Thursday, May 3, 2018

Bill Torrey, 1934-2018

The greatest figure in the history of a major league sports franchise is the executive who built their 1st World Championship team. This is not logically deniable.

For the 9 teams in the "big four" sports in the New York Tri-State Area, 7 of them were dead before this month: Jacob Ruppert of the Yankees, Johnny Murphy of the Mets, Tim Mara of the Giants, Sonny Werblin of the Jets, Eddie Donovan of the Knicks, Arthur J. Brown of the Nets, and Lester Patrick of the Rangers.

Now, only 1 is still alive: Lou Lamoriello of the Devils. We just lost the other: Bill Torrey of the New York Islanders.

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William Arthur Torrey was born on June 23, 1934, in Montreal, and grew up near the Forum, the home of the Montreal Canadiens. He played hockey at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, up by the U.S.-Canadian border, but was hit in the left eye by a stick during a game, costing him his depth perception.

Unable to see well enough to lay anymore, he earned a degree in psychology, while also taking business courses. He worked at a radio station in Barrie, Ontario, and then was hired by NBC -- not as an on-air personality, for either radio or TV, but as a tour guide at Rockefeller Center.

He got back into hockey, as the promotional director for the Pittsburgh Hornets of the American Hockey League. When the 1967 NHL expansion put the Penguins in Pittsburgh, the Hornets were folded. He became the general manager of one of the other expansion teams, the Oakland Seals, and got them into the Playoffs in 1969. But he clashed with the owner -- not surprising, since the owner was also the owner of the Oakland Athletics, the tyrannical and cheap (when he wasn't being a mad genius) Charles O. Finley. In 1971, Torrey had enough of Charlie O., and quit.

That gave one of the 1972 expansion teams, the New York Islanders, a chance, and they hired Torrey as their 1st employee. He did not make the mistake that the Mets made 10 years earlier (and the Devils would make 10 years after that), signing players who were familiar to local fans and would provide veteran leadership. He decided to build carefully, with young players.

At first, it didn't work. The Isles had the worst record in the NHL in their 1st 2 seasons, 1972-73 and 1973-74. But this got him high draft picks, and he traded for others. In the meantime, he hired Al Arbour, once a fine defenseman, as head coach. These 2 men would build one of the greatest teams in the history of hockey.

In 1975, their 3rd season, the Isles made the Playoffs, and shocked first the local rival New York Rangers, and then the Pittsburgh Penguins, before falling to the defending Stanley Cup Champions, the Philadelphia Flyers, in the NHL Semifinals.

Torrey continued to build his team. He had taken goaltender Billy Smith in the original 1972 expansion draft, and drafted defenseman Denis Potvin, center Bryan Trottier, right wing Mike Bossy and left wing Clark Gillies. All would end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame, as would Torrey himself and Arbour.

The Isles again reached the Stanley Cup Semifinals in 1976 and 1977, but smacked into the Montreal Canadiens' dynasty each time. In 1978, they were themselves shocked in the 1st Round, by the Toronto Maple Leafs. In 1979, despite having the best overall record in the NHL, they lost an epic Semifinal to the Rangers.

As the 1979-80 season got underway, the Flyers ran away with the Patrick Division, and it began to look like the Islanders had missed their chance at glory. But, unlike Brian Cashman these days, Bill Torrey knew that, if you give up enough chances to win a World Championship, sooner or later, you will miss your chance at glory.

"Bowtie Bill" made a tough decision, trading a pair of popular players, Billy Harris and Dave Lewis, to the Los Angeles Kings for center Robert Thomas "Butch" Goring. He also brought in Swedish players Anders Kallur and Stefan Persson, who became the 1st 2 European-trained players to win the Stanley Cup.

The Goring trade made the difference -- possibly the difference between the Islanders becoming an iconic NHL franchise and the Islanders ceasing to exist, at least as a New York Tri-State Area team. Oddly, it was the Kings that the Isles beat in the 1st Round of the Playoffs. (It wasn't until 1981 that the Playoffs began to be by geography again.) Then they beat the aging Boston Bruins, and got finally got into their 1st Stanley Cup Finals by beating the Buffalo Sabres.

As good as the Islanders were, they were underdogs against the Flyers, who had home-ice advantage. The Isles took a 3-2 lead, and Game 6 is remembered for some controversial calls. To this day, you do not mention the name of Leon Stickle, this game's referee, to a Philadelphia fan. They still think Stickle stole the Cup from them.

But the Islanders knew they had to win on the night of May 24, 1980, at the Nassau Coliseum, because they did not want to have to win a Game 7 at The Spectrum. It went to overtime, and 7 minutes and 11 seconds in, right wing Bobby Nystrom scored, and the Islanders were World Champions.

It was the 1st World Championship for  Long Island team. The New York Nets had won 2 ABA Championships playing at the Nassau Coliseum, in 1974 and 1976, but those weren't World Championships.

The Jets and then the Mets both won World Championships in 1969, but while the Jets' offices and practice facility were in Hempstead, across the street from the Nassau Coliseum, both teams dominated their respective sports' fan holds on Long Island, and both then played home games in Queens, which is on the physical, if not on the political and cultural, "Long Island," that's not the same thing, either.

It was also worth nothing that the Rangers had now not won the Stanley Cup in 40 years. Contrast that with the league title droughts of the other teams: Yankees 2 years, Nets 4, Knicks 7, Mets and Jets 11 each, and Giants 22. (The Devils did not exist until the 1982-83 season.)

Led by Torrey's moves and Arbour's coaching, the Islanders built a dynasty. In 1981, they again beat the Rangers, in the Semifinal, before beating the Minnesota North Stars in a 5-game Finals. In 1982, they survived a tough Patrick Division Semifinal with the Penguins before beating the Rangers in the Division Final, and then swept the Quebec Nordiques and the Vancouver Canucks to make it 3 straight Cups. In 1983, they beat the Washington Capitals, the Rangers again, and the Bruins again, before facing the next great team, the Edmonton Oilers. It was not yet to be for Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, and the rest, as the Isles beat them in 4 straight.

Four straight Stanley Cups. Every time I went to see the Devils play at the Nassau Coliseum, I saw a car with a New York license plate reading "4 STAN."

Finally, in 1984, following another nailbiter of a series against the Rangers, the Islanders were dethroned by the Oilers in the Finals, ending "The Drive for Five." They had won 19 consecutive postseason series. No other team in the history of North American sports has done that. Even when the Boston Celtics won 8 straight NBA titles, they won 18 straight series from 1959 to 1967. The Los Angeles Lakers of the early 2000s? 13 straight. The Lakers of the late 1980s? 11 straight. The Canadiens team that won 5 straight Stanley Cups from 1956 to 1960? 10 straight. The Yankee Dynasty of the Joe Torre years? 10 straight.

The Islander dynasty got old, and Torrey was forced out after missing the Playoffs in 1992. Still, the moves he made were a big reason why they got into the NHL Prince of Wales Conference Finals in 1993 -- still the last time they've been 1 of the last 4 teams standing.

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Like a lot of aging New Yorkers, Torrey moved to Florida, settling in West Palm Beach, having married and raised 4 sons, who gave him 10 grandchildren. At the age of 59, he could have been excused for leaving hockey for good.

But "The Architect" was not done. He didn't move to South Florida to retire. He moved there because he was named the president of a new expansion team, the Florida Panthers. He built them the same way he built the Islanders, with the exception of getting Ranger goalie John Vanbiesbrouck and 1986 Montreal Stanley Cup star Brian Skrudland as the team's 1st Captain. But with young players like Rob Niedermayer, Ed Jovanovski and Scott Mellanby, he got them into the Stanley Cup Finals in just 3 years, in 1996. They were, however, swept by the Colorado Avalanche.

He retired from an active role after the 2001 season. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1995, and both the Islanders and the Panthers honored him. His banner at the Nassau Coliseum, since moved to the Barclays Center, is next to that of Arbour, with the Number 1,500 for the number of games he coached in the NHL. Torrey's shows his last name, an image of a bowtie, and the words "The Architect." The Panthers retired Number 93 for him, in honor of the team's opening season.
The Arbour and Torrey banners

Bill Torrey died on May 2, 2018, at the age of 83. He had built 2 of the NHL's 1st 24 teams, gotten both of them to the Stanley Cup Finals, and forged the greatest dynasty any American-based hockey team has ever had.

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