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Maven's Memories: First Steps Towards 1981 Cup

The Mike McEwen trade was a catalyst in helping the Islanders repeat in 1981

by Stan Fischler @StanFischler /

If a theme song could have been written for the New York Islanders after they captured their first Stanley Cup in the spring of 1980, it would have been titled, "We Did It Before -- And We Can Do It Again."

Granted that they emerged champions after a number of bitterly-fought series -- not to mention close calls -- but they survived as a young, healthy and determined band of Nassaumen.

"Once we traded for Butch Goring," said The Boss, Bowtie Bill Torrey, "we felt confident about our forwards from the first one through the fourth line. But one thing that I learned was never to stand pat."

Despite the many kudos heaped on Torrey and coach Al Arbour, the general staff knew that there would be no resting upon those laurels.

"I liked my team a lot," confirmed Arbour, "but, like Bill, I believed that we still could make it even stronger."

Ditto for Jim Devellano, the club's eyes-and-ears on the scouting front. Like his two bosses, Jimmy D detected an area that could use a more stable foundation.

"Our power play was good," Jimmy D explained, "but it was heavily relying on Denis Potvin to make it work. Denis needed a 'relief pitcher,' so to speak. Finding another PP quarterback was our challenge."

All hands agreed and, eventually, Torrey found a trading partner in Denver, Colorado, and a likely acquisition, a starting defenseman on the Colorado Rockies.

"We liked Mike McEwen," revealed Devellano, now Executive Vice-President of the Detroit Red Wings. "He'd been in our area when he played for the Rangers so we had a good idea of his potential.

"The thing was that Mike was as good a second quarterback for our power play who was available at the time. Our thinking was that -- if we could get McEwen -- he'd be just the guy to spell Denis Potvin on the PP."

Torrey scanned the field before making a move. In fact he waited until the eleventh-and-a-half hour before completing negotiations with the Rockies general staff. So far it was a deep, dark secret, unavailable to the media.

"I got my man" Torrey exulted, "but I knew darn well that the guy I was giving up was one of the most popular players we had in all my years with the team."

Glenn (Chico) Resch, a hero of the Islanders 1975 first playoff run, was the goaltender Colorado demanded and received along with promising forward Steve Tambellini.

"I was on the team bus ready to take off with the other guys," Resch remembered. "But for some reason it was delayed for about a half-hour. Then, our assistant coach Lorne Henning came aboard.

"He told Steve and me to go with him to Al's office and, of course, we had a pretty good idea we'd played our last game for Radar."

Like the Isles-Kings deal that brought Butch Goring to Long Island exactly a year earlier, the exchange for McEwen was explicitly designed to snatch a second Stanley Cup for the Nassaumen.

"McEwen was the offensive defenseman and power play specialist we needed," wrote Mike Bossy in his autobiography, Boss. "But it saddened me to have to say good-bye to Chico."

"Some people thought that losing Chico would hurt," added Associated Press hockey writer Ben Olan. "After all, he'd come through with wins plenty of times when Billy Smith went into a slump."

But Torrey had that all figured out when his bird dogs discovered the French-Canadian puck-stopper Roland (Rollie The Goalie) Melanson.

Everyone on staff was certain that Melanson was NHL-ready; and he was!

Certainly, the defending Champs were ready. Their final season record -- 48-14-4 -- spoke volumes about their overall strength. Melanson's 7-1-1 record certainly justified the Resch trade.

All things considered, it was a bountiful regular season also highlighted by Mike Bossy scoring his 50th goal in his 50th game, matching the feat originally accomplished by Michael's idol, Maurice (Rocket) Richard.

Armed with a pair of dependable goaltenders, a well-rounded defense and four solid lines, Torrey believed he had done all he could do snatch a second Cup. The McEwen deal was Bowtie Bill's icing on the cake. 

"With the playoffs coming up," said Arbour, "we're going to be counting on Mike (McEwen) both in our end and on offense. I'm glad we got him."

Radar had more than McEwen to lean on when it came to his blue line corps. All-Star Denis Potvin had reached his prime while Dave Langevin and Stefan Persson never looked better. 

New York's opening round opponent would be Toronto. In those days, a best-of-five tourney was employed with the first game slated for Nassau Coliseum. Some observers viewed it as a Grudge Series.

"We haven't forgotten that they beat us in '78," said Potvin, "but Toronto isn't the same team and neither are we; frankly we're a lot better."

The Maple Leafs, who upset the Isles in overtime of the seventh game, three years earlier, had traded their pesky forward Tiger Williams who had made a habit of tormenting Mike Bossy. That in and of itself was a break.

"As difficult as the climb to the first Cup had been," wrote Barry Wilner in his book, The New York Islanders -- Count Down to a Dynasty, "as strewn with pitfalls and pratfalls, the charge to the second was just the opposite."

"Bring on Toronto" was echoed across the Island and -- here it was -- a new post-season underway -- Game One, Toronto vs. New York. 

Billy Carroll, who quickly was distinguishing himself as a quality defensive forward and penalty-killer, opened the tournament's scoring, soon followed by a Clark Gillies' tally. The Visitors got one back and that was it for Toronto. 

The Nassaumen tallied five consecutive goals and skated off with a 9-2 victory. In the second game -- also in Uniondale -- Toronto limited the defending Champs to five goals but only could get one in for themselves.

"By this time," wrote Wilner, "the series had become a mismatch and it wasn't going to change at Maple Leaf Gardens either."

The three-game sweep ended in Toronto; 6-1, for Arbour's artillery, led by Bossy and his trust center, Bryan Trottier. Bossy had four goals and six assists for his work. 

"Boss and Trots work so well together," said teammate John Tonelli who occasionally played left wing on the line. "They create so many chances for themselves, that the left wing on the line is bound to score. Anybody can play there."

Another left wing, Bob Bourne, added: "They read each other better than normal players can. They know exactly what the other is doing. It's because they have so much talent. They're far above everyone else."

Whether the Islanders would be "far above everyone else" in their continued quest for a second Stanley Cup remained to be seen. 

All agreed that the second round foe should not be taken for granted. The Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers had become a threatening team and not merely because of The Great One alone.

Names such as Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey and Kevin Lowe already had become NHL icons, if not champions. 

"We're ready for them," asserted Potvin. "We're working hard for that second Cup!"

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