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Maven's Memories: Bob Nystrom, The Knight of Nassau

Stan Fischler profiles the origin and rise of Bobby Nystrom

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / NewYorkIslanders.com

As part of the 40th Anniversary of the Islanders 1980 Stanley Cup, NewYorkIslanders.com is celebrating the men and moments from the first Cup run. Today, Stan Fischler with the first of a three-part series on Bob Nystrom.


Were it possible to take a medieval knight and turn him into a hockey player, Bob Nystrom would be that man in shining armor.

Ever since the iconic right wing stepped on Nassau Coliseum ice, there's been an aura about him that only can be equated with heroics and determination. 

"Bobby Ny was -- and is -- the most intensely fierce competitor I've ever known," says 1980 Olympic hero and four Islanders Cup-winner Ken Morrow, the team's long time Director of Pro Scouting.

Such kudos are endless and all come from the heart because if anyone in National Hockey League annals played with his ticker operating at "full" all of the time, this Swedish native was it.

Call Nystrom what you will -- dauntless, daring, determined, take your pick of adjectives -- it all comes down to Bob becoming the face of the Islanders franchise. The "Peoples' Player" on The Peoples' Team.

"He was there at the start during our toughest times," General Manager Bill Torrey once said, "and he was there for the glory days."

Were there such a title as Mister Islander it would fit Nystrom like a Brooks Brothers suit.

"He was truly a very unique player," says Glenn (Chico) Resch, both a teammate and then foe of Nystrom. "You could not pigeon-hole him as a 'this' or 'that' kind of guy because he could everything. And I do mean everything!"

If there was one facet of the Nystrom personality that defined his game it was a relentless work ethic which he learned from his parents who brought him from Stockholm, Sweden to Canada when he was four years old.

He began seriously to translate that dynamic known as "Swedish Steam" as a teenager skating for the (Junior) Calgary Centennials. The prodding of pushy coach Scotty Munro inspired a point-counter-point reaction from young Bob.

"Munro kept telling me I'd never make it as a big-leaguer," Nystrom remembered. "Scotty told me, 'You might be a good minor leaguer if you fight more.' 

"Munro was a tough customer and I'm not sure whether he was using reverse psychology or not but I certainly was pissed off at him."

The trick here was for Ny to convert his anger at the coach into a motivating tool and it worked. Bob was the first player drafted off the Centennials. Ironically, Munro was the first to congratulate him on his drafting success.

Matthew Blittner author of "Unforgettable Islanders" reflected that Munro knew what he was doing with the application of tough-love on Nystrom.

"The motivation worked," said Blittner, "because -- as we have seen over the decades -- Nystrom's name has become synonymous with the Islanders success."

But in 1972 when the NHL Amateur Draft was taking place young Bob wasn't paying attention. He was too busy working for a construction company framing houses in Kamloops, British Columbia. 

Sportscaster Allan Hahn, author of "Birth of a Dynasty: The 1980 New York Islanders," found it amusing that Nystrom didn't even consider attending the draft.

Hahn: "Bob's father called him that night to tell him he had been drafted by the New York Islanders. 'Who are the New York Islanders?' he replied."

Ny would find out soon enough and once he signed on with Bill Torrey's spanking new franchise he learned that the good times would not come easy. 

Jim Devellano, Torrey's top scout was with Bow Tie Bill on scouting expeditions and remembered how impressed the high command was with Nystrom's spirited play with Calgary. 

"We liked Bob's feistiness in junior and felt he had potential," said Devellano who also was alongside Torrey at their first Amateur Draft in 1972. "The idea was to have him get experience with our farm team in New Haven."

Raw as uncooked broccoli, Nystrom eagerly accepted his Connecticut residency for a good 60 American Hockey League games. His dozen goals and 10 assists were virtually irrelevant compared with Bob's demeanor.

Devellano: "Ny's 'try,' and his competitiveness were off the charts. And we were fortunate to have another guy just like that -- Garry Howatt. What was so impressive about Ny was that he surpassed what we had anticipated.

"At first, he looked like just another digger but then he honed his game to sharpness and became a terrific second-line scorer. He may not have gotten the attention of our superstars but that also would come in time."

As the first and second-year players ripened into a playoff team in the 1974-75 season, Ny became a fan favorite both for his persona and his performance.

"I became a Nystrom fan the first time I saw him," said Gus Vic, veteran columnist for The Fischler Report. "What I liked was that he was hard-nosed but also played the game clean; I call it charismatic courage.

"There also was that 'Rock-Star Look.' In his early years, he didn't wear a helmet. With that blond hair flowing when he put on speed -- and that handsome mustache -- it gave him the kind of good looks that attracted fans."

Ny knew that he wasn't going to get by on hustle and good looks alone. Right from the get-go, he knew that areas of his game needed work.

"Bob wasn't the best or the smoothest skater," said Torrey. "We knew it; he knew it and the thing is he did something about it," 

What Nystrom did wouldn't turn any heads today but back in the early 1970s, it was unheard of for a major leaguer to hire a female "Power Skating" instructor to streamline his gait. 

Laura Stamm, author of one of the first -- and several other -- Power Skating books, was his choice; and a good one at that.

"Bob was rough around the edges when we began the lessons," Stamm remembered, "but he was as dedicated as they come. Though I've had hundreds of students since then, Ny stands out as one of the best."

Among Nystrom's earliest accomplishments was his direct involvement in the Islanders first major upset, defeating the Rangers in the first round of the 1975 playoffs on April 11, 1975. 

The final score in the decisive game was 4-3 on J.P. Parise's sudden-death winner in overtime. But Bob -- working the power play in the second period -- helped set up Denis Potvin's goal to give Al Arbour's skaters a 2-0 lead.

"Even then," observed New York Times hockey writer Allan Kreda, "he was epitomizing the things that became part and parcel of the Islanders mystique -- grit and maximizing talent to the highest."

As Nystrom matured, it became evident that this growing pro saw things clearly and saw them whole. He knew what he -- and his game -- was all about.

Nystrom: "I was one of the guys who brought his lunch bucket and was willing to battle it out every night. We were the workhorses, manning the trenches. Work, work, work. Never let down the guy sitting next to you in the room.

"Guys like Chico Resch, Garry Howatt, Lorne Henning, Gordie Lane, Dave Langevin, Duane Sutter, Bob Lorimer, Wayne Merrick and Jean Potvin. We all knew our roles and played them well; or to the best of our abilities."

Nystrom's abilities mushroomed in several areas. His skating improved from Grade D to Grade B-plus; he learned to play the 200-foot game, as well as anyone and began showing signs of being a clutch scorer.

Coincidental with his team's relentless rise in the late 1970s, Bob demonstrated his new dimension as key playoff Ole Reliable. It first became apparent in the 1978 post-season. 

On April 25, 1978 with the Leafs-Islanders series tied at two wins apiece, the game went into overtime tied, 1-1, It was then that Bob's sudden-death career took off.

At the eight minute mark, Ny pulled off an "inside-outside" move on defenseman Brian Glennie and then beat goalie Mike Palmateer. The tally, at 8:02, provided New York with a three game to two series lead.

A year later, the Isles were trailing the Rangers two games to one when Game Four was tied, 2-2, at the end of regulation. Four minutes into overtime the Rangers were caught in a line change.

Seconds later, the puck flew upwards like a drone, equidistant between John Davidson in the Rangers goal and Nystrom. Stunningly, J.D. galumphed after the puck like a crazed elephant.

Meantime, Ny's legs were churning and the two players collided. By the time, the Islander got to his skates, he discovered -- Holy Moley! -- the puck was right by the crease. and Bob fired the rubber into the net for the winner.

"Waiting for it to come down," Ny later grinned in the victor's dressing room, "was the longest moment in my life. I wanted to call 'Fair-Catch.'"

Once the Islanders launched Operation Stanley Cup in the spring of 1980 Bob maintained his clutch-ability. In Round Three against Buffalo, the Isles took the opening game in Sabreland. 

Game Two, also in Buffalo, remains one of the most gloriously thrilling in franchise history. Tied 1-1 after three periods, the match featured a scoreless but hugely entertaining first sudden death period.

By the time the second OT frame had begun, it had become the longest game in the club's young life. Meanwhile, goaltenders Bill Smith and Bob Sauve were pulling off so many big saves, it seemed as if the game would last all night.

"We all felt confident about overtime," Ny recalled. "Before OT began someone would yell, 'Hey, who's gonna be the hero? And everyone would say, 'Me. I'll be the guy!'"

Once overtime two began, Al Arbour had his team execute a full-ice press. Desperately, the Sabres tried two counterattacks but each was repulsed by Clark Gillies' alert stick inside the enemy zone.

On Buffalo's third try, Richard Martin's clearing attempt was snared by defenseman Bob Lorimer who took a shot at Sauve, but, as Ny put it, "a strange play" unfolded.

Nystrom: "The shot went wide of the net -- took a bounce and came right out to me and I put it right past Sauve."

While Ny considers that goal-moment as one of his all-time faves, any Islanders fan will attest THE goal of all overtime goals won Nystrom's Isles their first Stanley Cup. But events leading up to the score were equally important.

Many neutral observers -- not to mention opponents such as Mike Milbury -- have said that the Islanders biggest test came earlier when they faced Terry O'Reilly and the Big, Bad, Bruins.

"The Islanders knew we were tough and that they'd have to neutralize us," said Milbury. "So, the night before our big playoff game, Nystrom took Clark Gillies to a pub near the (Boston) Garden. Over beers Ny explained the strategy.

"Nystrom knew his team had to stand up to us physically. Bob told Clark he'd handle one of our toughest players, John Wensink. Clark had to handle O'Reilly. Each guy did his job and wound up knocking us out of the playoffs."

Teammates and foes alike have always insisted that handling his dukes was merely a minor part of the Nystrom arsenal of victory. Goalie Glenn (Chico) Resch -- as both friend and enemy -- marveled at Ny's versatility.

Video: 1980: Bob Nystrom's OT goal wins Islanders first Cup

Resch: "Of all the players I've played with or seen over my 40 years around the NHL, nobody could top Bob at combining scoring, playmaking, being a two-way skater, a corner man, a checker and a hitter than him. He did all of them.

"I call Nystrom 'The Poster Boy For Don't Let Other People Define You.' Who was Ny? As hard a worker as any; as smart a worker as any, and one who mastered puck-handling and a hockey sense all into one neat package."

Like Resch, Ny always had time for the media. He made hockey coverage a joy for journalists like myself and Newsday's Andrew Gross. 

"The first time I met Bob," Gross remembered, "I was a young reporter he had never met before. Yet he gave me all the time in the world and we chatted for twenty minutes. He showed me respect and courtesy as he does with fans.

"Over the years Ny has been the most recognizable Islander; a real man of the people; more than the Hall of Famers who led the dynasty."

Of course, any conversation about Bob Nystrom inevitably reverts back to the two-on-one overtime rush in 1980. (John) Tonelli to Nystrom and then the ever-accurate deflection behind Flyers goalie Pete Peeters.

Gross: "What epitomizes Bobby's attitude best were his feelings after scoring that iconic goal. His first thought wasn't 'I scored the winning goal.' 

"Rather, it was 'Hey, look what I was able to do for my teammates!'"

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