantly less than the previous two seasons, and entered the playoffs as only the fourth seed in the Prince of Wales Conference.

Yes, Bossy had turned in another fabulous season with 118 points on 60 goals and 58 assists, but Gretzky turned in an otherworldly one with 196 on 71 goals and 125 (!) assists. And whereas Bossy was the only Islander to finish as one of the league's top ten scorers, there were four Oilers in the top ten: Gretzky, Messier, Jari Kurri, and Glenn Anderson. Plus, the Oilers had another player (Coffey) finish at #13 whereas you needed to go all the way down to the #19 spot to find an Islander not named Bossy.

Considering all that, it would seem that the aging Islanders had passed the baton to the Oilers and been surpassed by the younger gunslingers from Out West... but I said would, and seem... the clubs still had to meet on the field of battle, where the dynamic can always change when crafty badgers bare their teeth, and the Islanders were a team for the ages that was not done.

After all, one does not win all those Stanley Cups by happenstance and good luck.

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The Islanders and Oilers met in the 1983 Stanley Cup Final.

Game One took place on May 10th, and 5:36 into the opening frame, Duane Sutter -- three years removed from co-creating the playoff beard -- put New York ahead by whistling a shot past Andy Moog. Much later, with just 12 seconds remaining in the final frame, Ken Morrow secured the 2-0 victory by scoring into an empty net for the only other goal of the game. Edmonton outshot New York 35-24, but Billy Smith rose to the challenge and pitched a shutout to stun the fans in Northlands Coliseum.

Game Two didn't make the Edmonton faithful feel any better. Although the Oilers scored first, the Isles responded with three goals before the end of the first period -- the last of which was netted by Bossy just 43 seconds before the horn -- to carry a 3-1 lead into the first intermission. When all was said and done, New York had doubled up Edmonton on the scoreboard and won 6-3 despite being outshot 33-25.

Heading back to their home ice in Nassau Coliseum, the Islanders held a 2-0 series lead and were skating with swagger.

19 seconds before the first period came to a close in Game Three, Anders Kallur put New York ahead by potting a goal with Bossy and Morrow assisting, though Jari Kurri tied it up early in the second. The score was still 1-1 when the third period commenced, and then Morrow and Bob Bourne scored 80 seconds apart (in the opposite order) to propel the Islanders to a 3-1 advantage, with Sutter brothers Duane and Brent adding a pair of late goals to close the game out 5-1 and give the Isles a commanding 3-0 series lead.

The freight train was steaming downhill with purpose and momentum when Game Four commenced, and the Islanders fired the puck into the net three times in a span of 97 seconds to seize a 3-0 lead, with goals by Trottier and Bossy bookending one by Tonelli. The Oilers tried to come back, pulling within one on second period tallies by Kurri and Messier, however the Islanders were too good and were not going to lose on home ice when Lord Stanley's Cup was in the building. With 69 seconds remaining in the third, Morrow evoked memories of Game One by scoring this goal into an empty net, thus clinching yet another Cup for the great dynasty from Long Island.

Make that four Cups in four years.

Morrow had won an Olympic gold and four Stanley Cups in 51 months' time, a feat that had never been accomplished before and will almost certainly never be accomplished again.

Billy Smith won the Conn Smythe with a stellar-for-its-era save percentage of .912.

Mike Bossy's 17 goals that post-season were more than anyone else. Interestingly, it was the third consecutive post-season that saw him finish with 17, and notably, Gretzky did not find the back of the net for that entire SCF.

But hockey is a team game and this post is about a team, not individuals, and the New York Islanders had won four consecutive Stanley Cups -- a feat no other team has come close to matching since. Three different organizations have won two straight over the ensuing 35 years, and that is as close as anyone has come. One does not -- can not -- win four consecutive Stanley Cups by happenstance and good luck.

This team was greatness personified from the fall of 1979 through the spring of 1983.

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Unfortunately, Father Time is undefeated, aging curves are real, and all good things except marriages must come to an end.

Granted, none of that was immediately obvious as the Islanders strove for a fifth consecutive title in the 1983-84 season. They improved their record by eight wins and eight points to win the Patrick Division and finish as the Prince of Wales Conference's top seed. Bossy again finished with 118 points, good for fifth in the league, and Trottier joined him in the top ten by finishing with 111, which made him eighth in the league.

Out West, however, Edmonton won seven more games than the Isles and improved their record by ten games, finishing with 119 standings points (15 more than the Isles) to secure the top seed in the Clarence Campbell Conference. Edmonton had three players finish among the league's top seven scorers -- led by Gretzky with a supernatural 205 points, a full 79 more than second place Paul Coffey. Jari Kurri rang up 113 points on 52 goals and 61 assists.

The Islanders and Oilers met again in the 1984 Stanley Cup Final and faced off across the blue line with blood in their fangs. It could not have been any other way. In hindsight it feels almost mystical, as if divine declaration mandated they meet. Edmonton won Game One by a score of 1-0, the lone goal being scored early in the third by relatively unheralded Kevin McClelland.

Then the Islanders unleashed hellfire and opened a can of whoop ass for Game Two, blowing out the Oilers 6-1 with Gillies notching a hat trick and Trottier adding a pair of goals. Edmonton's only marker came from Randy Gregg, meaning that by the end of this contest The Great One himself, Wayne Gretzky, had played six SCF games against the Islanders without scoring a single goal.

Nonetheless, the Oilers -- perhaps having learned a thing or two by seeing the best up close -- found a way to keep their rendezvous with destiny. They turned a firehose on to win Game Three 7-2, and kept it on to also win Game Four 7-2. Gretzky discovered his shooting mojo with a pair of goals in Game Four after Messier scored a pair in Game Three.

The decisive Game Five took place in Northlands Coliseum on May 19th, with Gretzky scoring at 12:08 and 17:26 of the opening frame to give Edmonton a 2-0 lead, then assisting on Ken Linesman's goal just 38 seconds into the second period. Barely more than four minutes after that, Kurri made it 4-0 when he wired a puck home off assists by Coffey and Anderson.

The Oilers had crossed the Rubicon en route to becoming the NHL's next and perhaps final dynasty. Just days after that convincing Game Two victory, the older Islanders had suddenly become a reflection in their successors' rear view mirror.

Which is not to say they folded their tent and went down quietly, for champions never do. The Islanders tried to rally and Pat LaFotaine, a rookie who had appeared in only 15 regular season games, scored 13 seconds into the final stanza. 22 seconds later he scored again, halving Edmonton's lead from 4-0 to 4-2 before you could say gesundheit.

The Isles kept coming and actually outshot the Oilers for the night, but couldn't get another one to go in. When Edmonton's Dave Lumley scored into an empty net with 13 seconds left in regulation, the baton was officially passed from a proud organization in The Empire State to a proud organization in Wild Rose Country. Which is fine. What is not fine, however, is that with the passage of time, the Islanders' dynasty seems to have been shortchanged by public memory.

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35 years hence, everyone talks with misty-eyed reverence about the Oilers' dynasty that came after the Islanders (five Cups in seven years but never more than two in a row) and the 1976 to 1979 Montreal dynasty that came before, but you don't hear nearly as much about the Islanders, who did something that neither the Oilers nor Canadiens did by making it to five straight Cup Finals. You also hear more reverence expressed for the Canadiens of the 1950's, who played in an era when it was easier to win the Cup because the NHL only had six franchises.

But the 1980's Islanders will always rank as one of the greatest teams ever assembled -- not only in hockey, but in all of sports -- and they should get much more than the passing mention they usually receive.

Seven people from that dynasty (six players plus Coach Al Arbour) are in the Hockey Hall of Fame. It's a bit of a mystery why two others are not -- Goring and Morrow -- but maybe one of these years they will get the call, kind of like former LA Kings' goalie Rogie Vachon did 34 years after he retired.

Denis Potvin has been a hockey broadcaster on TV for the last quarter-century, mostly doing color commentary for the Florida Panthers but also spending a few years doing it for Ottawa. Surely he gets a chuckle over the fact that Ranger fans still chant that he "sucks" because of a single hit that occurred 39 years ago and was over in a fraction of a second.

I already mentioned that Mike Bossy had 17 goals in three consecutive post-seasons from 1981 through 1983. Only once did Wayne Gretzky have a 17-goal post-season... The number of greats who never had a 17-goal post-season despite having a Stanley Cup or Cups to their name (meaning they had playoff runs that were long enough to make it possible) is enormous: Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby, Jaromir Jagr, Mark Messier, Patrick Kane, Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Brett Hull, Peter Forsberg, Phil Esposito, and Guy Lafleur, just for starters... In fact, the last time a player reached 17 goals in a single playoff run was 22 years ago, when Joe Sakic bagged 18 while leading Colorado to its first title in 1996.

The architect of the Islanders' dynasty, General Manger Bill Torrey, passed away four weeks ago at the age of 83. Torrey was in fact the franchise's very first employee, hired when it was founded in 1972, and he steadfastly favored building a team through the draft and internal player development as opposed to pursuing a slew of big-name veterans by trade or free agency. His results speak for themselves and a banner with his name now hangs in the rafters above the team's home ice; in the spot where a player's retired jersey number would be, Torrey's banner instead displays a silhouette of his signature bow tie.

Today the NHL has 31 teams, not 21... The two-line pass is legal... Ties are impossible because of regular season shootouts... There is something called a loser point and something called a salary cap... Russian players are in the league because the Soviet Union is no more... One of the league's best  young defensemen was born and raised in Sunrise, Florida... Franchises from Florida, Texas, North Carolina, and Southern California have won the Stanley Cup much more recently than one from Canada... And last year's Stanley Cup Final featured a wildly popular team from Tennessee while this year's features a wildly popular one from the scorching hot desert of southern Nevada... And the conferences and divisions are identified by geography (sort of) instead of being named after people, for we have the Eastern Conference divided into the Atlantic and Metropolitan Divisions and the Western Conference divided into the Central and Pacific Divisions, rather than the Prince of Wales Conference being divided into the Adams and Patrick Divisions and the Clarence Campbell Conference being divided into the Norris and Smythe Divisions.

But hockey is still hockey, speed is still speed, hustle is still hustle, and grit is still grit. At the end of the day those things still win out and always will. A team that was great in the past would still be great today, and the great teams from today would probably be less great if they weren't building on the foundation laid by the ones that came before.

The dynasty of the the New York Islanders was as great as it can get. Hopefully, one of these days everyone will remember it that way.


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