"The Bruins were happy if you just showed up for practice," says Westfall. "But when you're going well, you get those fringe benefits. The Islanders had us skate an hour and a half twice a day, and they still expected us to walk to and from practice. That almost pushed some of the players over the edge—like Craig Cameron. He always showed up at camp about 25 pounds overweight, but the team officials never knew it because he'd hang his big toes over the edge of the scale at the weigh-in and push down on the floor to support some of his weight. He had it perfected. That's very hard to do."
Off the ice, Garen had the Islanders do strength and flexibility exercises on the infield of a nearby harness track. One driver complained that the players were scaring the horses. "It's possible," says Torrey. "Dogs do spook horses sometimes." When camp broke and the team headed back to Long Island to start the season, Torrey decided against having names sewn on the backs of the jerseys. Needless expense. He knew there would be so much shuffling of players that season that if the jerseys were personalized, the Islanders would need a full-time seamstress just to keep up.
On Oct. 7, 1972 at the Nassau Coliseum, the Islanders lost their first game by a score of 3-2 to their expansion siblings, the Atlanta Flames, ISLANDERS BOW; ARTISTIC IT ISN'T ran the headline in Long Island's Newsday, which went on to report that "the game was much less exciting than the score indicates." The first cheer of the evening was for Flames Coach Boom Boom Geoffrion, a former Ranger. The first cheer for the Islanders didn't come until the 11-minute mark, when an Atlanta player took a run at Dave Hudson and missed.
Surprisingly, in their next game, also at home, the Islanders beat Los Angeles 3-2 on a last-minute goal by Germain Gagnon. The fans, deliriously happy over the .500 record, began chanting, "Bring on the Bruins!" The euphoria was only slightly dampened by the fact that Harris had muffed the Islanders' first penalty shot. He skated in alone, unhurried, only to have the puck hit a bad spot in the ice and jump over his stick. "I was a little teed off but I wasn't really embarrassed," said Harris afterward. The season was young. There would be plenty of time for embarrassment.
Strange things began to happen. Before the sixth game of the year, against powerful Montreal, the Islanders' Zamboni refused to start, as if it were saying, "I'm not going out there." The ice was resurfaced by two men pushing hand scrapers and a third pulling a 50-gallon water drum on wheels. Colorful, nostalgic stuff—except that when Canadien Coach Scotty Bowman inspected the ice, he refused to let his team play on it. The referee agreed with Bowman, and the game was delayed half an hour while a Zamboni was trucked over from another arena. Undefeated Montreal needed three third-period goals to win 4-3. Afterward, an enthusiastic Torrey said, "People keep saying that we're a bunch of humpties, but our guys refuse to believe it."
Before a game against the Flyers in the Coliseum, the Islanders skated onto the ice to find that the goals were missing. Earlier in the day, maintenance workers had taken the goals out back of the arena to repaint and restring them, and there they sat—red and shiny and wet, without a stitch of netting. "Someone came into my office about 10 minutes before the game and said, 'We've got a little problem with the nets,' " says Torrey. "I thought they were talking about the basketball team, the Nets. We finally had to send for some nets from a rink on the South Shore." Again, the game was delayed, but this time the Islanders tried to save face. "We faked it," says Hawley Chester, the team's first public relations director. "We told everyone that we were pushing the start of the game back 20 minutes because of a traffic jam outside."
If the 1972-73 Islanders needed any further convincing that they were, in fact, a bunch of humpties, the treatment they received when they traveled provided it. The fiascoes began with their first road trip, when they missed their flight to Boston. "We were giving the players vitamin shots, as I recall," says Islander Trainer Jim Pickard, who was Garen's assistant then. "We lost track of time and missed the plane. It was the last flight out, so we spent half the night looking for hotel rooms near La Guardia Airport."
The Islanders flew to Boston in the morning, but they might just as well have stayed home. The Bruins thrashed them that night 7-4. One of the Islander forwards, Tom Miller, ruptured his spleen when he was speared by Phil Esposito. "I remember going into the dressing room before the next game," says Pickard, "and some of the guys had taped garbage-can lids to their sides. 'What the heck is this?' I asked. 'Spleen protectors,' they told me."
The first time the Islanders flew out of Kennedy Airport, the bus driver got lost. Chester had to flag down a policeman to ask directions, and the cop, realizing that the team otherwise would miss its flight, escorted the Islanders to JFK by a back way. "We were either at the airport three hours ahead of time, or we were lost," says Henning, now an Islander assistant coach. "We never once had a bus meet us on time that season." Adds Smith, "It gave you an idea that things weren't going too well when our bus driver tried to find the 59th Street bridge and came to a dead end."
Smith earned his nickname, Battlin' Billy, that year by having more success fighting opposing forwards than he had stopping their shots. He shared the goaltending with veteran Gerry Desjardins, who complained later in the season of losing sleep because he dreamed about pucks every night. Says Smith, who that year broke the NHL record for penalty minutes for a goalie, with 42, "We used to face 50, 60 shots some games, but I had no complaints. I was fighting and enjoying it. The fans liked it; they knew they were getting their money's worth. There was no pressure. How can you put pressure on a team that's completely awful? That's one problem with playing on a winner—you can't go out and just hammer somebody because it might cost you the game. I used to have goals scored on me while I was looking the other way, trying to hit someone with my stick. So what? We were the biggest joke going, and even the players knew it. You'd go into a game knowing it was going to be a bombing. The idea was lose, but lose honorably."