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Maven's Memories: Bill Torrey's Coming of Age

Stan Fischler recounts how Bill Torrey developed into one of the NHL's top GMs with the Islanders

by Stan Fischler StanFischler /

  "Bill Torrey knew." --

  Superstar Denis Potvin Analyzing His G.M.

Name the most outstanding managers in hockey history and the names fall off the historians' tongues with ease:

Conn Smythe, Jack Adams, Frank Selke, Sr., Lester Patrick, Art Ross, Sam Pollock, and plenty more. 

It took only five years, but by 1977 Bill Torrey had to be added to that distinguished list.

Between the Islanders maiden season and the 1977-78 campaign -- while facing stern competition for players from the rival World Hockey Association -- Bow Tie Bill pulled off an endless succession of smart moves, creating a contender in record time. Consider these: 

1. At the beginning, in 1972, Torrey said, "I have a 'Five-Year Plan' to create a playoff contender." In three years the Isles not only were in the playoffs but reached the third post-season round.

 2. The Islanders and Flames each had first-round picks in the 1972 Expansion Draft. Torrey plucked Billy Harris who became the mainstay of the franchise's attack during its early years. Atlanta's pick, Jacques Richard, was a bust.

Video: Bill Torrey on winning the Stanley Cup

3. Bow Tie Bill selected the perfect captain, Ed Westfall, who became the ideal mentor, guiding Billy Harris and the other young Islanders to attain the best of their abilities. Behind them was another meaningful Torrey move; picking, arguably, the best coach in NHL annals, Al Arbour.

4 To ensure that top 1973 Draft choice, Denis Potvin, would sign with the Isles and not with a WHA team, Bill first inked Denis' older brother, Jean, to a contract. "That was one of the things that persuaded me to come to the Island," Denis admitted. "Bill knew 'The Hook.'"

5. Early Torrey signees -- Clark Gillies, Bob Nystrom, Gerry Hart, Garry Howatt, Lorne Henning, et. al. -- remained team stalwarts -- the nucleus -- through the 1970s.

6. Bow Tie Bill scored a landmark coup, obtaining Jude Drouin and J.P. Parise in a one-sided trade with Minnesota. The two French-Canadians were instrumental in pacing the Isles to their first playoff berth in 1975; and were especially effective in securing the final 1975 playoff victory over the Rangers.

7. Lower-key moves -- particularly the addition of defenseman Bert Marshall -- proved to be the perfect decisions to complete the foundation for continuous playoff teams.

8. Industrious scouting and exploitation of new NHL drafting rules enabled Torrey to follow his selection of Potvin with another future Hall of Famer in Bryan Trottier. Wisely, Bill kept Trots in the junior ranks one extra year to complete the amazing addition. 

9. Young talents were given extra time to mature. Although fleet Bob Bourne impressed in his first audition, Bill ordered him to Fort Worth for more seasoning. When Bourne returned from the minors he was here to stay -- and star.

10. Defying custom, Torrey sanctioned a successful two-goalie system; each a Number 1; Despite 180-degree divergent personalities, Bill Smith and Glenn Resch were as much ingredients in the success formula as any of their teammates; if not more.

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

His players loved Bill for his loyalty to them. "Bill," said Mike Bossy, "had any undying loyalty to the players who had brought him four Stanley Cups and built his organization into one of hockey's best."

"Bill bred pride, security and loyalty, treating his players well without spoiling them," Bossy added. "We were all better players and better men for it."

But Bill Torrey had become much more than a wise tradesman; he turned into one of the most beloved characters in the business; admired for his sense of humor as well as wise frugality when the franchise's fiscal health was less than robust.

"My Dad was so frugal," his son, Rich, kidded earlier this season after a memorial service for his late father, "that he wore clothes until they were vaporized."

What Rich didn't say was that before new owner John Pickett put the club on the right fiscal track in the 1970s Bow Tie Bill would pay for out of town hotel stops with his own Torrey credit card.

His youngest son, Artie, pointed out that he learned to manage his money by watching his father keep the kid's allowance down as he did his player's contracts. "The difference," chuckled Artie, "was that I wasn't allowed to hold out."

Torrey's genius was reflected in the growth of his help such as Jim Devellano who rose from an Isles scout to eventually become general manager of the Detroit Red Wings. Jimmy D then turned a moribund Motor City outfit into Cup-winners.

"I have to thank Bill for so much I learned about the hockey business," said Devellano, now executive vice president of the Wings. 

Ditto for former Islander -- hero of the 1993 upset of the Cup Champ Penguins -- Tom Fitzgerald. Tommy Fitz credits Bow Tie Bill for getting him where he is today; New Jersey Devils assistant general manager.

But in 1977, Bill was far from finished with his crafting of champions. Within three years he added four players who would complete the puzzle -- Mike Bossy, John Tonelli, Gord Lane and Butch Goring. 

Each in his own diverse way would help move their boss from the realm of genius to -- well -- GENIUS!

Video: NHL Tonight reacts to the passing of William Torrey


1. CONN SMYTHE: The Toronto Maple Leafs maestro produced seven Cup-winners. His theme, "If you can't beat 'em in the alley, you can't beat 'em on the ice" was behind Torrey's acquisition of the intimidating Gord Lane; the super-tough backliner so desperately needed for Cup-winners.

2. JACK ADAMS: "Jolly Jawn" inspired Torrey with the manner in which he developed farm teams. Adams products included Gordie Howe and a remarkable succession of goalies; Harry Lumley, Terry Sawchuk, Glenn Hall and Roger Crozier. Torrey followed suit with his farmhands in Fort Worth and Indianapolis.

3. FRANK SELKE, SR.: Bill's Islanders were as revered for their class as well as their talent. Torrey, who grew up watching the majestic Montreal Canadiens win five-straight Cups, saw to it that his players were as classy as those Habs.

4. ART ROSS: The man who built the Boston Bruins into a powerhouse, Ross used his high I.Q. and creativity to design NHL nets and a safer hockey puck. Likewise, Torrey made the most of his wisdom in developing his team. Nobody knew analysts then, but Bow Tie Bill boasted the perfect hockey instincts.

5. HARRY SINDEN: Blessed with the iconic Bobby Orr, Sinden's Bruins won Cups in 1970 and 1972. Torrey knew that he could fashion a similar winner if only he could find a superstar defenseman like Orr. Bill did -- in Denis Potvin


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