As NHL fans witnessed at this week’s trade deadline, teams can be built and rebuilt in the time it takes to change a locker nameplate.
This weekend on Long Island, though, there will be a celebration of a different time, when organizations could seed a team with young players and watch it grow together over time, and eventually blossom into champions.
For the New York Islanders from 1980-83, their four straight Stanley Cup championships featured 17 players that had their name engraved on hockey’s Holy Grail all four times.
The franchise will celebrate the “Core of the Four” all weekend, honoring those 17 players, as well as coach Al Arbour, general manager Bill Torrey and other members of those four teams.
“I think what stands out is what an incredible bunch of guys we had on the team, what an incredible feat we were able to accomplish,” said Hall of Fame forward Mike Bossy as he, Bryan Trottier, Bobby Nystrom and Ken Morrow visited The NHL Powered by Reebok store in New York City. “Having 17 guys be able to play with each other and be able to stand each other for four years without getting the bickering and the egos and everything involved is quite a feat. Back then we didn’t have the kind of team that was hanging around each other 24 hours a day, but when we got into the dressing room, we certainly realized we had a mission, we had a goal, and that’s what we were determined to go out there and do.”
With the passage of time, their accomplishments seem that much more impressive.
“Winning the four Cups, and when I sit back and think back to those days right now, you get a better understanding of just how important every member of the team is,” said Bossy. “The performers have to perform, the Bossys, (Bryan) Trottiers, (Denis) Potvins, (Bill) Smiths, (Clark) Gillies, they have to perform for any team to be successful. But to win Stanley Cups, you need more than just those guys. You need the guys who kill penalties, you need the guys who take faceoffs, you need the defensive defensemen. It’s a complete team effort. And that’s what we had back then.”
And that’s the group that will be honored this weekend at Nassau Coliseum. There are the stars, like Bossy, Trottier, Smith, Gillies, Butch Goring, John Tonelli and Bob Nystrom. And then there were the next group of players that were just as important as superstars. Players like Lorne Henning, who assisted on Nystrom’s Cup-clinching goal in 1980. Like Bob Bourne, who was a dressing room leader. Like Anders Kallur, a two-time 20-goal scorer who excelled on the power play. Like Stefan Persson, an offensive-minded defenseman, and like Dave Langevin, who provided size on the back line.
“Everybody felt appreciated,” Trottier said. “The roles were there for everybody. I think everybody made everybody recognize there were roles. Everybody wanted to be part of it. … From that standpoint, it was a pretty special group, because the chemistry was that important, knowing how to get along, knowing how to recognize when to push somebody’s buttons, when to leave them alone, when to let them work it out themselves.”
The glory came after a tough growing period. The Islanders made it to the conference semifinals four times in five seasons between 1974 and 1979, but in 1980 came the breakthrough.
Goring came aboard at the trade deadline from the Los Angeles Kings, giving the Isles the second-line center they lacked, and Ken Morrow came off the high of winning the gold medal with the 1980 U.S. Olympic team to steady the defense.
The Isles faced the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1980 Stanley Cup Final, and in Game 6 came the magical moment. In overtime, Henning fed a pass to Tonelli at the red line. Tonelli carried the puck into the Flyers’ zone and slid a pass across to a cutting Nystrom, who tipped it past Flyers goalie Pete Peeters for the Cup-clinching score. Pandemonium erupted, the Cup was brought onto the Nassau Coliseum ice, and really never left for nearly half a decade.
Rather than rest on their laurels, the Islanders kept the pedal to the floor. They won a League-record 19 consecutive playoff series, including Cup Final victories over the Minnesota North Stars in 1981, the Vancouver Canucks in 1982 and the Edmonton Oilers in 1983.
They made it back to the 1984 Final, but the streak ended at the hands of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and an Oilers squad that had grown in a similar fashion as the Islanders.
“After we got the fourth one, we went for five with a real fever,” said Trottier, who centered the top line with Bossy and Gillies. “We were on a mission for five. We were all getting a little older, guys were wearing knee braces and shoulder harnesses and elbow braces. We weren’t as healthy as we were in the first four. We knew this was going to come to an end one of these days and we wanted to try to ride this thing as long as we can. We didn’t feel like a dynasty after four; we wanted that fifth one so bad.”
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That they didn’t get it in no way takes away from their remarkable accomplishments.
“We have a record of 19 straight playoff series wins, and I think that’s a record that will last forever, because you’re not going to be able to keep teams together that long,” said Morrow.
In the era of salary caps and free agency, keeping a strong core group together for more than three or four seasons is extremely difficult. And with winning comes pay raises, and hard decisions.
“When you look at everything that’s going on in the League today, with the salary cap, it’s literally impossible to hang onto guys,” said Nystrom. “You constantly have to move top-end guys and bring in bottom-end guys. To win once, yeah; win twice, OK; but to win three or four times (in a row)? I don’t think it’s possible.”
“I don’t think it’ll ever happen again,” added Islanders General Manager Garth Snow. “In this new system, it’s tough to hold onto that many players. Especially when a team wins a Stanley Cup in a salary-cap system, it’s really hard to hold a team together.”
Which makes celebrations for a group like the ones on hand for all four Cups that much more fun.
“Every time I see the reaction of people, I’m always astounded and I’m always thankful that people still remember and still want to come out and see us,” said Morrow.
It’s not just the fans that are getting something out of having those great players around.
“Any time you have the history of an organization like we have, it’s nothing but positive to have the players, the Bobby Nystroms, the Bryan Trottiers, the Kenny Morrows, the Clarke Gillies, right on down the line,” said Snow. “Having them in our locker room and the players look around and see the team pictures of those Stanley Cups sitting right in front of the front row of players, the pictures we have around the locker room, and then they actually see these champions coming in the locker room, to share stories, tricks of the trade.
“Perfect example is after practice (Wednesday), Kenny Morrow is talking to Bruno Gervais and Radek Martinek about little plays in the defensive zone. It’s nothing but a positive thing for our organization. To me, you have to remember where you were in the past to take correct steps in the future.
“They’re winners. They’re high-character people. You don’t win four Stanley Cups in a row without having a high-character core of players. It’s going to be a great celebration of a great dynasty, especially for our players, our organization, and most importantly, our fans.”
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org.