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Maven's Memories: Prelude to a Dynasty

Stan Fischler looks back at the run-up to the 1980 playoffs

by Stan Fischler StanFischler /

Any way you look at it, the year 1979 proved as bitter-sweet for Islanders major domo, Bill Torrey as it had been the previous year.

Bow Tie Bill's Nassaumen dominated the regular 1978-79 season as few other teams ever had before.

The Isles not only paced all teams with 116 points while center Bryan Trottier topped all National Hockey League scorers with 47 goals and 87 assists for 134 points. Trots also captured the Hart Trophy as the circuit's MVP.

Additionally, Trottier's sidekick, right wing Mike Bossy, lit 69 red lights, nine more than runner-up Marcel Dionne while defenseman Denis Potvin captured the Norris Trophy as best defenseman for the second straight season.

That was the beauty part; so sweet -- until one considers that Torrey's sextet failed to oust Toronto in the 1978 playoff round and the Rangers in the spring of 1979.

"We have a monkey on our back," said Bob Bourne, the ever-improving forward who always was ready with a candid comment at the drop of a question. And his teammates agreed.

"There was no doubt that the loss to the Rangers haunted us," added Bossy, "but we're prepared to exorcise that demon. I'm confident Bill will make changes before we win the Cup."

One of the first changes at the autumn 1979 training camp stunned players to the very core because it was so unexpected and from an unlikely source, Clark Gillies. 

Among the most popular players on the roster, the 25-year-old who had been voted the league's best left wing, resigned as captain just two days before opening night. 

The usually ebullient future Hall of Famer claimed that the leadership role negatively affected his game. Management listened to his reasoning and agreed with Clark.

"It became too much for me," Gillies explained. "I was conscious of the older guys on the team and it was hard for me to criticize. I didn't like being the middle man between the players and management.

"It took up more time than I wanted and, in the back of my mind, I didn't like it," Gillies added. "I felt awkward in the dressing room, if I had to get up and say something to get the guys going. I might pick have to pick guys out to talk to and would wonder about their reactions."

Who would the general staff designate as Clark's replacement? Denis Potvin headed the list but there were others to consider.

Bossy and Trottier also were potential heir-apparents to be awarded the "C" because of the respect they commanded. The high command -- Torrey and Head Coach Al Arbour -- huddled with Gillies to get a players' only dressing room feel about the next captain.

Gillies: "I talked to Bill and Al and we came to the conclusion that Denny (Potvin) would be a good choice. He could handle the mental pressures and he'd been around the league and the team more than Mike and Trots."

Potvin was ready, willing and able to accept the captaincy. When confronted about the "C," he was typically realistic in his appraisal.

"Clarkie took the captaincy as a burden rather than an honor," Denis asserted. "That's the big difference in the way I look at the responsibility. Management selected me.

"It wasn't a player vote. It's not necessarily the most popular player who should be the captain. I enjoy the responsibility of being captain. I've always wanted it; even as a kid growing up in Hull (Ontario, across from Ottawa.)"

Video: Denis Potvin was captain of Islanders' 1980s dynasty

The Isles new captain had plenty of responsibility on his plate; not the least of which was trying to help himself. He missed the first eight games of the season with strained ligaments in his collarbone. 

Trottier, who opened the season with a new contract, became acting captain in Potvin's absence. But Bryan's game faltered and even Trots was benched by Arbour. "That's one for Trots too think about," the coach explained.

 A month-and-a-half into the schedule the Nassaumen looked more like bottom feeders. Their record was a dismal 6-9-4. Even the usually reliable goaltending was not up to par.

Trottier: "I heard that Chico was 'looking for his defensemen.' Well, he should have been looking elsewhere." (meaning, "in the mirror.")

A second Denis Potvin injury -- this time torn ligaments in his right thumb on November 30 -- further braked any significant advance in the standings. Plus, the invigorating foot soldiers -- Bob Nystrom and Bob Bourne -- also were listed among the wounded.

Torrey's priority was to set his listing Good Ship Islander right again. With all deliberate speed, he did so with a succession of moves which, collectively, proved useful:

1. When Jean Potvin became a free agent, Bow Tie Bill quickly signed him thereby bolstering the defense.

2. Backliner Dave Langevin, who previously had starred with the World Hockey Association's Edmonton Oilers, also was added to the Isles roster -- and would prove immensely helpful.

3. With the Winter Olympics soon to begin in Lake Placid, Torrey had his scouts trained on American Olympian Ken Morrow who previously had starred for the Bowling Green defense.
If Morrow impressed the birddogs, he too would be added to the Islanders blue line corps.

4. Meanwhile, from Washington, hard-nosed Gord Lane was a further addition; with Mike Kaszycki heading to the Capitals.

Video: A Night Celebrating Bill Torrey

Captain Potvin's long absence had an effect up and down the lineup; both in terms of leadership and artistry. After a three-month injury layoff, Denis expressed his determination to help fulfill the team's top priority.

"If we don't win the Stanley Cup this year," the captain proclaimed, "I don't know what I'll do. I'm at the end of my rope, just as Bill and Al are."

One critical turning point occurred on March 1st 1980 when the twice-wounded Potvin returned to the lineup. And with the trade deadline approaching, Torrey imported Morrow from Lake Placid just days after Uncle Sam's sextet had won the Olympic gold.

Potvin and Morrow seamlessly were coupled on defense, enabling Torrey to unload a defenseman in an 11th-hour league-stunning trade.

Bow Tie Bill dispatched defenseman Dave Lewis and right wing Billy Harris to Los Angeles for center Butch Goring.

The spate of moves -- beginning with the Lane-Kaszyki trade and ending with Goring's arrival energetically galvanized the club down the homestretch.

A dozen games remained on the regular schedule and the Islanders did not lose one of them. They won eight and tied the rest. What's more, they climbed to fifth in the overall standings.

"The stretch drive put the players in just the right frame of mind for the playoffs."

Those were the words of Associated Press reporter Barry Wilner in his book NEW YORK ISLANDERS -- COUNT DOWN TO A DYNASTY..

As it happened, truer words were never spoken -- nor written.

At last, a Stanley Cup could be envisioned beyond the blue horizon!


1. CAPTAINCY CHANGE: Clark Gillies was unhappy as captain and wisely resigned before the season began. Denis Potvin was the perfect replacement.

2. NO FAVORITES WITH AL ARBOUR: Radar's early-season one-game benching of his crack center Bryan Trottier sent a message to the team; there's be no favorites. Play under the coach's standard, you take a rest.

3. IMPORTANT DEFENSIVE ACQUISITIONS: Bolstering the defense, Torrey returned Jean Potvin to the team and also added Dave Langevin and Gord Lane; later Ken Morrow.

4. TWICE INJURED POTVIN'S VIGOROUS RETURN: The two injuries that sidelined the normally indestructible proved sweet uses of adversity. The captain returned for the homestretch well rested a very motivated.

5. THE BEST TRADE: Bow Tie Bill was fond of Billy Harris and Dave Lewis, but he was wise enough to avoid letting sentimentality to intrude on a necessary deal. Hence: Butch Goring arrives to star on the Island.

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