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Maven's Memories: Ed Westfall Leads Young Isles

Stan Fischler looks back on the Islanders first captain, Ed Westfall

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / New York Islanders

If there was a single type of individual the Islanders required as they battled through their inaugural season, it was one who already had experienced the National Hockey League wars, both losing and winning.

The club's first captain had to instill confidence in the young players around him while earning respect based on his past accomplishments as well as his roll-up-the-sleeves work ethic.

That man was Ed Westfall, and his life as a big-leaguer was a study in highs and lows that blended into the key word, experience.

The native of Belleville, Ontario was a hockey man through and through.

By the time I watched Ed selected by General Manager Bill Torrey in the 1972 expansion draft, I had known Ed very well. He already had almost a decade of big-league play under his belt both as a defenseman and a forward. 

He broke in with a lowly Bruins team and worked his way into the lineup as an indispensable regular. I admired him nurturing youngsters such as Bobby Orr and Derek Sanderson into major stars.

Through his nine years with Boston, Westfall paced the Beantowners to a pair of Stanley Cup wins in 1970 and 1972. He had now become a peerless defensive forward with ever-challenging assignments.

One of Westfall's on-ice responsibilities as a Bruin included guarding against sharpshooters like Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita of the high-scoring Chicago Blackhawks. 

Those who had seen Eddie's work during that era insist he was as good a defensive forward as Montreal's Bob Gainey, who's in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Many believe Westfall should be hockey's Pantheon as well.

"Eddie was one of the all-time greats," said Derek Sanderson, his long-time Boston penalty-killing partner, "When I came up, he was the established veteran and I was the rookie. He was supposed to take care of me, be my roomie and keep me under his wing. And he did. He taught me the ropes, and he was a gentleman -- one of the classiest guys in the game."

Al Arbour, who became Westfall's coach in 1973-74, skated against Eddie as a player before becoming his mentor on the Island. Arbour succinctly supplied this scouting report: 

 "Westfall was a guy with a lot of intelligence and that's what made him such a good player."

In the eyes of innumerable pundits, the Bruins had erred in allowing Westfall to remain unprotected in the 1972 expansion draft. 

In the end that proved to be true; the Bostonians failed to successfully defend the Stanley Cup without him in their 1972-73 lineup.

 Meanwhile, Easy Ed gave the Islanders life while their brand-new fans took an instant delight in Number 18.

"You could see from the get-go that Westfall had the goods," said Marv Resnick, a Long Island resident who followed the Nassaumen from their first season. "He was the kind of player a fan like me wanted to root for; he was that good."

On the night of the Islanders' world premiere regular game -- against the Atlanta Flames -- it was Westfall who scored the first-ever Islander goal. It was a power-play tally late in the second period to even the score at 1-1. 

With four days off between their opener and game no. 2, the Islanders spent much of that time hunting for apartments and homes on Long Island's north shore. 

Club officials suggested they stay away from the south shore; they didn't want the Islanders fraternizing with the Rangers, who had established a commune in the Long Beach area. 

Westfall and his youthful linemate Billy Harris wound up sharing a pad in Cold Spring Harbor while their teammates settled in Huntington, Westbury, Manhasset, Commack and Syosset. 

If the maiden season was challenging for Eddie, he continually accentuated the positive both in the dressing room and on the ice. A realist, he never nurtured any illusions about his team's talent standard.

"At that time, we had few players on the squad who were of NHL calibre," Westfall candidly admitted during an interview with me last year. "That didn't bother me. 

"I knew what my goal as captain was; I knew that I had to gain -- and earn -- the respect of the people I was playing with as well as the fans. They expected us to give our best; and we did."

Especially Easy Ed.

During a game against his former Boston teammates, Westfall displayed his new loyalty -- old one discarded -- when Bruins' ace Phil Esposito butt-ended young Islander Tom Miller who suffered an injured spleen.

Reacting instantly, Ed dropped his gloves and stick, swinging away at Espo. Looking backward, Westfall explained: "Phil knew why I went after him. If someone on our club did that to a Bruin, Phil would have reacted the same way."

Eddie's teammates displayed their affection for the captain in often and amusing ways. Goalie Gerry Desjardins hailed his captain's 33rd birthday by presenting him with a pumpkin pie -- right in the face. "HAPPY BIRTHDAY!" shouted the netminder.

Westfall good-naturedly laughed it off: "It was a direct hit. I've had a lot of things thrown at me during my career, but never a pumpkin pie."

Throughout his first two seasons in Uniondale, Easy Ed would be called upon to hold together the young team as better players arrived -- and a new coach for 1973-74 -- while the once green outfit began to get red hot.

The culmination of Westfall's leadership occurred in his third season with the Islanders. Pushing his mates to beat out rival Atlanta, Eddie reveled as his Islanders gained a playoff berth for the first time in 1975.

That was the good news; the bad news -- or so it seemed to me at the time -- was that 18 and his mates would be facing the hated Rangers in the opening playoff round. 

Sprinkled with future Hall of Famers such as center Jean Ratelle, right wing Rod Gilbert, defenseman Brad Park and goalie Ed Giacomin, the Blueshirts were considered overwhelming favorites to win the best-of-three opening round in two straight.

In fact, captain Westfall was only one of five Islanders who had ever experienced the Stanley Cup playoffs before. When I interviewed Ed last Fall, I asked him how it felt to be in such an underdog position against so experienced a team.

"We didn't hear that," he chuckled. "They (the media) forgot to tell us we were underdogs. But that was only part of the equation. There was another key difference and that was the hunger element.

"Our guys had become believers and it all started with 'Fairy Tale Talk' in the dressing room that eventually we believed and then played it out on the ice."

I remember doing double-takes over and over and over again as Westfall's warriors refused to take defeat for an answer. With the series tied at one apiece, they beat the Blueshirts in overtime to capture the series. (More on this in a later chapter.)

As for the captain, in a span of three seasons he moved from experiencing his darkest hours to his finest hour; one he cherishes to this day:

"It was the most uplifting and exciting of all the times I played in the NHL!"

Well spoken by a captain's captain.



5. MARK STREIT: For a media guy like me, a captain has to be more than just a leader to qualify for the "C." An important element is the ability to communicate to reporters as well as teammates. A good sense of humor doesn't hurt either. 

Streit, who arrived in Uniondale during the 2008 offseason, delivered those elements as well as stability on the blue line. Win or lose, Streit addressed the press and occasionally would engage in some banter with a nearby teammate. 

My favorite exchanges to personally witness took place between the Swiss-born captain and his equally amusing goaltender Evgeni Nabokov.

4. MICHAEL PECA: When I interviewed Michael after the Islanders' captains golf outing last September in Southhampton, I was surprised at the warm, hugging-greeting he gave me. 

But that was Peca, a fellow who cared about teammates and, as far as he was concerned, I was on the Isles team since I was part of the broadcast squad.

As a captain, Michael was the ideal player to re-energize the franchise as the start of the millennium. A gritty demeanor was a key ingredient in his make-up and that was translated to his play.

It hardly was a coincidence that in his three years in Nassau, Peca paced his club to three straight playoff berths. Each time he was a major contributor. Frankly, I was very sorry when he left the franchise.

3. BRENT SUTTER: Mention the name Sutter to any hockey person and chances are you'll get a positive reaction. Without the likes of the brothers Duane and Brent, winning four consecutive Stanley Cups would have been a lot more challenging.

Brent's captaincy began at the start of the 1987-88 season. Not surprisingly, his leadership was right up there in the superior Denis Potvin class, but without any championships to show for it.

No sweat; Sutter's leadership quotient was of the highest calibre. Brent led by example with numbers that show his goals ( 363) and assists (466) totals and overall plus-minus of plus-166 were commendable.

 Likewise, when he wore the "C," a post-season appearance was almost guaranteed.

2. ED WESTFALL: What a man! How many NHLers can you name who had a pilot's license and who flew to games? Or, who won an Emmy for top TV work? Or won the Bill Masterton Trophy while leading the Islanders up the NHL ladder?

Easy Ed did all that and lots more. Not only did he spearhead his team as captain but Westfall scored key goals, worked the power play and killed penalties. He oozed style and always was quick with a quip and quote.

As author Andrew Podnieks noted in his book, Players, "Westfall helped establish the team as an up-and-comer before ultimate victory."

Most important, he took his captaincy to a new level, acting as mentor to such future Hall of Famers as Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier and Clark Gillies.

1. DENIS POTVIN: One could debate until the cows come home whether or not Denis Potvin was the most accomplished defenseman in NHL history. But there can be no debate that the Hall of Fame defenseman was the club's finest captain in every which way.

"I considered Denis the perfect leader for us," said Glenn (Chico) Resch, a teammate during the Islanders first Stanley Cup triumph in 1980. "He had the ideal demeanor, intelligence and ability to take orders from Al.".

"More than that, he led on the ice. He could play offense or defense; play a tough game or a skill game. He had all the talent and all the goods. Which is why we looked up to him."

Potvin and I have been personal friends since his rookie season. I ghost-wrote his autobiography, Power On Ice, which was easy since he was such an articulate interview. The four straight Cups during his stewardship underline my point; he was the best captain.

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