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Maven's Memories: That Zany First Training Camp

Stan Fischler looks back at the Islanders very first training camp in 1972

by Stan Fischler StanFischler /

The Islanders open training camp at Northwell Center Sept. 13 and it should -- more or less -- be like most pre-season, get-in-shape events.

However, this was not the case 47 years ago.

That was when General Manager William (Bowtie Bill) Torrey opened the franchise's first such welcome-to-the-National Hcckey League base in Peterborough, Ontario.

Neither a Hollywood screen writer nor a Broadway gag man could possibly have scripted the zany, bizarre and absolutely unfathomable training camp events that preceded the club's premiere season (1972-73) in The Show.

Owner Roy Boe got a preview -- some would call it an S.O.S. -- when Bowtie Bill pulled the team's owner aside one day before camp even opened. Torrey believed it was only fair to explain what the owner was getting for his dough.

"You can figure on 19 'problem children," warned the Maestro. "They either can't play, are too old or have personal problems."

Torrey wasn't kidding either; although he wished he had been at the time.

Tough? That would be an understated term to describe Bowtie's challenge.

For starters, the World Hockey Association had begun operating and before Bill could say,"Stop, thief!" as eight of his 19 draft selections were unceremoniously plucked by WHA teams; two by the emerging rival New York Raiders playing out of The Garden.

Then there were the flubs who did show up at Peterborough. After one look at some of the characters on the first day of camp, Torrey couldn't decide whether to laugh or weep.

Torrey: "We had guys come in who could hardly skate or couldn't see their toes as they looked down. There was a guy with a Mohawk haircut who behaved pretty badly at the hotel bar.

 "He was cut from the roster with another guy before we ever took the ice," Torrey added. "Another prospect brought his wife and wouldn't send her home."

Video: Bill Torrey - one of the most respected men in hockey

Then there was the studious but throughly inexperienced rookie coach Phil Goyette, a product of dynastic Cup-winning teams in Montreal. Phil took one look at his baby Isles and blurted: "Holy cow! What did I get myself into?"

Ah, but there was a bright side. With the aid of scouts Earl Ingarfield, Harry Saraceno and Ed Chadwick, Torrey unearthed a core of quality players.

The headliner was right wing Billy Harris, Bill's first pick in the draft, who signed a $100,000 contract, highest for an NHL freshman at that time.

Other draftees included Ed Westfall, fresh from helping the Boston Bruins win a 1972 Stanley Cup. Plus, rugged defenseman Gerry Hart, who learned his hockey in distant Flin Flon, Manitoba where it was so cold the sewers had to be built above ground.

During a retrospective interview with Sport's Illustrated's E.M. Swift in 1982, Torrey remembered another training camp fiasco. This one involved veteran defenseman Arnie Brown obtained from Detroit.

Previously Brown had been a mainstay for several years with the Rangers. This inspired the fervent hope that Brown would bring experience, inspiration and leadership to the team. Alas, on the day Brown showed up, he asked to be traded.

Nonplussed, the humorous Torrey adopted a "grin-and-bear-it" philosophy. Shaking the blues away during a walk with New York Times reporter Gerry Eskenazi Torrey quipped, "My secret with this team is to get rid of everyone as fast as I can."

A while later, Bowtie Bill was told that when his players exercised at a nearby Peterborough harness racing track, a horse trainer complained that the Isles were scaring his nags.

"That's possible," the GM deadpanned. "Dogs sometimes spook horses."

Some journalists covering the camp complained that since players didn't have their names sewn on their jerseys, the scribes couldn't identify the newcomers. 

To that, the new boss explained that names would be needless because he was shuffling players around so often. Were the uniforms personalized, Bill reasoned, he'd need to hire a full-time seamstress just to keep up.

Budding stars among the auditioning youth included Bob Nystrom, Garry Howatt and Lorne Henning -- all Torrey draftees -- all total unknowns.

Then there was obstreperous goalie Bill Smith, a Los Angeles Kings cast-off who seemed more interested in body-checking than stopping pucks. Among other things Smith also proved to be the camp's king of candor. 

Questioned about possible "pressure" his new team might face going up against loaded teams like the New York Rangers or Stanley Cup champion Bruins, Smitty shot back, "How can you put pressure on a team that's completely awful?"

(As it happened, Smith was partly responsible for the club's most stunning victory that maiden season -- a 9-7 win over the defending champions; and in Beantown, no less.)

Meanwhile, Bill's running gag began at camp and lasted all season. It about the GM believing that "The middle name of our team is Hapless."

Torrey: "I had heard 'Hapless Islanders' mentioned so often I thought they were talking about some town on Long Island I hadn't heard about."

On a more serious note, Torrey closed training camp with sage advice for his boss.

"I told Roy to be patient," Bowtie Bill concluded. "I knew that the next few drafts would be loaded and that eventually we would be all right."

And so they were. The likes of Denis Potvin, Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy were drafted and became champions, Only eight years after the original training camp Bill's Islanders had won their first of four straight Cups.

As for Peterborough, 1972, that inglorious autumn left original captain Eddie Westfall with an indelible memory;

"I'd never seen such an inept bunch in my life!"

Personally, I liked E. M Swift's line: "From Chumps to Champs!".

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