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Maven's Memories: Isles First Game in 1972

Stan Fischler recounts the Islanders first game on Oct. 7, 1972

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / NewYorkIslanders.com

The opening of the Islanders home schedule against the Washington Capitals in Uniondale heralds a season of hope, joy and, of course, thrills galore.

Ah, but this hardly was the case 47 years ago when the infant franchise dispatched its troops on to the ice for the World Premiere of major league hockey in Nassau County.

The date was October 7, 1972; the opponent, the other new National Hockey League franchise, the Atlanta Flames.

Unike the optimistic feeling shared by coach Barry Trotz and his current corps of stickhandlers, hopes for the Nassaumen almost a half-century ago ranged from dismal to no hope at all.

Barry Wilner of The Associated Press pointed out that the league deliberately arranged for the two brand-new teams to be first-game foes.

Wilner: "Reasoning that it wouldn't be too good an idea to have both expansion teams rubbed out on the same night of activity, the NHL schedule-maker pitted the newcomers against each other. The NHL figured there'd be plenty of losing for them the rest of the way."

William (Bowtie Bill) Torrey, the glib, witty new maestro of this motley crew, was inclined to agree with the pessimists. The Expansion Draft did him no favors. Worse still, he also had to cope with the New York Raiders, a brand new World Hockey Association team, playing out of The Garden. The MSG outfit was correctly named since the WHA was raiding the Isles left and right.

By the numbers, Torrey lost eight of 19 selections to the WHA of which two were pilfered by the Raiders. One reporter wrote that the Raiders figured to ice a better team than Torrey's menagerie.

"Previously," said Torrey, "Clarence Campbell (NHL President) had assured me that there was no way the WHA could steal our guys. Then -- after the courts reviewed things -- Campbell said, 'Let the buyer beware.'" 

In some cases it was too late. "We lost potentially good players like Ted Hampson and Gord Laboissiere," said Islanders scout Jimmy Devellano. "They could have given us five or six or seven wins."

Notwithstanding the WHA thievery and competiion from across the county at The Garden, the Isles' official opening night drew a Coliseum crowd of 12,221. Among the onlookers was was NHL President Campbell, himself, who normally attended games at Montreal's Forum.

"Looking around the arena," said Campbell, "I'd say that the Coliseum is a magnificent place to watch hockey."

However, magnificent, the game was not. 

Ironically, the first cheer was not even for the home club. The audience roared its approval when Atlanta coach Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion was introduced. Rangers fans in the crowd had adored The Boomer from his playing and coaching days with the Blueshirts.

Chroniclers in the Coliseum press box insisted that the first cheer for the home club didn't sound until the 11-minute mark of the first period when the Flames Billy Plager took a run at Isles forward Dave Hudson -- and missed.

Atlanta took the lead on a shorthanded goal by Morris Stefaniw who beat goalie Gerry Desjardins at 12:48 of the opening frame.

Video: Isles Season Ticket Member Event: 8/13

The hometown fans had a brief moment of joy late in the second period when captain Ed Westfall beat Phil Myre to tie the count at 1-1. 

But a pair of third period goals a minute apart by Atlanta's Rey Comeau and Bob Leiter proved insurmountable although rookie Billy Harris made it close with a red light at 16:51 of the final period.

The final count, 3-2, suggested on paper that the game had melodramatic qualities but one reviewer thought otherwise. "The game," concluded one reporter, "was much less exciting than the scored indicated."

Newday's headline was more succinct: ISLANDERS BOW, ARTISTIC IT ISN'T.

That was the bad news.

The good news was in the second home game; a 3-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings.

As for Torrey, for safety's sake Bill wore his bow tie all season!


LISTS: FOUR GOOD THINGS ABOUT THE ISLES FIRST HOME GAME:

1. BILL SMITH: Although he wasn't the starting goalie, young Battlin' Bill made the varsity and hung around long enough to become a Hall of Famer

2. LORNE HENNING: Amid the roster's has-beens and never-would-bes, this crafty forward would survive the losses and eventually evolve into one of the NHL's best penalty-killers.

3. BILLY HARRIS: Torrey's top Draft pick proved to be an able right wing with a devastating shot. In addition he was respected as an ideal team player, loved by the fans.

4. ED WESTFALL: From the get-go on opening night, Captain 18 worked diligently to retain team unity and spirit despite the challenges he faced.

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