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Maven's Memories: The Sensational 1977-78 Season

The Islanders soared to a first-place finish in the Patrick Division in 1977-78

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / NewYorkIslanders.com

The 1977-78 regular season for the Islanders could be described as a re-defining of the term fabulous.

Never before in team history had a campaign progressed so admirably, so creatively, so artistically and, really, so exquisitely on as the regular 1977-78 schedule.

"All the pieces seemed to fall into place," said Glenn (Chico) Resch, who was approaching his goaltending prime. "The younger guys in particular -- like Bobby Nystrom -- kept improving their games."  

Once the October calendar of games unfolded, it became apparent that the Islanders had become the one elite team capable of deposing the two-time (1975-76, 1976-77) Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens. 

Coach Al Arbour's cornucopia of assets made rival mentors admire with envy. 

1. Trio Grande -- comprised of Bryan Trottier-Clark (Jethro) Gillies-Mike Bossy -- would become one of the National Hockey League's most daunting attack units.

2. Denis Potvin had ripened into the NHL's premier defensemen; as capable on attack as he was on the blue line.

3. Billy Harris had ascended into the realm of top NHL right wing sharpshooters. 

4. Young checking forwards such as Bob Bourne and Garry Howatt provided grit with goals.

5. Strength through center was fortified even more with the acquisition of big Wayne Merrick in exchange for defenseman Jean Potvin; although Johnny later would return to the Isles' fold.

6. Despite Potvin's exit, the Islanders defense was never more well-rounded as Stefan Persson began looking like a Swedish edition of All-Star Denis Potvin.

7. The Glenn Resch-Bill Smith goaltending tandem worked like perfectly-meshed gears.

Armed with so impressive an arsenal, Admiral Arbour had little trouble steering The Good Ship Islander into winning waters.   

One success barometer was an early season seven-game unbeaten streak. 

A highlight of the surge was a four-goal (hat trick-plus-one) Bryan Trottier splurge against Atlanta. Trots became the first member of the franchise to produce a quartet of red lights in one game. The final score was 9-0 for the Nassaumen.

On one goal, Trottier straight-armed Flames big defenseman Richard Mulhern with one arm while -- in the same motion -- reaching back for the puck and backhanding it past goalie Phil Myre with the other arm. "Watching Trots," said Bourne, "he's the MVP in this league."

Others would argue that the fast-flying Bossy was a Hart Trophy candidate and, deservedly so, there was a pro-Denis Potvin bloc as well.

Denis wasn't happy when older brother, Jean, was traded to Cleveland for Wayne Merrick but both Potvins understood that such deals are part of the game and part of a player's pro life.

Denis: "Sure, Jean's leaving hurt. But I had developed on my own enough that I could accept what happened. It had been a great feeling playing alongside Jean and succeeding. But we also knew that it couldn't last forever. We had to take the trade like men."

What mattered was the bottom line and it showed that the islanders were on top. If there were flaws, none were apparent -- at least not during the regular season. 

A case in point was the ascent of Nystrom from a snowshoeing grunt to a speedy scorer. Ny had worked with power skating specialists Laura Stamm and Barbara Williams to upgrade his game. He would conclude his season as a 30-goal man.

But there were storm clouds on the horizon. Owner Roy Boe was assailed with fiscal problems, leaving Bill Torrey in a series of embarrassing situations when bills had to be paid.

"There were times when I had to rush into a hotel before the players," Bow Tie Bill remembered, "and pay cash for the rooms. We had absolutely no credit. But it was essential that the players never found out about it."

Although the franchise's debt would rise to $20 million, Torrey would see to it that players never missed a paycheck. He ensured that their focus was on the games, not the banks.

It worked. During one 19-game run, the Isles lost only two games. Meanwhile, the NHL -- apprised of the club's monetary blues -- sought a solution. And moving the sizzling hot franchise out of Nassau was out of the question.

In the end, the franchise-savior was Long Island entrepreneur John Pickett who eventually took control of the team. (I'll have a lot more good things to say about John in future chapters.)

Unlike previous campaigns, when the club surprised foes by gaining playoff berths, the 1977-78 results had critics finally calling Al Arbour's skaters Cup-worthy contenders ready to challenge the regal Canadiens.

This positive line of thinking was due to the winning blend that included Mike Bossy's record-breaking rookie scoring year along with exquisite balance up and down the line. What's more, the early season surge had now turned into an even more impressive homestretch burst. 

But in the midst of the euphoria, Gillies reflected on the club's success and touched on an issue which later would have a profound effect on the team.

"Now that we have the reputation of being a high-scoring line," Jethro explained, "we'll have to learn to handle the rough stuff. Trots and I have had a good taste of that in the last couple of years. Now Bossy is going to have to learn to handle it and keep going too."

Mike was nobody's fool but he vowed that he never would change his non-belligerent behavior and this would eventually become an issue for Boss as an individual and the team as a whole.

Bossy: "I expected tough tactics against me and against our line. I had four years of it in Junior hockey but I adjusted to it and continued playing the same way. But I also knew that the NHL was not the same as Juniors."

One concern centered around the departure of Jean Potvin to Cleveland. Before the deal, Jean and Denis Potvin united to provide Arbour with one of the NHL's most potent power plays. 

As it happened, Jean's replacement, Stefan Persson, amassed 50 assists and proved as good -- or even better -- than Jean when the Isles had the man advantage.

The addition of Merrick and Persson's superior rookie season once again turned the spotlight back to Torrey who continued building a Cup contender. 

"I haven't had a vacation in six years," growled Bow Tie Bill, "but there's no other way to do it. If I didn't somebody else would -- and beat me to the one player who might make a difference."

(Just by chance, I happened to witness Torrey -- with his sidekick, Jim Devellano -- at work. I was dining at the Royal York Hotel (Toronto) restaurant one afternoon, sitting alone with a friend. 

(Suddenly, four tables away, I noticed Torrey and Devellano having a high-level conference with an agent and his player. Bill noticed me and put his finger to his lips; indicating that his meeting was off the record. I later learned that I was witnessing the moment when Bill signed John Tonelli to an Isles contract.)

Virtually every Torrey draft pick finished the 1977-78 campaign as a high-flyer.. Bossy, who would win the Calder Trophy, led the NHL with 25 power-play goals and made the NHL's Second All-Star Team.

Trottier was runner-up for the Hart Trophy and finished second behind Guy Lafleur with 123 points, a club record at the time. Denis Potvin won the Norris Trophy again and was fifth in scoring.

Winning the Patrick Division, the Nassaumen finished third overall behind the Canadiens and Bruins. It was a time for Bow Tie Bill to bust his vest with pride. And nobody could blame Torrey's original first pick, Billy Harris, for doing a joyous handstand.

"Winning the Patrick Division was something we'd aimed for since 1975 when we went all the way to the third round," said Harris. "We were tickled to see that first flag hoisted to the Coliseum's ceiling."

For Arbour the jubilation was well deserved but, on the other hand, he never forgot the skeptics' barbs when he took over the helm in 1973. 

"Back in those bad, old days," Radar concluded, "people said we'd be in last place for 10 years."

Then, a pause, and a telltale grin, "And there were times when I believed them!"

LISTS: THE SEVEN BEST QUOTES FROM THE REGULAR (77-78) SEASON:

1. MIKE BOSSY ON THE BEGINNING OF A LIFELONG FRIENDSHIP: "Bryan Trottier was the first one to talk to me. After that, we never stopped being friends."

2. BOB BOURNE ON A BOSSY GOAL: "When Mike scores, the guys on the bench just look at each other in wonder."

3. ARBOUR ON THE VALUE OF VET DEFENSEMAN BERT MARSHALL: "Having Bert out there is like having another coach on the ice."

4. DEFENSEMAN DAVE LEWIS ON HIS STYLE CHANGE: "I started out as a rushing defenseman when I was a teenager but by the time I got to the Islanders I knew that I had to forget about rushing the puck. Trouble is, the media didn't recognize guys who didn't score."

5. BOB NYSTROM ON BILL SMITH AFTER BATTLIN' BILLY FOUGHT TWO DIFFERENT TORONTO PLAYERS WITHIN 38 SECONDS: "It's nice to know the Smitty still is a little crazy" 

6. BOURNE ON BRYAN TROTTIER'S VERSATILE ARSENAL: "Trots shoots better with one hand than most guys do with two."

7. CLARK GILLIES AFTER BILL SMITH WON A NEW CAR FOR BEING MVP IN THE ALL- STAR GAME: "Billy is going to sell it and the five of us [Smith, Bossy, Gillies, Trottier, and Potvin] are going to split the money." 

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