Maven's Memories: The Unheralded Heroes Around Potvin
Stan Fischler highlights five Isles defensemen who helped win the first Cupby Stan Fischler StanFischler / NewYorkIslanders.com
"I really like the short off-season. And I'd like even more of them" --
Islanders boss Bill Torrey after his first Cup win in 1980
Bowtie Bill would enjoy a few more compact summers as his dynasty extended through four Stanley Cup champion seasons and a never-to-be-broken nineteen straight playoff series wins.
During those years at Fort Neverlose, Hall of Famers such as Bill Smith, Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier and Clark Gillies captured most of the media attention.
But Torrey knew that there were men behind his headliners who were vital to the Isles success; especially five defensemen he painstakingly acquired from 1977 through 1980.
Stefan Persson, Dave Langevin, Ken Morrow, Bob Lorimer and Gord Lane comprised a quintet that hockey historians have labelled among the most versatile defensemen in NHL annals.
"Without their combined efforts there's no way we would have won all those Cups," said Detroit Red Wings Executive Vice President Jim Devellano, Torrey's aide when those D-men were plucked. "Each had a specific asset, yet they shared a common trait; they knew how to play defense."
The following is my appraisal of each:
DAVE (BAMMER) LANGEVIN: Isles birddogs focused on "Bammer" dating back to Dave's high school days in St. Paul and later the University of Minnesota-Duluth. While at college, Langevin patrolled the blue line efficiently enough to be drafted by Bill 112th overall in 1974.
Bammer's superior work on the Bulldog's blue line was confirmed when he was named a Second Team All-American after his senior year. Langevin then benefited from the NHL-WHA war by signing on with the WHA's Edmonton Oilers.
In 1979 four WHA teams -- including Edmonton -- joined the NHL and on June 7, 1979, Dave was re-claimed by Torrey in a merger-expansion draft. The Oilers could protect only two players -- Wayne Gretzky and a second, either Langevin or Bengt Gustafson. Lucky Bill, Edmonton took Gustafson.
"We got a guy who hit to hurt," said Devellano. "We were fortunate to get someone of his experience -- still young -- who knew what defense was all about."
According to historian Andrew Podnieks, Langevin "played on one knee much of his career. He kept playing hard and was key to the Isles four Stanley Cups."
After being inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 1993, Dave was asked what it was like to play on the four-Cup Islanders.
"It was hard for me to say how great our team was while I was part of it," he concluded. "All I remember is that our practices were a lot harder than a lot of our games!"
KEN (WOLFMAN) MORROW: At first glance, Wolfman did not appear particularly threatening. The 6-4, 205-pounder often looked like a beanstalk on skates; rather than the U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer (1995) he turned out to be.
But that was all part of Ken's deception. He didn't look like a scorer but -- with the exception of Hall of Famer Denis Potvin -- no Islanders defenseman tallied more big goals than this native of Flint, Michigan.
Ironically, hardly anyone paid much attention to Morrow at Bowling Green University in Ohio during the mid-1970s; except Bowtie Bill who drafted him 68th in 1976, Eventually, Morrow was named CCHA First Team All-Star in 1976, '78 and '79 as well as CCHA Player of the Year in 1979; and an All-American.
Herb Brooks, Uncle Sam's 1980 Olympic coach, welcomed Morrow to his roster and Ken returned the favor as an integral part of the famed Miracle On Ice sextet.
Immediately after winning Gold at Lake Placid, Morrow made his Islanders debut and was impressive for his savvy and aplomb. "Wolfman was the textbook defenseman," said Mike Bossy, "plus he had an uncanny knack for scoring huge playoff goals."
The first -- and one of the biggest -- was delivered in Game Three of the first 1980 playoff round against Los Angeles. With the best-of-five series tied at one apiece and Game Three knotted 3-3, Ken scored the sudden-death winner to get his club on track for their first Cup run.
"My personal favorite was the playoff OT-winner I got against the Rangers," Ken smiled.
It happened at Nassau Coliseum, April 10, 1984. With the score tied 2-2, and almost nine minutes gone in the first sudden-death period, Arbour sent Ken over the boards as play moved into the enemy zone.
Morrow: "The Rangers tried to clear the puck along the boards on my right side. I got the puck and saw an opening. I didn't hesitate; I put the shot through traffic, right on goal. (Right wing) Patrick Flatley was screening (goalie) Glen Hanlon as it went in although I didn't see that.
"Later I was told it went between Hanlon's legs," Morrow added. "I didn't know the puck had gone in until I heard it clang off the bottom of the back of the net. That win gave us our 17th straight playoff series victory, and we went on to win an un-real 19th in a row. I'm proud that my goal kept us alive!"
STEFAN PERSSON: Normally a player who had the distinction of being the first Scandinavian to star for the Islanders would command a ton of media attention but that was not to be when the Pride of Pitea, Sweden joined the club in 1977.
Fellow Swede Borje Salming already was starring on the Toronto Maple Leafs blue line while Swedish forwards Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson were tearing up the World Hockey Association's Winnipeg Jets on a line with Bobby Hull.
The cool-as-a-cucumber Persson couldn't have cared less. Drafted 214th overall by Torrey in 1974, Stefan didn't even mind when some press box wag nicknamed him, "The Poor Man's Borje Salming." What mattered was that coach Al Arbour gushed with appreciation over his rookie.
"Stefan was the missing link for our power play," Radar enthused. "He was the good puck handler to work the point with Potvin. Opponents were keying on Denis because we didn't have the second good point man. The big surprise was how easily Stef fit into our lineup."
Persson was a natural on offense while doing due diligence in his own zone. Stefan finished his freshman year (1977-78) with 50 assists, an NHL record for rookie blue-liners.
That year Mike Bossy would win the 1978 Calder (Rookie) Trophy but many critics believed that Persson, not Colorado's hulking Barry Beck, would be runner-up. However, Stefan was not surprised that he was overlooked.
"Many times reporters would come into our dressing room and look at me," Persson remembered. "I could tell that they were mumbling 'I don't think he speaks English too well. I'm not going to take a chance.' So, they'd walk away and nobody wound up talking to me."
Rock-steady, Stefan improved along with the Islanders ascent. He excelled on all four Cup-winners, playing his entire career on the Island. During the first championship run he played in 21 games totaling five goals and ten assists for fifteen points.
He had another 15-point Cup season in 1982 when he played 13 games in which he tallied a goal and 14 assists. Playing for no other big-league team but the Islanders, Stefan retired after the 1985-86 campaign and returned to his native Sweden.
P.S. The so-called "Poor Man's Borje Salming" skated for four Cup-winners. Salming never played on a Cup-winner!
BOB LORIMER-GORD LANE: Some players just do their jobs and do them well with no recognition; except from teammates and their bosses. Such was the case with Lorimer and Lane.
A solid backliner for four years at Michigan Tech, Lorimer became a full-time Islander in 1978 and did enough of the right things to skate on two of the first four Cup-winning teams.
"Bob's steady play in his end contributed in its own way while Denis Potvin led the offense from the blue line," wrote Andrew Podnieks in his Who's Who of Hockey, "Players."
Lane became an Islander midway through the 1979-80 season via a trade with Washington. Torrey unloaded forward Mike Kaszycki for Lane, a belligerent native of Brandon, Manitoba.
"Gord gave us a tougher edge behind the blue line." Arbour enthused.
Lane became the most intimidating defenseman on the team. His menacing, swashbuckling style never quite put him over the edge but Gord got close enough to the line for him to put fear in the hearts of foes.
It also put the Isles on the Cup-winning handshake line four times!