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Maven's Memories: Hard Times En Route to the Fourth Cup

Stan Fischler looks into the Islanders brief swoon in the 1982-83 season

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / NewYorkIslanders.com

The 1982 Stanley Cup champagne had been consumed. 

Far and wide, Al Arbour's champions were toasted in tribute for their remarkable achievement, winning a third consecutive title.

"That confirmed us as a 'Dynasty,'" said Bob Nystrom, a vital contributor to the clubs which had originally triumphed, first in 1980, then 1981 and now the freshest victory in 1982. "I don't see why we can't do it again."

That's precisely what General Manager Bill Torrey was thinking. But how? 

In a sense, the quest for a fourth straight Cup had the Isles boss cruising in unchartered waters. 

Only two teams had won four Cups in succession, but in circumstances differing from Torrey's sextet. Bowtie Bill was well aware of both since he was a native of Montreal and had watched both dynastic Canadiens teams dominate the National Hockey League.

Led by their immortal captain Maurice (Rocket) Richard, the Canadiens won their first of five in a row during the 1955-56 season. They followed with four more concluding with the 1959-60 outfit. After the fifth, The Rocket retired.

Video: 1981-82 Isles sweep Canucks to win third straight Cup

"That was a remarkable club," Torrey remembered, "but all that winning happened when the NHL was a six-team league. Counting all their series wins, Montreal totaled 10 in a row. Winning three Cups, we already had won a dozen straight playoff series."

Under coach Scotty Bowman, the Habs won four out of four titles starting in 1975-76, concluding in 1978-79. They totaled 11 straight playoff series victories. While Torrey's team had already topped that they knew there was more to be had.

True enough, yet there was reasonable concern about the Nassaumen winning yet another title. For one thing it was only natural for champions to take their greatness for granted; you know the feeling, put the sticks on the ice and wins will come. 

"It got to the point," Mike Bossy explained, "where we felt we could turn it on at any time and win any game in the third period."

But Bossy, like his teammates, knew that Bowtie Bill was smart enough to look for more reinforcements -- just in case.

Torrey spent the summer of 1982 scanning his farm system, seeking potential prospects for any position but goal. With Billy Smith and Roland Melanson, Torrey knew that he boasted one of the best one-two netminding combinations in the circuit.

His defensive core -- Denis Potvin, Stefan Persson, Ken Morrow, Mike McEwen, Tomas Johnson and Dave Langevin -- arguably was one of the best ever. Still, there was a rookie prospect who might even make it better -- Paul Boutilier.

A Maritimer, Boutilier had been nicknamed "Tree Trunk" because his legs resembled the base of an oak. Being a top draft pick (21st overall), Paul also was well-scouted and respected for a devastating shot; not to mention an intense work ethic.

Every summer he would exercise by running up and down a mountainside at the command of his father who had coached him on the Midget level.

Potential forwards who intrigued Torrey included left wings Greg Gilbert and Mats Ballin; each big and willing to play a physical game. For all three, cracking the champ lineup would be no easy task because Arbour favored the vets who still were ready, willing and able.

The onus was on Torrey. Period. The Boss had to decide whether or not to shake up his roster; even a little while remembering the bromide, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Bow Tie Bill believed that some infusion of youth would be necessary to maintain freshness while retaining his inner core of champions.

"It'll be a real dogfight in the Patrick Division, " Torrey predicted. "The Rangers are good. The Flyers are better and the Penguins and Capitals are improving. But we have the good kids -- Gilbert, Hallin and Boutilier -- who just might help us."

That said, each had problems breaking into the varsity because the vets wouldn't let them; not with an 11-2-0 start after 13 games. 

Steaming toward another productive campaign, Bossy had registered 20 goals in 26 games while the Smith-Melanson cease gears had proven as well-meshed as Arbour could have wished. 

Occasionally -- call it inevitably -- a vet would yearn for the playoffs to begin already while opponents freely predicted that the Isles once again looked like the team to beat. "They have to be the favorites," said Minnesota North Stars coach Glen Sonmor.

Some skepticism emerged along press row when the club slumped (8-14-7) due to injuries and regular season malaise. Plus there was tension after Bossy and Trottier, angered Torrey following a lackluster practice at Cantiague Park.

 "I was a little embarrassed," Bossy allowed. "But how could I be mad at Bill. He was right."

Torrey: "During January of just about every season, a veteran or two will be playing poorly. That gets me thinking about making changes. Then, I think, 'Okay, but remember what that guy always does in May."

Bill was thinking about his beast of spring, Bill Smith, who was suffering through a 1-6-2 slump. Smitty managed to wax philosophical about his case of "rubberitis" while managing to explain how the opposition thirsted to beat the three-time champs.

"You wouldn't believe the abuse we take on the road," the puck stopping vet explained. "A team beats us and it's just like they won the Stanley Cup. In Detroit, we lost 2-0 and the people were placing their bets that the Red Wings will win The Cup."

Still, the losing continued and by New Year's Day, coach Arbour needed a bottle of aspirin handy, especially after a 5-1 loss to a resurgent Capitals club. 

After Washington's ace Mike Gartner tallied a pair of goals and an assist, Gartner offered a diplomatic analysis of the struggling Nassaumen: "They're a great team just going through hard times."

Meanwhile, a disgruntled Arbour suggested that his outfit "Looks like a last-place team."

Captain Denis Potvin chimed in with his possible prescription. "Maybe some changes have to be made." 

And so they were. Greg Gilbert, Mats Hallin and Paul Boutillier all made cameo appearances but their arrival was less stunning than Radar's big move. He benched Smitty for two big weeks.

Pinch-goaling, Melanson delivered. Over a half-dozen straight games, Rollie The Goalie straightened things out, going undefeated (5-0-1), winning his last five straight. Ever the team player, Smith endorsed his stand-in and team confidence was restored. 

"I wouldn't mind playing 40 games a season," Battlin' Bill insisted. "Rollie has the greatest spirit on the team. He's matured so much; he could be first team on almost any team in the league."

Still, the Champs could not get themselves on track. Philadelphia moved into first place and replaced the Isles as a favorite to win the Cup. Arbour's Team Dynasty now was being chided by critics as Team Inconsistency.

Video: 1982-83 Islanders win fourth straight Stanley Cup

After a 6-0 loss to the Blues in St. Louis had insiders calling it "The Islanders low point of the season." Meanwhile, the trade deadline was fast approaching and the rumor mill began turning at top speed. 

One report had Torrey possibly replacing six of his Cup-winners -- Stefan Persson, Bob Bourne, Bob Nystrom, Wayne Merrick, Mike McEwen and Clark Gillies -- in another Butch Goring blockbuster deal. Would Torrey break up the Champs?

As it happened, Bowtie Bill's next decision would determine whether his skaters were capable of getting their "Fourth On The Isle."

Stay tuned!


LISTS: FOUR REASONS FOR THE CHAMPS 1982-83 NOSEDIVE

1. OVERCONFIDENCE: Having won three Stanley Cups in succession some of the players began taking winning for granted. "We were being outworked and out-played," said coach Arbour.

2. RATIONALES: Unaccustomed to losing, stars began seeking excuses. "The league has taken away all the incentive during the regular season," explained Bill Smith.

3. MODEST ROOKIE PRODUCTION: Neither Paul Boutilier, Greg Gilbert nor Mats Ballin provided enough pizazz to de-slump the team.

4. FLICK-SWITCH THEORY: The core players knew deep-down that when clutch time came they could flick on the winning switch and then it would be full speed ahead!

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