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Maven's Memories: Birth of the Boys from Uniondale

Stan Fischler looks back on the New York Islanders origins in the 1972-73 season

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / New York Islanders

I've covered the Islanders from their conception at the start of the 1970s to the present, I can confidently say that more than five decades of reporting about the club has left me with a ton of stories -- alias memories.

These include tales about such Hall of Famers as Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier and Denis Potvin to lesser -- but no less important -- stickhandlers such as Anders Kallur, Gord Dineen, Gord Lane and their pals.

They meant a lot to The Maven then and mean just as much now. With that in mind, I'll be sharing these memories with you in a weekly blog called -- well, why not? -- MEMORIES. So, fans, here we go:

Covering hockey in the early days of NHL expansion was an invigorating time as I watched the big league double in size from six to 12 teams with more to come.

But who ever thought there would be a second team in the Metro Area to challenge the Rangers? 

I surely didn't.

Not that there weren't hockey fans on the Island. There were plenty and I can tell you there were many Saturday nights when I'd drive out to Commack in Suffolk County to watch the Long Island Ducks play an Eastern League game.

From the outside and the inside, Long Island Arena - where the Ducks played - looked like it belonged somewhere in Saskatchewan, circa 1938. There was no glass along the boards which meant if there was high sticking on the ice, you'd better duck -- especially the Ducks.

Matter of fact, some of my favorite Ducks games were played against teams such as the Nashville Dixie Flyers, Greensboro Generals and Clinton Comets.

Nobody knew it at the time, but those Eastern Leaguers were planting the seeds of NHL hockey right down the Northern State Parkway in Uniondale. It was only a matter of time.

Yeah, we knew about the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum being built in Uniondale but nobody was quite sure it would amount to much; at least not in 1970 when the Ducks were rip-roaring' through the rinks.

But then, suddenly -- poof! -- just like that, a rival league was in the making and when the World Hockey Association looked like it might be for real, it changed a lot of minds.

Who wanted to see a WHA team housed in Uniondale when fans in Nassau and Suffolk could be rooting for the real thing? The Show. The NHL.

And that's how it all began with a beverage owner named Roy Boe and his successful dress designer wife, Deon, actually bought this new franchise and appropriately naming it The New York Islanders.

Of course skeptical newsmen like myself harbored doubts. Who would run the team for Boe and where would this unknown character named Bill Torrey manage to find the players to compete with the NHL's power-packed Original Six?

The only thing special we could tell about this Torrey guy was that he wore a home-made bowtie every day and also wore a big Irish smile on his face.

What we didn't know was that, behind the grin, was a chap who would prove to be a genius at building the Islanders, making the right move at the right time. Patience numbers among Torrey's top virtues.

For starters, Bow Tie Bill not only had to battle the upstart WHA -- already raiding NHL rosters up and down the line -- but also the other new NHL team, the Atlantas Flames.

"The difference between Atlanta and Long Island," Torrey told me back then, "was that in Atlanta they were going to have to sell hockey. On Long Island, they already knew about it. That gave us an edge."

Bow Tie Bill also had an edge at the 1972 Expansion Draft. He was first to draft and picked a big, husky right wing named Billy Harris who had the handsome looks of a Hollywood star. 

I remember meeting Billy when Torrey brought him to the Coliseum for an introductory press conference. "I got 300 grand on my first contract," Harris revealed, "good for three years." He wasn't bragging either; just saying.

A graduate of the Toronto (Junior) Marlboros, Harris was an instant hit. His specialty was speed and a solid shot. A typical Billy burst down the right side would enable him to beat an enemy defenseman before releasing a shot on goal.

It worked enough for Harris to lead that original Isles team in scoring with 28 goals. But, that season was a toughie. I was covering the club at the time for our game's bible, The Hockey News and truly, felt sorry for the team as they went 12-60-3.

 

Typically, Torrey got a laugh out of us media guys by finding humor in the growth situation. After firing coach Phil Goyette in mid-season and hiring Earl Ingarfield -- both good friends of mine from their Rangers days -- Torrey found what would be his favorite "joke" word for the times -- hapless.

"In the newspapers," he smiled, "all I read about was that we were 'hapless.' One story would say, 'The Rangers play the hapless Islanders tonight.' Or this one: 'The Bruins get a breather against the hapless Isles.' Even in Canada. 'Les Canadiens rout hapless Islanders.'"

Because I went all the way back to his rookie year with the Rangers, I was hoping that Ingarfield would return as coach for 1973-74 since he had more success than Goyette, but that's getting ahead of my chronicle.

What mattered to all of us covering the team was the fan response. Slowly, but surely Long Island's first big-league team won the hearts of Nassau and Suffolk -- with a good chunk of the five boroughs thrown in as well.

Sure, the Islanders finished under .500 but silver linings shone through the clouds; enough from Game One to Game 78 to end the campaign on a bright note.

Bottom Line: The Islanders were here to stay.

(NEXT WEEK: RECALLING BIG WINS IN A ROOKIE SEASON.)


LISTS: MY 10 FAVORITE ORIGINAL ISLANDERS 

1. CRAIG CAMERON: Listed as Number 19 on the starting roster, the Edmontonian surprised in the team's premiere campaign by scoring a career-high 19 goals. Imported primarily for his checking ability, Cameron impressed as one of the more dependable scorers on a team that needed the first-season red lights. Nassau fans also appreciated his energy but his scoring eventually would diminish. In time, for GM Bill Torrey, the good news was that the Isles were able to deal Cameron for future playoff hero, Jude Drouin.

2. GERRY HART: This was a smallish -- but tough -- defenseman who's last name could have been "Heart" because of his intrepid play. Players such as Gerry eventually turned the team into a winner.

3. BRIAN (SPINNER) SPENCER: There was a bit of wild in this left wing and some talent as well. He totaled 14-24-38 as a freshman. And often played like a skating pinball, bouncing all over the foe.

4. LORNE HENNING: This Melfort, Saskatchewan center would later become a Cup hero. At first he was just one of the boys, trying hard to stay in The Show. His forte was his exceptional hockey sense.

5. TERRY CRISP: Bill Torrey wisely imported this veteran center who was a hit until Crisp was dealt to Philly for Jean Potvin. You knew that Bow Tie Bill had Potvin's kid brother Denis Potvin in his sights.

6. ARNIE BROWN: A likable defender who previously had been with the Rangers and later Detroit, Brownie played 48 decent games for the Nassaumen before moving on to Atlanta in a deal for Ernie Hicke and futures (Billy MacMillan.)

7. GERRY DESJARDINS: I really loved this goalie who'd been with L.A. and Chicago before moving East to Uniondale. Torrey had claimed him in the Expansion Draft but Gerry never clicked the way I thought he would.

8. ED WESTFALL: The Baby Isles needed a chaperone; someone who knew the game and had been a champion. "Eighteen" became the Islanders' captain after winning two Cups with the Bruins. He was the perfect leader.

9. GERMAIN GAGNON: Torrey had a soft spot for French-Canadian prospects and Double G gave Bill a season-and-a-half at left wing. Plus, since he came to Uniondale in the Resch deal, Gagnon was worth it since Chico became a star.

10. TOM MILLER: Claimed in the Expansion Draft, the Kitchener, Ontario native had previously played 29 games for Detroit. He helped the Isles with 13-17-30 in a season. I always felt that he'd be the best clutch guy on this new team.

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