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Maven's Memories: In Appreciation of John Tonelli

Stan Fischler celebrates the best of John Tonelli's Islanders career

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / NewYorkIslanders.com

John Tonelli will be honored by the New York Islanders on February 21st at the Coliseum

The banner-raising and "retirement" of his number 27 not only will be hailed by the organization that launched his NHL career, but by Isles fans and virtually anyone who reveres a hockey player's hockey player.

And a swell guy, to boot. (By the way, I know all of the above from personal experience.)

My memories of this grit guy are many, varied, glorious and, at least in one instance, somewhat humorous. So let's get to the funny one first since it also took place in a rather I-Spy kind of way.

It was the summer of 1978 and -- with my wife, Shirley -- was running the New York bureau for the Toronto Star newspaper. I was in Canada to meet with my editors.

Staying at Toronto's Royal York Hotel, I was sipping a drink in the lounge when four gentlemen walked in and sat down just four tables away. 

At first I paid no attention to them but, finally looked up and guess who I saw? There was none other than Bill Torrey sitting with Jim Devellano, Gus Badali and a good player I had remembered from the World Hockey Association.

Bow Tie Bill and his ever- efficient chief scout, Jimmy D, were accompanied by Wayne Gretzky's agent (Badali) and John Tonelli who previously had starred for the WHA's Houston Aeros.

Torrey recognized me -- Bill knew I had fallen on a hot story -- and, with secrecy in mind put his index finger to his lips and half-whispered "Shhhh," just loud enough for me to hear. Meanwhile, Jimmy did a "No-No" head-shake.

I got the message and assured them I'd keep this story in my head and not in print or on the airwaves.

"We didn't want anyone to know we were signing John," Bill later told me. "It had to be a secret until I cleared it with ownership."

Tweet from @NYIslanders: Celebrate John Tonelli���s jersey retirement with us as we lift No. 2������7������ to the rafters on Friday! 🙌Score $2 hot dogs 🌭 and $7 beers 🍺 in honor of No. 27 from 5:30-6:15pm. Fans should be in their seats by 6:30pm for the ceremony. Tix: https://t.co/dXAHG22A7I pic.twitter.com/t1BSpAFT4E

Being that I was the first reporter to know about Tonelli becoming an Islander -- yet not breaking the story -- hardly broke my heart because I knew it was truly good news for the Islanders. 

Plus, I remembered covering a WHA game in Houston game, seeing Johnny in action.

This was in 1975 when I still was telecasting New England Whalers games and Tonelli was left wing on a line with Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe, and Gordie's Hall of Fame son, Mark.

"I wanted Tonelli big-time for the Islanders," said Devallano, who was at Sam Houston Arena that night with me. "I remembered Johnny from seeing him star in Toronto Junior hockey. Helping sign him meant a whole lot to me."

Very soon it would mean a whole to the Nassaumen. Tonelli's impressive blend of speed and grit earned him a nickname, "The Greasy Jet." Coach Al Arbour liked the moniker as much as he admired his new left wing.

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"Johnny would do anything I'd ask him to do," said Arbour, "and do it with passion and skill. He was as special as any one of our superstars."

True enough but in an Islanders world populated by future Hall of Famers Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier Clark Gillies and Bill Smith, the Greasy Jet fell into the media's second tier of stories. 

Still, we all recognized that freshman John had a Vitamin D (for delicious) career ahead. Sure enough, there was no overshadowing the sophomore Tonelli, who took center stage for one of the most iconic goals in hockey history.

With the Islanders leading Philadelphia three games to two in the 1980 Stanley Cup Final, Arbour had Tonelli on a line with center Lorne Henning (replacing injured Wayne Merrick) and right wing Bob Nystrom.

Just past the seven minute mark of the first overtime period, Henning snared a loose puck at center ice, igniting an explosive criss-cross move his linemates previously had sculpted in scrimmages.

Simply diagrammed, it had each player moving from his proper side to his off wing; Tonelli from left to right; Nystrom, right to left.

"Bob and I were blitzing," The Greasy Jet recalled, "and our criss-cross confused the Flyers defensemen (Moose Dupont and Bob Dailey) so that Ny got free.

"I saw out of the corner of my eye that Bobby was breaking to the net so I decided to give him the puck and shoveled it to him right away," Tonelli said. "That's all I remember about the play."

Nystrom recalls a bit more. "I had a warp on my stick that didn't allow me to backhand at the best of times. I knew I had to get it up so I just whacked at it. Before this one, I don't think I had ever scored on my backhand."

Talk about luck, the time was 7:11 of sudden death and Tonelli forever will be remembered as part-architect of that first of four straight Islanders Cups. A dynasty was in the making.

The Greasy Jet concluded his sophomore season -- and first Stanley run with an impressive 16 points in 21 post-season games. "But this was just the start of something big for Johnny," said Torrey.

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

And so it, was; in playoff after playoff during the Islanders never-to-be-broken run of 19 playoff series victories, Tonelli was Johnny on the spot.

Had you been around then to see it, you'd never forget fireman Tonelli there during the scary 1982 Preliminary Round series to douse the surprise blaze started by an upstart Pittsburgh sextet.

With the best-of-five series down to the deciding Game Five in Uniondale, Penguins goalie Michel Dion looked indomitable as his club nursed a 3-1 lead into the third period. (Pitt had finished 43 points behind the Isles.)

Tonelli: "I remember thinking it could be over. Summer could come quicker than we're ready for it. The building could fall down. but I also remember every guy on the bench itching to get on the ice and turn it around."

But Dion wouldn't let them. Meanwhile, the game clock relentlessly worked against the defending champs. Five minutes were counted off; no score by the Isles. Then, 10 minutes; 3-1. Now just six minutes remaining, still 3-1, Pitt.

Maybe Johnny T, got the message; maybe not, but something good could be felt throughout the arena: Greasy Jet; where are you now that you're needed?

Without further ado, there was Tonelli, setting up defenseman Mike McEwen for a power-play goal with just over five minutes left. Now, 3-2, Pitt. Not long after, John was battling Penguins defenseman Randy Carlyle in the Visitors' corner.

Almost magically, the rubber wound up -- seemingly glued -- on Tonelli's stick. And, then, with electrical speed, the puck skimmed behind Dion for the tying goal.

"When the red light flashed," Old Reliable recalled, "I said to myself, 'Thank goodness.' Then, I remembered, we're only tied. The way Dion was playing I knew our work wasn't over."

Sure enough, the game remained tied, 3-3, with overtime just ahead. In the press box, a reporter asked onlooking Rangers coach Herb Brooks to predict the goal-scoring hero. Herb had two words -- "Tonelli, Nystrom!"

Herbie had it right.

For more than six sudden-death minutes, the teams exchanged dangerous thrusts. Finally, Old Reliable went into high gear on a semi-breakaway, pursued into the corner by Pitt's Paul Baxter while Nystrom followed the play.

"I wound up with the puck," Tonelli remembered, "and sent it out to Ny. He deked Dion and Michel made the save but he didn't control the rebound. 

"Dion was down and the puck was just lying there; nobody else saw it but I did. By now, I had the whole net to shoot at; how could I miss?"

Tonelli didn't and one of the most arresting comebacks in team history was written in the Islanders book of grand moments.

Johnny T's Promethean effort propelled the Islanders to ensuing series playoff series victories over the Rangers, Nordiques and Canucks for Nassau's third consecutive Cup.

"He was a coach's dream come true," said Arbour. "He worked so hard in practice he'd get migraines. Plus, his versatility was as good as any player I had."

Radar underlined his point by moving Tonelli from line to line as his coaching spirit moved him. Mostly though, John worked with Nystrom on a "Banana Line" centered by Wayne Merrick.

Torrey: "There were many times when Al had no qualms about replacing Clark Gillies on the first line and putting Johnny on left wing. Whenever that happened, that outfit played just as well as with Clarkie."

Many respected analysts have noted that the decisive Game Five of the 1984 Islanders-Rangers series was one of the NHL all-time classics. Not surprisingly it went into overtime tied at 2-2.

By now you may have guessed that Old Reliable was significantly involved in making the Islanders sudden-death goal possible; and you would be calling the shot.

After more than eight minutes of magical moments at both ends of the rink, the Greasy Jet played to his image.

"We never had a better man at winning the puck along the boards," Torrey asserted. "In that particular moment, Johnny did it again."

Working on the left side of the Rangers zone against defenseman Reijo Ruotsalainen. Tonelli freed the puck so that it eventually reached defenseman Ken Morrow at the right point.

At precisely 8:56 of the overtime, a ref light flashed, ending yet another dynamic victory for the Nassaumen.

If ever a heroic Islander deserved to be called "Johnny On The Spot," Mister Tonelli was the man.

Which helps explain why The Greasy Jet will have his banner raised to the Coliseum ceiling -- and Old Reliable will be hailed to its rafters by both new and veteran fans alike.

Amid the cheers, many eyes will well up in tears while all will know that, in John Tonelli's case, justice has triumphed!

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