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Maven's Memories: Islanders Host 1983 All-Star Game

Billy Crystal emceed and Wayne Gretzky scored four goals as Nassau Coliseum hosted the 1983 NHL All-Star Game

by Stan Fischler StanFischler /

The National Hockey League's annual All-Star Weekend in San Jose, January 25-26 brings to mind a landmark event that took place right in our own backyard Barn 36 years ago. 

Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum was the perfect place to hold the National Hockey League All-Star Game on February 8, 1983 because of the timing and venerable venue. 

The Barn had already been nicknamed "Fort Neverlose" because the Isles had won three consecutive Stanley Cups and were hellbent for a fourth title in a few months.

Defenseman Denis Potvin, right wing Mike Bossy, center Bryan Trottier and -- surprise of surprises -- little publicized backliner Dave Langevin were the Islanders named to the honored Wales Conference squad.

And that was just for starters. The Nassaumen also were blessed with having the NHL's top coach, Al (Radar) Arbour coach the Wales warriors.

Watch: Youtube Video

(Speaking of being blessed, my wife, Shirley, and I attended all the All-Star festivities; before, during and after the main event.)

The Coliseum itself was well-dressed for what was to be the 35th NHL All-Star Game. Decorated with flags on the outside and blanketed with buntings inside the arena, the 11-year-old sports palace looked more like the site of a political convention.

Onlookers -- including my wife and I -- did double-takes in amazement when we saw the Coliseum's bowl at a gala the night before. The ice rink had been converted into a fabulous night club for the pre All-Star celebration. The $200 a plate tab was well worth the show.

At one end was a high stage on which then famed Canadian singer Anne Murray would perform a medley of hits in a night club aura created by tables placed on a seemingly endless blue carpet concealing the ice below.

The Broadway show that would follow could not have been more dazzling. In addition to Anne Murray's outstanding vocals yet another act would set the packed "cabaret" roaring in another direction.

Emcee Billy Crystal of Long Beach was at his comedic best and by the time he had finished his act the crowd had been reduced to endless hilarious tears.

In one of his many stand-up routines, Crystal executed the best boxer Muhammed Ali -- followed by sportscaster Howard Cosell -- impersonations in show business history.

We roared when Crystal even poked fun at his alma mater, nearby Nassau Community College. "I spent eight of the best years of my life there," Billy chuckled. 

Despite the frigid weather outside, there was a sense of warmth when close friends, Minnesota North Stars GM Lou Nanne and his Isles counterpart Bill Torrey exchanged quips. 

Nanne finally turned on his serious face and presented his pal with the Lester Patrick Award for outstanding service to hockey in the United States.

As for the game itself -- held the following night -- it pitted the Wales Conference All-Star Team against the Campbell Conference aces. Opposite Arbour, Vancouver Canucks coach Roger Neilson orchestrated the Campbell crew.

Coincidentally, Neilson and Arbour had faced each other in the previous Spring's bitterly fought Stanley Cup Final won by the New Yorkers in four straight games.

Of all the Long Island mates named to the Wales team, the one who most pleased his Uniondale teammates was Dave (Bammer) Langevin who rarely held center stage. 

Why Bammer?

Because, unobtrusively and without any fuss or fanfare, the St. Paul, Minnesota native emerged as the quintessential NHL defensive defenseman. Not surprisingly, Dave was both pleased and stunned at finally being recognized.

"I wondered if a player like me -- who doesn't score much -- would ever get a chance to be an All-Star," said Bammer. "I'm proud it's me."

The fans were equally proud of their guy and supported each of their four favorites Isles with heartfelt introductory applause. 

Not so for the Rangers who -- prior to the opening draw -- were enthusiastically booed; no doubt because Islanders fans still remembered the Blueshirts 1979 playoff upset of Arbour's heavily-favored outfit.

After the opening puck had been dropped, the packed house (15,230) celebrated when Michel Goulet thrust the Wales outfit ahead, 1-0, in a game that soon would feature ebbs and flows of scoring. 

Almost immediately after Goulet's red light, Dave Babych tied the count for the Campbell skaters. Then, with less than a minute remaining in the opening frame, Hall of Fame defenseman Ray Bourque put the Wales outfit ahead once more.

Naturally, the home town crowd was eagerly rooting for Bossy, Trottier or Potvin to illuminate the red light; but it never happened. Meanwhile, Wayne Gretzky, who previously had failed in earlier All-Star games, eventually found the back of the net.

 "I used to get caught up in pre-game festivities," The Great One explained, "and it took all the energy out of me. But after the banquet here on Long Island, I hit the sack early."

Still, after two periods in Uniondale, Wayne remained pointless. Then, it happened; the Law of Averages finally caught up to him. With his team leading 3-2, The Great One flubbed a shot but it caromed off Ray Bourque's skate and into the Wales net. 

Then the game took one of those extraordinary turns that make hockey so extra-melodramatic. Prior to the game the original Campbell Conference goalie, Richard Brodeur, had been injured. 

Stuck for an eleventh-hour replacement, the Campbell general staff took a long-shot gamble on John Garrett, even though Johnny Goalie was not considered to be in Brodeur's qualitative class.

Even more rare, just days before the All-Star Game, Garrett had been traded from the Quebec Nordiques to Vancouver. In total Garrett had played a mere two minutes and twenty-one seconds for the Canucks. 

Then he had to fly back to Quebec City to gather all his belongings and dig out of his home in a blizzard. He arrived in Uniondale only hours before his first and only All-Star appearance.

Johnny Goalie followed Murray Bannerman in the nets at 10:04 of the second period. Then, Garrett played the game of his life. In the final 29:56 he stopped all but one of the 16 shots fired at him by the world's best players. 

Naturally Garrett became an immediate All-Star target for humor among his new mates. Amusing in his own right, Johnny Goalie took the ribbing in stride.

"The Vancouver guys were giving it to me pretty good," quipped Garrett. "They told me, 'You played two minutes and twenty-one seconds for us and we put you in an All-Star Game?"

But there was a serious side to Garrett's saga. His performance well into the third period was so high octane that John became the favorite to win the MVP prize which included a brand, new Chevy Camaro Z-28.

Remarkably, at age 31, Garrett was on the verge of having a dream come true. Thinking of his goalie possibly winning the sports car, a Campbell Conference teammate quipped, "Johnny, you've already earned the glove compartment," shouted Lanny McDonald.

A few minutes later Garrett had pulled off a few more extraordinary stops.

McDonald: "Now you've got the spare tire!"

With the MVP award nearly clinched in favor of Garrett, an NHL official collected ballots. Sure enough Johnny Goalie had the lead.


Enter The Great One from Stage Left and, suddenly, Garrett's hopes took a turn for the worse. Gretzky scored his second goal against Flyers goalie Pelle Lindbergh and a couple of media votes swung over to Wayne, but Garrett still held the lead.

Egad, what a cad!

At 15:32, Gretzky scored again and at 19:18 he popped his fourth goal, putting the nail in the Wales chances with a 9-3 triumph. Meanwhile, a flock of reporters switched their ballots and Gretzky -- not the people's choice by a long shot or a snapshot -- emerged the MVP after all.

Not even Garrett's Hollywood-type performance could besmirch The Great One's record-breaking effort. It was all in the NHL Record Book.

Among other things Wayne's rubber outburst set the following marks:

* Most goals by one player in an All-Star Game (since tied by five others).

* Most in one period.

When a critic told Wayne that his goals were far from the epitome of artistry, Gretzky shot back: "I learned a long time ago that one hundred per cent of the shots you don't take don't go in!" 

Gretzky, as we all know, would enjoy an endless number of positive and memorable thrills in his career. 

As for the spectators who enjoyed the spectacular -- before during and after the juicy hockey jubilee at the Coliseum -- Johnny Garrett summed up his personal, once-in-a-lifetime experience for those who witnessed the event:

"It was awesome," the goalie concluded, "totally awesome!"

And that equated with my five-out-of-five-star rating of All-Star Night in Uniondale, circa 1983.


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