I don’t care how many times you’ve heard the story. It never gets old. It never will get old. All those pages of the calendar that have turned in the interim must have been lies. Because it couldn’t have been 40 years ago. It must have been yesterday when …
“I was thinking, ‘I don’t want to have to go back to Philly, I don’t want to go back to Philly for a Game 7,’ ” Bobby Bourne was saying last week when we renewed acquaintances. “I knew what had happened to us in that Game 7 in 1975 when Kate Smith came onto the ice for the anthem and Gary Dornhoefer scored from the red line. And we’d just blown a two-goal lead in the third period, and I was thinking, ‘We can’t go back, we can’t let this get away.’
“But then, you know what, Bobby took out a scalpel and carved a notch in his stick. And it was, ‘All right, let’s go! Let’s do this!’ ”
It was not yesterday when Bob Nystrom took a scalpel from the medical room and carved a notch in his stick before overtime of Game 6 against the Flyers, with the Islanders one goal away from winning the Stanley Cup. They’d been up 4-2 after the second period. They were tied 4-4 after the third.
It was 40 years of yesterdays ago, on May 24, 1980.
“I just wanted to calm down. I was happy as hell after the second period and was down in the dumps in the third. I was trying to calm down,” Nystrom said Friday. “I’d scored in OT earlier in the playoffs [Game 2 of the semis in Buffalo] and carved a notch in my stick then. So I did it again. There was some symbolism there.
“It signified confidence that I was going to get it done and that we were going to get it done.”
The Islanders had been bullied out of the 1978 playoffs by the Maple Leafs after winning the Patrick Division title for the first time and they’d been humbled by the Rangers in the famous 1979 Battle of New York after finishing first overall in the NHL. The franchise born in 1972 had come so far and so fast — to Game 7 of the Cup semis in Year 3, after J.P. Parise scored at 0:11 of OT at the Garden, the team overcame a 3-0 deficit to defeat the Penguins in Round 2 and then came back from 3-0 down against the Flyers to force Game 7 at the Spectrum. But the team had a fatal flaw.
Well, two of them. They lacked a legit second-line center (and thus second line) who could thrive in the playoffs and relieve some of the burden on Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy. And they seemed to lack big-game resolve and championship toughness. In the elimination game against Toronto, they scored one goal and were beaten in OT in Game 7 at the Coliseum. In the elimination game the following year against the Rangers, they scored one goal at the Garden. They’d been beaten from pillar to post.
And then came Butchie and Boston.
Unless you want to count the Red Sox selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920, there has never been a more franchise-altering trade than the one in which general manager Bill Torrey acquired Butch Goring from the Kings at the 1980 deadline in exchange for franchise favorite sons Billy Harris and Dave Lewis. The Islanders, who had played rather dreadfully during most of the 1979-80 hangover season, had gone 4-8-1 in the 13 games immediately preceding the deadline and were 31-28-9 when Torrey pulled the trigger on the deal. They went 8-0-4 the rest of the way.
“I think we might have lacked the maturity or confidence to use our skills,” Denis Potvin, who missed half the year with a broken thumb, said last week. “I’ll never forget, Butchie was right across the dressing room from me, and he was never shy, and one of the first things he said was, ‘You [bleeping] guys don’t know how good you are.’ He was an experienced and mature guy. He infused us with confidence. He brought an attitude. That’s what he brought.”
Goring centered Bourne and Anders Kallur on the second line behind the Clark Gillies-Trottier-Bossy unit. Before Goring, Trottier had recorded 27 points (five goals, 22 assists) in 42 playoff games. After Goring, Trottier posted 107 points (37-70) in 75 games over the next four runs. Bossy, who’d recorded 12 points (8-4) in 17 playoff contests before Goring arrived, then went off for 61-50-111 in 72 games between 1980 and 1983.
But there was more to Goring. Much more. Let’s have Nystrom tell it.
“I think of all the times I’d come off after a shift and I’d be frustrated or hyper,” said No. 23, “and Butchie would be next to me on the bench and he’d rub my back, calm me down, and tell me I’d get them the next time.
“You don’t know what that meant to me.”
So the Islanders had their missing link of a second-line center, but there was still the toughness issue to confront. The team had bulked up on the back end following the 1979 defeat, adding big Dave Langevin, who’d spent the first three years of his pro career with the WHA Oilers — trading for Washington’s Gord Lane, and, later, signing Ken Morrow immediately after he won the Miracle gold medal at Lake Placid.
Still, though, going into Boston to face the big, bad Bruins after a 3-1 victory in the best-of-five preliminary round over the Kings that featured Morrow’s soul-saving OT winner in Game 3 after an opening split, there were questions about the Islanders’ willingness to engage. The Islanders knew they would be challenged.
“You’d go into Boston Garden in those days, you knew what was going to happen,” Potvin said. “When we lost to Toronto, we didn’t step up physically and when we lost to the Rangers, they were much more aggressive. We weren’t going to allow it this time.
“We had a meeting. We had meetings. Clarkie, Ny, Garry Howatt, they were ready, they were picking out their [guys] to take. When we went on the ice, we went on with courage. We played with courage.”
The Islanders won Game 1, 2-1 in overtime on Gillies’ goal. It had been a quiet game. Game 2 was not. Game 2’s first period ended with a wild bench-clearing brawl to end a period in which Gillies fought Terry O’Reilly twice, Howatt fought Wayne Cashman twice, Nystrom threw down with John Wensink, Duane Sutter fought Al Secord and Lane squared off against Mike Milbury.
“Clarkie and O’Reilly, it was Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier, for us, anyway,” Potvin said.
“Those Bruins, they were the toughest team I ever played against,” Bourne said. “But we had Clarkie saying, ‘I’ve got this guy,’ and Bobby Ny saying, ‘I’ve got him,’ and Howie going, ‘I’ll take him.’ We beat them and we beat them up and left there as combatants. It was a different feeling than I’d ever had before.”
And Nystrom: “We’re in the room after the period and Bobby Lorimer, who was never a fighter, had a slice under his eye after he went with [Stan] Jonathan and he was bleeding like crazy. And he stands up and says, ‘Don’t worry, boys, this isn’t going to stop me at all!’
“When you talk about your bonding moments, that was one.”
The Islanders won Game 2, 5-4 in overtime on Bourne’s goal. They beat the Bruins in five games after Gillies and O’Reilly fought twice more in Game 3.
“The league knew,” Potvin said. “The league knew we were not going to be intimidated. We had responded phenomenally.”
The Sabres came next. The Islanders dispatched Buffalo in six games after taking a 3-0 lead in the series that was a rather pedestrian affair.
“We lost the two games and I can tell you, it was never fun playing for Al Arbour when we lost,” Potvin said of the legendary coach. “Our lives changed when we lost. There were consequences. Nobody wanted to lose.”
So into the final for the Islanders against the Flyers, who’d reeled off a pro sports record 35-game unbeaten streak (25-0-10) on their way to a Presidents’ Trophy season in which they’d finished with 116 points, 25 more than the Islanders’ 91. Of course, the Bruins had recorded 105 points and the Sabres 110.
After Boston, the Flyers’ attempts at bullying the Islanders were not only ineffective, but counter-productive. They were like the cartoon character would-be villains who’d have firecrackers go off in their own hands.
“Preparation was always critical for me, personally, and for our team, and in this series, it was all about the plan laid out by Al,” Potvin said. “It was all about discipline. We knew we’d get an elbow to the mouth or a spear to the gut. We weren’t going to retaliate. We were going to make them pay.”
The Islanders scored 15 power-play goals in the six-game series, going 15-for-40. Potvin scored five PPGs, including the Game 1, 4-3 winner at 4:07 of overtime at the Spectrum by burying a centering feed from John Tonelli after Stefan Persson’s PPG tied the score with 3:42 remaining in regulation.
There were three PPGs in Game 1, two in Game 2, five in Game 3, one in Game 4, two in Game 5 and two in Game 6 in which the Islanders, at home playing in front of a frenzied Saturday afternoon mob at the barn, were up 4-2 with 20 minutes to go. Except more than 20 minutes were necessary after the Flyers had scored twice within the first 6:02 of the third period.
And so, overtime. Nystrom and Tonelli had opened with Wayne Merrick as their center. He’d been replaced by Lorne Henning. Through the neutral zone, then, 4-4, seven minutes in. Henning whirling, to Tonelli, crossing with Nystrom into the zone … from his backhand to his forehand … to Nystrom driving the net for the backhand deflection.
“I was so exhausted, my head was resting on the dasher and I didn’t see it go in,” Potvin said. “But the noise — the feeling. It was euphoria.”
“I can still see it now, the play by Lornie, the pass by JT, the deflection and the puck going in,” Bourne said. “It was such a relief, every emotion ran through me at once. I was just jubilant.”
Sixteen of the 1980 Islanders won the four straight Cups. Billy Smith in goal; Potvin, Langevin, Persson, Lane and Morrow on defense; Bossy, Trottier, Gillies, Goring, Bourne, Kallur, Nystrom, Tonelli, Merrick and Duane Sutter up front. Henning won two before moving behind the bench as an assistant for the last two. Billy Carroll and Mike McEwen were both there for the last three.
“I’d grown up in Ottawa but on the Quebec border as a Montreal Canadiens fan,” said Potvin, the captain who received and hoisted the chalice after the presentation from league president John Ziegler. “So when I lifted up the Cup, I imagined myself as Jean Beliveau, that big No. 4.
“Really, we had nothing in common, he was this big, tall, handsome center and I was, well … But I’ll never forget that feeling.”
The notch was in the stick and the puck was in the net and it was 7:11 of overtime and the game was over. The season was over. The playoffs were over. And the Dynasty was just beginning.
“I saw it go in, and I thought, ‘Oh my God. Thank God this is over,’ ” Nystrom said. “It was wild. I was surrounded by people, everyone was going crazy, there was an explosion of noise, and I kept getting stopped for interviews on the ice so I never got to skate with the Cup on the ice that day. I never got it.
“But that’s OK. I had other opportunities. And you know, there is hardly a day that goes by that I’m not reminded of the goal. It’s been 40 years and people still want to talk to me about it.
“It’s wonderful. I love it. I really do.”