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Autumn doesn't seem like a very good time to talk about hope, yet that's what this story is ultimately about. Hope for the losers. Hope for the truly inept. Hope for the laughingstocks. Hope is the food that sustains all expansion franchises, and in 1972-73 that was all the New York Islanders had on the table. Today they are seen as the ideal for building a pro team from scratch. No other expansion team—not even the Dallas Cowboys—has won three league championships in its first 10 years. Today the Islanders can look back at that first season and call it a foundation. A decade ago they were calling it a crawl space. In 1972-73 the Islanders won 12 games, lost 60 and tied six to break the mark for the worst record in the history of the NHL.
A lot of hope was being peddled to the hockey world in 1972. The World Hockey Association was preparing for its first season, and to diminish the WHA's impact on the New York market the NHL announced late in 1971 that it would add a team on Long Island for the 1972-73 season. (The league also placed a team in Atlanta that year.) The Islanders would play their games at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, a town of 20,000, 30 miles from Manhattan. Roy Boe, owner of the Nets basketball team, which then played at the Coliseum, was awarded the Long Island hockey franchise over several other bidders, but to all intents and purposes the Islanders were not an entity until February 1972, when Bill Torrey was hired to be the general manager. Torrey was the club's first employee. He had no office, no phone, no secretary and, of course, no players. The night he signed, Torrey left on a 23-day scouting trip during which he saw 28 games. By the end of it he had signed three scouts: Ed Chadwick, Henry Saraceno and Earl Ingarfield.
"We spent our time and effort mostly on kids," says Torrey, who as general manager of the now defunct California Seals in 1968-70 had seen the dire result of trading draft choices for established journeymen players. "I told Boe, 'O.K., you're going to go through the expansion draft and get 19 problem children. Either the guys can't play, they're too old, or they have personal problems. Second, your product is going to be constantly compared to the [New York] Rangers,' who were then the second-best team in hockey. Also, we were in the East Division with Montreal, Boston, the Rangers and four other established teams. We were guaranteed last place. But there was a ray of hope if we were patient because everyone in hockey knew that the amateur draft for the next few years was loaded. What other choice did we have?"
The expansion draft was held in June. Each of the 14 established NHL clubs protected the best 17 players on its roster, and Atlanta and the Islanders selected from among the leftovers. Bud Poile, general manager of the Vancouver Canucks in that team's first year, described the NHL expansion draft by saying, "I came in here hollering for a lifesaver, and they threw me an anchor."
That was in 1970. In 1972 things were even worse because the WHA was waiting to sign any NHL player it could get its hands on. "When the WHA became a reality," says Torrey, "I called [NHL President] Clarence Campbell to find out what hold I would have on the players I drafted, all of whom were under contract to their previous clubs. He said he had no doubt that the contracts would be upheld in the courts. At the expansion draft the press asked him the same question, and Mr. Campbell replied, 'Let the buyer beware.' I ran up to him and said, 'What the hell do you mean, buyer beware?' " The courts, it turned out, didn't uphold most of the NHL contracts, and Torrey lost eight of his 19 selections to the WHA—two of them, embarrassingly, to the New York Raiders. Atlanta, on the other hand, signed 19 of its 21 picks. Torrey was depicted in the New York press as a skinflint who hadn't done his homework, and it was widely written that the Raiders would likely field a better team than the Islanders.
The Islanders did come up with a few high-quality players, however. They snatched Eddie Westfall from the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins and Billy Smith, a little-known 21-year-old goaltender, from the Los Angeles Kings. On defense, the Islanders obtained Gerry Hart from Detroit, and later they acquired veteran Arnie Brown in a trade with the Red Wings. In the amateur draft the Islanders had first choice overall and took Billy Harris, who had gotten 129 points in junior hockey the previous season. In later rounds Torrey picked Lorne Henning, Bob Nystrom and Garry Howatt. Today all three of them have their names on the Stanley Cup.
Westfall, who assumed the Bruins would protect him, was playing golf in St. Andrews, Scotland at the time of the expansion draft. "I remember saying to myself jokingly, 'I wonder which team I'll end up on,' " recalls Westfall. "A few days later, when I was clearing customs, I could see my children waiting beyond the glass with sad, forlorn faces. Little did I know it was because Daddy was now a New York Islander." It was a cruel stroke of fate for Westfall, who 11 years earlier had broken in with one of the worst pre-expansion teams in NHL history, the 1961-62 Bruins, who went 15-47-8. Rather than move his family out of its new house in New Hampshire, Westfall bought a plane and learned to fly so he could go home when the Islanders had a day off. He was the Islanders' first captain.
Training camp was held in Peterborough, Ontario. Phil Goyette, a former forward with four NHL teams, was the coach, although he had had no experience behind the bench. The trainer was Nick Garen. Upon hiring Garen, Torrey had noted that a skilled trainer—and Garen was famous for stitching players back together while chomping on a cigar—was worth "as many as five additional victories during the season." Imagine what a season the Islanders would have had without him. Ninety-odd players were invited to camp. "We cut two the first night, before we had stepped on the ice," says Torrey. "One had a Mohawk haircut and behaved pretty badly at the hotel bar. The other guy brought his wife and wouldn't send her home. Not that I blamed him; we were all sorry to see her leave."
At the next day's practice they were all sorry—period. "You have never seen such an inept bunch in your life," says Westfall. Goyette thought, "Holy cow, what did I get myself into?" Garen muttered through his cigar to his assistant, "This is a hockey team?" That night Torrey told Gerald Eskenazi, who was covering the training camp for The New York Times, "The secret to this team is to get rid of everyone just as fast as I can."
What the Islanders lacked in skill they attempted to make up for in discipline. The players weren't allowed to keep cars at camp, so everyone—Torrey included—had to walk the half mile from the Holiday Inn, where the team was staying, to the rink. Torrey even invited Eskenazi to walk the distance, which is practically a marathon for most newspapermen. Players like Westfall and Harris, who was the NHL's first $100,000 rookie, used to park their cars a block away from the Holiday Inn and sneak back and forth to them like school kids. Torrey would catch them and leave admonishing notes on their windshields.