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"I don't think a lot of teams knew about him," says Torrey. "He was only 17, and he played in Swift Current [Saskatchewan], which is off the beaten track. When I went up to see Bryan, the windchill factor was something like minus 83 degrees. I've never been colder in my life, or in a colder rink. Trots didn't do much the first two periods, but in the third period he scored two goals. I decided to stay over another day."
Torrey was patient. That might be his finest quality as a general manager. He left Trottier in junior hockey the next year, although there was little question Trottier could have made the Islanders at 18. "Everyone fought me on it," says Torrey. "His father, the press, Bryan. The only person I had on my side was his mother. He was certainly as good as the players we had, but I didn't want to bring him into the atmosphere. We were still getting knocked around a lot, and I wasn't going to bring a kid that age into New York and put him under the gun."
The Islanders had their first taste of success in 1974-75. After completing the regular season with a 33-25-22 record, they upset the Rangers in the first round of the playoffs and then came from three games behind to upset the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was only the second time in NHL history that a team had overcome a three-game playoff deficit. In fact, in postseason play that year, the Islanders faced elimination eight times before finally losing in the semifinals in seven games to Philadelphia, which went on to win the Stanley Cup.
In 1975-76 and 1976-77 the Islanders continued to progress, with Trottier, Gillies and Potvin emerging as All-Stars. Montreal, however, was in a class by itself, and both years the Islanders lost to the Canadiens in the semis of the playoffs. Then, in '77, the Islanders drafted Mike Bossy. Fourteen teams had passed over him in the draft, and, remarkably, Bossy was the sixth right wing selected despite having set goal-scoring records in junior hockey.
Says Torrey, "Mike was not a complete player as a junior. He wasn't physical. All he did was score goals. That's what we were looking for; we weren't looking for defense or toughness. If we'd had first choice, we'd have taken Bossy."
Torrey had his team now. First, goaltending, then defense, then goal-scoring. He had built from the bottom up, as if he were putting up a house. All that was missing was character—a little weathering—and that was acquired the next two years in the playoffs, when the Islanders were upset, first by Toronto and then by the Rangers.
When the Islanders got off to a dismal start in 1979-80, critics assailed Torrey for not making a major move that would shake up his complacent squad. He waited until March. The Islanders needed another scoring threat at center to take the pressure off the Trottier-Bossy combination. So Torrey gave up Harris, his first-ever draft choice, and Lewis, his steadiest stay-at-home defenseman, to get the player he had his eye on, Butch Goring of Los Angeles. That was the winter the U.S. Olympic hockey team won the gold medal at Lake Placid. It so happened that the Islanders owned the rights to Ken Morrow, the U.S. squad's best defenseman and a fourth-round draft choice in 1976. Morrow, too, was a defensive defenseman. Immediately following the Olympics, Torrey signed Morrow and brought him up to play with the Islanders. When Morrow proved he could handle the NHL, Lewis became expendable, and Torrey swung the deal for Goring. The Islanders stormed through the last 12 games of the regular season and then won their first Stanley Cup, defeating the Flyers in six games in the finals. The winning goal, in overtime, was scored by the big, tough, unpolished rookie of that first season, Nystrom. Somehow, it seemed to bring things full circle.
If the story has a sad part—and perhaps it doesn't—it concerns the fate of Harris, on whose shoulders the team's hopes were initially pinned. That first year he had 28 goals, and management thought he would become a great scorer once he had some players around him. He did get 32 goals in 1975-76, but other than that season, he never equaled his rookie total.
"Some players never get on a Stanley Cup winner," says Westfall, who played on two with the Bruins but retired from the Islanders the year before they won their first Cup. "And some never play on a team as inept as we were. If you have one ounce of pride, you can't accept playing on a team like that. I'd been around, so I was able to adapt. But what about a guy like Bill Harris, who has dreamed his whole life about playing in the NHL and then comes to a team like the Islanders after having been the top amateur player in Canada? A kid in his position should be getting a lot of help from the veterans, but here he was, the guy everybody leaned on. It must have been terribly disillusioning, though Harris is one guy who has never complained in his life. Those early years could well have retarded his development as a player and be the reason that, in a lot of people's minds, he has never lived up to his potential."
Harris is now with Toronto, the once proud Maple Leafs. Another autumn has arrived and hope, once again, is the only food on his table.