- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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Even that was difficult. One of the low points of the season came in late November, when the Buffalo Sabres, an expansion team itself two years earlier, routed the Islanders 9-2 in a game during which New York was outshot 50-16. After the eighth goal, Desjardins took the puck from the net and batted it into the stands in frustration. He was given a delay of game penalty, and the Sabres scored on the ensuing power play.
Despite the mounting losses, attendance at the Coliseum remained constant. "It was the same 11,000 fans every night," says Chester. "Everyone was practically on a first-name basis." The loudest cheers each night came when the public-address announcer said. "One minute to play in the period," and fans took campy pride in chanting, "We're number eight!" referring to the Islanders' standing in the eight-team East Division. For a long time the fans' favorite Islander was Brian (Spinner) Spencer, who had a bonus deal for "hits" on opposing players. Spencer cruised the ice looking for opponents to bounce off, but once he had a victim in his sight, he often missed the target and crashed into the boards. "I was the one counting the hits," says Chester, "and I used to give him credit for misses, too. That was all right with Torrey. At least everyone would wake up when Spence hit the boards." To show their approval of his efforts, fans hung a banner in the arena that said: SPENCE. But after the Islanders went 3-12-3 in their first 18 home games, another banner was hung beside that one. It had a huge fist with the thumb pointed down.
"The fans were very savvy," says Westfall, probably the most popular of the early Islanders. "All they asked was that you hustled. That's why they started to get on Brownie so badly."
Without question, Arnie Brown was the least popular player with the fans. He had played seven years with the Rangers and hated the New York area. All he wanted was out, and Brown made regular trips to Torrey's office to express his wish to be traded. Chester remembers once literally wrestling with Brown in the Islander offices to keep him from barging in on Torrey. "We used to have team meetings," says Henning, "and the players would, one at a time, say what they thought should be done to turn things around. When it got to Brownie, he'd say, 'I don't know about you guys, but I'm going to do everything I can to get out of New York.' And he was supposed to be one of the team leaders!"
"There were no real leaders on that team," says Smith, "so nobody really knew how to act. Most of us were just happy to be in the NHL. Then Arnie comes in the first day and says he doesn't want to be any part of it. That really blew some minds. One time he was skating behind my net with the puck, and he lost it. Brownie kept going, right around and off toward the bench. I thought he still had the puck so I followed him around, and one of the guys on the other team picked the puck up and tucked it in the other side of the goal. I looked like a complete fool. What did you expect the fans to do, cheer him?"
One group of fans identified itself on a banner as ARNIE'S DOGHOUSE, and when he fouled up, the group taunted him mercilessly. "He had rabbit ears and they knew it," says Henning. "Twice he literally started climbing the glass after our own fans. We had to pull him down." Eventually Brown got his wish: Torrey traded him to Atlanta.
The most dismal stretch of the season came between Nov. 22 and Jan. 16 when the Islanders went 1-24-3. Happy holidays. In the midst of that period, Goyette held one practice in which he skated the team an hour straight without pucks. "He had us skate 30 minutes in a circle one way, and then he turned us around and we went 30 minutes the other way," says Henning. "Then he said, 'That's what you have to do in a game, skate 60 minutes.' The funny thing was that I'd been out for a few weeks with mononucleosis, and Goyette came up to me afterward and said, 'You looked good in practice today, Lorne.' "
"The ice was atrocious before we started," says Westfall, "and we just went around and around, around and around. All you could do after a while was laugh about it. Phil's face was as red as the red line, and he just kept blowing the whistle harder and harder, and we kept laughing. Behind the net there were great ruts in the ice. Then we skated right through to the cement. I guess he reasoned there was no sense in practicing with pucks. All we'd be practicing was our mistakes."
Practices were pretty much a laughing matter all year long. The team would change into its equipment at the Coliseum and then travel by bus to one of the smaller, recreational rinks on Long Island, sometimes as much as an hour away. It was just like being back in high school. "One time we showed up at Skateland in New Hyde Park, and the Rangers were already there," says Harris, who now plays for Toronto. "So we just watched the Rangers practice until we could get on the ice."
The Islanders, criticized for not playing aggressively enough during games, sometimes showed their oats and frustrations on the practice rink. Some of the finest body checks thrown all year were by Smith, who would leave his goal and flatten a teammate out by the blue line if the fellow had shot high on him. Don Blackburn, who went on to coach the Hartford Whalers, remembers a vicious fight between Spencer and Bryan Lefley after one practice. "They had stayed out to shoot pucks against one of those wooden boards you hang up in front of an empty goal," says Blackburn. "Only this wasn't just a board; it was a wooden Team Canada goalie that Spencer had had made up. Had a little stick on it and everything. Anyway, Lefley broke Spencer's goalie, and Spencer really went after him. We had to go back out and break them apart."