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Maven's Memories: Appreciating Bill Torrey

Stan Fischler writes a tribute to Hall of Fame GM Bill Torrey, who will be honored by the Isles on March 9

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / NewYorkIslanders.com

"Bill Torrey was a great mentor." -- Lou Lamoriello

Yes, Bill Torrey was a great mentor.

He taught his Islanders aide, Jimmy Devellano, how to be a Detroit Red Wings champion-maker. (Devellano is now Wings Executive Vice President.) Bill taught his early draft choice and later assistant coach Lorne Henning how to be a General Manager. Torrey taught his apprentice scout, Neil Smith, well enough for Neil to eventually manage the Rangers into a Cup-winner.

"When I was still running the program at Providence College -- before I even got to the NHL -- Bill was helping me," three-Cup-winner Lamoriello asserted. "I'll never forget how Bill helped so many in our business."

On Saturday night (March 9) at the Coliseum, Bill Torrey will be honored for a lot more than his superior mentorship.

When Bow Tie Bill's image flashes on the arena screen a standing ovation will erupt because William Arthur Torrey of Montreal created and maintained the greatest team in National Hockey League history and, therefore, the world.

"Well," Bow Tie Bill told me on more than one occasion, "our Islanders did what no other team in the world ever accomplished; winning 19 consecutive playoff series. NINETEEN!"

Video: Bill Torrey - one of the most respected men in hockey

Those are fighting words to hockey people in Bill's home town where Montreal historians will insist that one of two Canadiens teams deserve that "greatest" honor.

Sure, Toe Blake's Habs won five Cups in a row (1956-1960) but the NHL then was a six-team league with only a semi-final round and a Final en route to the title. That Canadiens club won only 10 consecutive playoff rounds; nine less than the Isles of the 80s.

When Scotty Bowman orchestrated four straight championships (1976-1979), with the Canadiens it was an impressive feat. That said, Bowman's skaters put a dozen series wins together a good seven less than Torrey's 19.

But as Devellano -- he began as Bill's scout in 1972 -- points out, Torrey's accomplishment becomes even more magnified when one examines how little the Bow Tie guy had to cope with compared to the Canadiens.

"Montreal had been around forever," noted Devellano, "yet Bill started with nothing but an expansion draft while having to battle the World Hockey Association for players at the same time."

Even when his Islanders suffered financial troubles he managed to keep the team afloat. Sometimes, he even had to use his own money when hotels wouldn't accept the Islanders credit cards. 

In those highly competitive days he wasn't getting any help from his NHL colleagues either.

"Some of the other GMs were like vultures trying to pick the meat off a carcass," Bill remembered.

One of those general managers was the Canadiens legendary Sam Pollock. Sam desperately tried to talk Torrey out of selecting Denis Potvin with the Islanders top pick overall in the 1973 Draft at Montreal's Mount Royal Hotel.

"Sam and I walked around Peel Street a few times," Bill recalled, "and he kept offering me all kinds of deals. We'd get a bunch of his players and he'd get the first pick. But I never gave in and Denis became our foundation player."

As Devellano noted, it never was easy in those early days. Torrey had to be ahead of his challengers when it came to finding gems at the Draft table. 

In the 1974 Draft, he snatched another future Hall of Famer, Bryan Trottier, in the 22nd spot. Pollock had five chances for Trottier and struck out on the fifth, seventh, 10th, 12th and 15th picks. 

Never one to pick favorites among his dynastic alumni, Torrey allowed that Trottier -- among many aces -- delivered a special brand of leadership.  

"Bryan brought fire to the franchise," Bill explained, "even though the fire burned mostly inside."

As superior as the Trottier pick turned out to be, Torrey's selection of a human scoring whiz strained credulity. 

Bill nabbed Mike Bossy, -- 15th in the 1977 Draft -- while other executives ignored Mike as if he were the Invisible Man. 

That June Dale McCourt was picked first, Barry Beck second, and Robert Picard third. Meanwhile, the Rangers had two shots at Bossy but, instead chose Lucien DeBlois eighth and Ron Duguay, 13th. 

As for Bill's Bossy steal, Washington Capitals coach Tom McVie regrettably quipped, "What I want for Christmas is a Mike Bossy doll. Wind it up and it scores 60 goals."

Bow Tie's genius moves continued through the late 1970s. With Devellano's help, he nabbed the marvelously tenacious left wing John Tonelli and a trio of hitherto unknown defenders, Stefan Persson, Ken Morrow and Dave Langevin. Each would be a vital cog in the machine.

"Even with Bossy, Trots, Denis and Clark Gillies," said Devellano, "Bill needed another move if he was going to bring the Cup to Long Island."

Video: NHL Tonight reacts to the passing of William Torrey

That very move would come at the trade deadline in 1980.

Known as "The Deal That Won The Cup," it involved one of Torrey's most painful decisions; trading fan favorites right wing Billy Harris and defenseman Dave Lewis to Los Angeles for center Butch Goring.

"Bill figured I could take some of the load off Trots," said Goring. "He said that whatever line I played on would ease things for Bryan, Boss and Clark."

Butch did precisely that and -- as the hoary bromide goes -- the rest is hockey history, crafted by Bow Tie Bill.

That includes the four Stanley Cups, an unprecedented and never-to-be-matched 19 straight playoff series victories and establishment of the Isles as one of New York's most famous franchises.

Know this though; the Saturday night celebration is for Bill's sculpting of the greatest hockey team ever, it also -- as Lou Lamoriello pointed out -- for all those in the game who learned to be better at it under Torrey's guidance.

And beyond that for Bill being a sweet, swell and funny guy -- to his family, to the fans, to the media and to his players as well; not to mention right down to the stick boys.

None ever will forget that fateful Cup-winning Saturday afternoon in 1980. The winners will recall the official NHL party but more importantly the homespun Torrey curtain call.

Video: Bill Torrey on winning the Stanley Cup

Former Newsday hockey writer and later Islanders p.r. man Pat Calabria remembered it well. 

"We all went to Bill's home in Cold Spring Harbor where a party was hastily arranged. Platters of food were served, glasses clinked with champagne and secretaries, salesmen and executives -- everyone -- collapsed in a delirious, joyous heap."

The Stanley Cup was set on a patio, the silver shining under the moonlight.

Nowhere in the throng was there a smile wider than the one worn on the man who deserved it most -- Bill Torrey, who now will be hailed at the Coliseum which he turned into Fort Neverlose.

Bow Tie Bill -- honored and, most of all, beloved by all who knew him!

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