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Alumni Corner: John Tonelli

Tonelli to have his number 27 retired by Islanders on Feb. 21

by David Silverman NYIslanders /

If you've ever wondered how much your support matters to your team's success, this story is for you. It begins in Milton, Ontario where John Tonelli was busy not only leading his high school basketball team in scoring, but also throwing perfect games (well, one anyway) for the baseball team. And oh yeah, drawing enough attention from scouts for his abilities on the ice to be signed by the Toronto Marlies, a major junior team in Toronto, at 15. John was gifted, that's for sure. 

But even then, he was never satisfied to rely on just his talent. He was always driven to be the best - so intense about performing well in sports, he used to give himself migraines. "I got my work ethic from my dad," he explained. Tonelli's father worked in a steel factory, but his father's best friend had a farm nearby. "His shift in the factory would change times every two weeks," Tonelli said. "But whenever it was possible, he would always go help his friend - even though he just finished working," His dad also flooded the backyard each winter so John could skate. Milton was a small farming town and Canada or not, there were no kids living nearby who played hockey, so most of the time Tonelli was out there skating all alone. "I didn't mind,' he said. Later, this desire to push himself would be repeated, even when he was a star for the New York Islanders. "I made sure I was always the last one off the ice," he says. Often that meant an extra 45 minutes to an hour of skating on his own. From boyhood to professional athlete, no one was going to outwork John Tonelli.  

Tonelli had other ways to improve when he was a kid as well. His brother, Ray, was five years older, and his mom worked too, so Ray had to watch him quite a bit. Often that involved street hockey with Ray and his friends, which meant Tonelli was playing with boys five years older. They were bigger and stronger, and no, they didn't hold back. Tonelli learned what it meant to fight for possession in these games, and that definitely carried over to his NHL career. Jim Peplinski, who played both with and against Tonelli in the NHL, said of him: "If the rink was the size of a phone booth, he'd have been the best player in the history of the game. In tight quarters, he was like the Tasmanian devil."

Video: Tonelli on his number being retired

John played well for the Marlies, and at 18, he was drafted by the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association. He'd signed a three-year junior contract at 16, so Tonelli and his agent had some legal scuffles before he was allowed to play for Houston. The Islanders head scout, Jim Devellano, was well aware of Tonelli and following his progress in the WHA. Devellano was an incredible scout and a story unto himself - if GM Bill Torrey was the architect, then Devellano was the chief builder. In 1977, despite Tonelli being under contract to the Aeros, he convinced Torrey to draft Tonelli 33rd overall. The risk paid off when the WHA folded in 1978. This is where the blue and orange army comes into play.

Four teams from the WHA merged with the NHL - Hartford, Edmonton, Quebec and Winnipeg. Any player not on one of those four teams was assigned to one of them, and Tonelli was assigned to Winnipeg. So he had a choice - he could report to Winnipeg or, he could choose the Islanders. "Winnipeg offered me a little bit more money than the Islanders," Tonelli said, but that's when Torrey pulled the ace up his sleeve. He invited Tonelli up to Nassau Coliseum to see the Islanders battle the Leafs in game seven of their playoff series. "I just couldn't believe the atmosphere of the building," Tonelli said. "Right then and there I said, 'I wanna play here.'" And the rest is history. 

Remember his perfect pass to Nystrom for the OT goal that won the Islanders their first Cup in 1980? Or single-handedly taking over the elimination game against the Penguins two years later? The Islanders were down a goal with time winding down. Tonelli scored the tying goal with two minutes left and followed that up with the OT winner to keep the dynasty rolling. He was literally Johnny on the spot so often, no one could mistake it for luck or coincidence. But Tonelli was so much more than his crucial goals and assists - he was the quintessential Islander. His work ethic on and off the ice helped form the team's character and was emblematic of its identity during that amazing cup dynasty.  

Video: 1980 Cup Final, Gm 6: Nystrom leads Isles to 1st Cup

How does Tonelli remember those times? "It was such a privilege and an honor to play for a team full of teammates who all knew our roles and came to the rink as a team," Tonelli said. "We were unified in the dressing room, and at any given time, anybody could have been instrumental in helping, chipping in, and doing whatever it took. It's a great feeling to be able to execute and be a part of those plays, but at the end of the day. It's a team effort and we're working together to get it done for the ultimate goal."  

The year after the Islanders lost in the finals to the Oilers in 1984, Tonelli broke his own record for points by an Islander left wing, notching 100 of them in the 1984-85 season. But the next year, after holding out for a new contract, Tonelli was traded to the Calgary Flames - the first major stud from the dynasty to be traded. While the Islanders lost in the division semis that year, Tonelli helped carry the Flames past the vaunted Oilers and all the way to their first ever Stanley Cup Final. Said Isles captain Denis Potvin, "You've got a guy with a tremendous amount of pride. It totally didn't surprise me that (Tonelli) lifted the Flames. They got exactly what they wanted and needed." Tonelli played three years in Calgary, then had three solid years for the LA Kings, and finished his career splitting time between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Quebec Nordiques in his last season. In all, Tonelli played 1,028 games in the NHL, finishing with 325 goals and 836 points. (Not only that, but he also represented his country in the Canada Cup series in 1984, wrestling the trophy back from the Soviet Union and winning the MVP award in the process.)  

Some players have trouble adjusting to life after hockey, but not Tonelli, and that's no accident. When he was just a rookie getting on the bus in Houston, he noticed one player (Larry Lund) sitting up front with a briefcase. Well aware that all the fun was in the back of the bus, young Tonelli was curious. "Go ask those guys what they're doing next year," Larry said. "None of them will have any idea." Even then, Tonelli got the point. "He was telling me one day this will be over and I'll need to have a life after hockey." From then on, Tonelli made sure to work a few different jobs in the off-season, trying to find something he liked and was good at.  

Video: Tonelli & Goring Conference Call

By the time he was ready to retire, he was already enjoying himself in the title insurance business. Remarried with two sons, Tonelli was able to coach both of them when they were younger. He says he used everything he learned from coach Al Arbour; and he must've learned a lot, because both boys are headed to Brown University and will play hockey there. Jordan, 19, is finishing time in the USHL and starts college next year, while his younger brother, Zack, is finishing up at Taft, hopefully headed to the USHL, and has already committed to join Jordan at Brown the following year. Tonelli is willing to take a little credit for their hockey skills, and maybe their willingness to work hard, but ever humble, he says the smarts come from his wife and their mother, Lauren.

With his kids all set and his business running well, Tonelli hopes to be around the team a bit more frequently. He recently toured the site of the new Belmont Park arena and loves what he saw. "I'm so excited," he said, "That place is going be special. Unbelievable. A future home for the fans and the players that will be state of the art. So good for the entire metro area of New York, you know? It's going to generate new fans." And he didn't stop there. "The Islanders have created something really special over the years," he said. "This team, this franchise is more than just a team on Long Island that won four Stanley Cups. We're a New York team. One that hockey fans in every borough can cheer for."

As for Barry (Trotz) and his boys, "I'm so proud of the way the team's playing today," he said, noticing some similarities between his Islander team and this one. "They're a good, consistent group, nose to the grindstone. It's there. You can smell it. You can see guys are having fun. It's great to watch." So remember, next time you're watching a game, whether it's in Nassau Coliseum or Barclays, or even Belmont - though why would you wait that long? Make sure you cheer your heart out. The players on the ice will love it, and, you never know - the next John Tonelli might be sitting somewhere near you, trying to decide if he wants to join your New York Islanders.

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