Then there was the postseason party. No Islander Stanley Cup fete can compare with the bash that first team threw. "When you're out of the race in November, you have one thing to look forward to," says Stewart. "It was a helluva windup to a terrible year."
It started in the dressing room following the Atlanta game and then continued on the plane ride home. When the bus unloaded the team at the Coliseum that night, eight stewardesses emerged with the players. "You have never seen such astonished faces as there were on the wives and girl friends who had come to meet the bus," says Westfall, who, as captain, was put in charge of the several thousand dollars in fine money that had been collected during the season and that would pay for the party. The entire assemblage returned to Westfall's house, which he shared with two teammates. The party lasted a week, nonstop, until every dime had been spent. Chester estimates that the team and assorted wives, girl friends and hangers-on went through 700 cases of beer.
"There was a feeling that we'd made it through the worst," says Chester. "We were glad it was over, and everybody was excited about the next season. We knew we were going to get at least two good defensemen in the draft, and that we were never going to have to go through another year like the last one again. It was a strange ending because you knew there'd be a lot of new faces next season, and that a lot of the old faces—the ones right there at the party—would be gone. That was the fastest summer I ever remember."
There are two types of hope. The first could be defined this way: If you are hollering for a lifesaver and someone throws you an anchor, you grab on and hope it floats. With the other, you let the anchor pass and hope you can tread water until something better comes along. On the morning of the 1973 draft of amateur players, Sam Pollock, general manager of the Canadiens and one of the great anchor-throwers of all time, walked Torrey around Montreal's Mt. Royal Hotel four times. Each time he made a higher offer for the Islanders' first choice. The Islanders' scouts gagged in their coffee each time Torrey passed by the hotel entrance. Finally, Torrey came inside. No deal. He had let the anchor pass. That may have been the most important moment in the Islanders' history.
The Islanders have spotted talent better than any other team over the last 10 years. In the 1973 draft they chose Potvin first and Defenseman Dave Lewis second. "My whole approach that year was to get our goals against down," says Torrey, who also picked up veteran Defenseman Bert Marshall from the Rangers. Two days before the draft Al Arbour was named coach. Today, with a nine-year record of 381-202-135 behind the Islander bench, he's regarded as the best at his job in the NHL.
During his playing days (1953-71) with four NHL teams. Arbour had been a dependable defenseman, one who seldom strayed far into the offensive zone. As a player he was disciplined, a trait that he kept when he became coach of the St. Louis Blues in 1970. The Blues fired Arbour in November 1972, and when Torrey approached him six months later, Arbour was living in St. Louis and scouting for the Flames. His initial reaction to Torrey's offer was negative. "The first thing Al didn't like was our team," recalls Torrey. "He said, 'Hey Bill, I got gassed in St. Louis when they had a pretty good team, and I'm not making a move and taking this on.' " Also, Arbour's wife, Claire, had heard a lot of unsettling tales about life in New York, and he didn't think she'd ever agree to live there. "I knew that Vancouver and Oakland were after Al, too," says Torrey, "so I told him to think about it and give me another call after his holiday."
The Arbours left that week for a vacation in Florida, and, by a stroke of fate, one day on the beach they struck up a conversation with a congenial couple from Long Island. The couple told the Arbours that Long Island was completely different from New York City, that the Island was a great place to live. When Arbour returned to St. Louis, he called Torrey and asked him if the job was still open. It was. Would it be all right if Claire came along for a visit? It was. Five days later, Claire gave the O.K. and Torrey had his coach.
"That was a very, very important move," says Torrey. "That first training camp with Al was like boot camp. I can remember Ralph Stewart literally crawling off the ice one day, and guys like Westfall were bitching something awful. That was the sign we were getting somewhere."
"The first day of camp Al told us we were going for a light skate," says Nystrom. "Two and a half hours later we left the ice. That's when we knew the fun and games were over."
The Islanders finished eighth in the East Division again in their second season, winning only 19 games, but they lowered their goals against by 100. "Teams beat us that second year, but they had to work to do it," says Torrey. The Islanders had fourth choice in the 1974 amateur draft, and this time they were looking for forwards to help out Harris. In the first round Torrey took Clark Gillies, a giant left wing, and in the second round he picked a center named Bryan Trottier.