Such heated moments, however, were rare. Indeed, today most of the original Islanders remember having a lot of laughs that first miserable season. "When you lose, lose, lose, you have to maintain a pretty good sense of humor to keep your sanity," says Blackburn, 'it wasn't like we were 12-60 because we had a bad year. We were so underskilled that we probably couldn't have played any better. In a season like that there could have been a lot of friction and turmoil, but management just rolled with the punches, didn't put any pressure on us, and that made it livable for the players. You have to give Torrey credit for that."
The high point of the year came when it was least expected. The Islanders had lost 12 games in a row when on the night of Jan. 18 they arrived at Boston Garden, home of Orr, Esposito and the rest of the Big Bad Bruins. Westfall, as always, received a warm standing ovation when he was introduced, and then the fans settled back for the slaughter. Final score: Islanders 9, Bruins 7. "Guys were looking at each other and laughing on the bench," says Henning. "No one could believe it, least of all the players. Boston changed goalies twice, which I'd never seen before. They took Eddie Johnston out, then they took his replacement out and put Johnston back in again."
The Islanders took a 5-0 lead in the first period and then held on for dear life. "I was more worried when we were up 5-0 than if we'd been behind 5-0," says Westfall. "I was shaking in my boots. You kept wondering when the other shoe was going to fall." The Bruins closed to 7-6 and 8-7. "I never saw so many goals scored from outside the blue line in my whole life," says Smith, who played goal the entire game for the Islanders. "Finally, when it was 8-7, Wayne Cashman took a shot from the blue line that hit me in the head. Harris picked the puck up and went down and scored, or we sure as hell would have blown it."
All around the league, TV and radio announcers working local games guffawed loudly over the misprint that had just come in off the wires: Islanders 9, Bruins 7. In the locker room, a buoyant Pickard began telling the Islanders about the time the California Seals had beaten the Bruins 2-0 and Seals owner Charlie Finley, who was at the game, came in and gave each player $400 to buy a new suit. "That was when Mr. Torrey came in and politely asked me to be quiet," says Pickard.
The Bruin victory may have been a high point, but it certainly wasn't a turning point. The Islanders quickly returned to their former ways, and 11 days after the Boston game Torrey fired Goyette. His record was 6-40-4. "I don't hold any grudges," says Goyette. "I had a taste of it. After that I said, thank you, goodby, arrivederci." Goyette, now a customs broker in Montreal, has not coached since.
"He wasn't enjoying the coaching," says Torrey. "It was affecting him mentally and physically, affecting his wife, so I just took him out of his misery." Goyette was referred to as a "silent sufferer," and his most irritating habit, as far as the players were concerned, was to explain loss after loss by saying, "I can't skate for them." In wishing luck to his successors, scouts Ingarfield and Aut Erickson, Goyette added, "They're going to need it." As the season sputtered toward its close, aspirations were adjusted downward. "Everybody used to get pretty excited when we lost by a goal," says Henning. "The owner would come in after a home loss that was close and would shake everybody's hand."
Not that Boe was on pins and needles every time the Islanders took the ice. "He didn't know any of our names," says Smith, "and God forbid if you weren't in front of the locker that had your name on it when he came in after a game. Once he asked Ralph Stewart how the kids were, and Stewie wasn't even married."
Torrey was just riding out the year, waiting to draft young Denis Potvin, who was "the type of player who comes along once every eight, 10, 14 years," says Torrey. "The last two months of the season I don't think I ever went into a city where I didn't see the headline HAPLESS ISLANDERS. We weren't the New York Islanders anymore. I thought they were talking about some town in Long Island I hadn't heard about. It's forever fixed in my memory."
Nystrom and Howatt were brought up for the last few games of the season, and their spark led the Islanders to three straight wins in March. "Before that," says Harris, "a winning streak for us was a win, a tie and a close one." Nystrom was big, tough and so unpolished that Torrey hired a Long Island figure-skating instructor named Laura Stamm to work with him. But he was one of the rays of hope.
In the penultimate game of the season, the Islanders lost 10-2 to the Flyers. "Philly was just coming on then," says Westfall, "and they didn't take any pity on us at all. Not that they should have. But when they had eight, they wanted 10." The season closed on a high note, a 4-4 tie with the Flames. The Islanders had given up 347 goals during the year, 27 more than the previous NHL record.