Thirty years later, the truth can be told. The play that will live forever began with a pass that the Islanders would not recommend in a million years.
"Al Arbour said that he would have choked me if we hadn't scored," Lorne Henning said from Vancouver this past week, referring to what hockey people call a "back-ice pass." Players recall that the coach had a strict rule against looping back into their own zone and passing against the flow, as Henning did in overtime against the Flyers at Nassau Coliseum on Saturday afternoon, May 24, 1980.
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Radio play-by-play man Bob Lawrence described it: "Henning comes back to his own blue line and shoots it up ice for Tonelli . . . "
"If that gets picked off, do you know how many guys get trapped?" former general manager Bill Torrey said from Florida. "But I always tell Lorne, there's no arguing with skill."
There's no arguing with history, either, and it reads like this: Henning made a terrific pass to left wing John Tonelli, who was heading up the right side. Tonelli "laid a perfect pass on my stick," said Bob Nystrom, who got a step on Flyers defenseman Bob Dailey and tapped in a goal that resounds to this day.
"It was just phenomenal," Nystrom said. "It changed my life."
Nystrom has been on Long Island ever since: as a businessman, youth coach and charitable volunteer. But it wasn't just his life that was affected when he beat Pete Peeters at 7:11 of overtime to win the Stanley Cup. It changed the Islanders and the Island. As Bryan Trottier said this past week, "It's still the biggest moment in my life."
The Islanders transformed their reputation from "chokers" to one of the great clutch teams in pro sports history. Their reign would comprise four straight Stanley Cups and an unprecedented 19 consecutive playoff series wins. Torrey, Arbour and five players would make the Hall of Fame. The Coliseum would add luxury suites and a press box. Management would negotiate what was considered the most lucrative cable TV contract in sports. Players would go on to successful careers in hockey and other businesses. Youth hockey would blossom on Long Island, producing a bunch of National Hockey League players.
Maybe some or all of that would have happened anyway, but there is no denying that the Islanders couldn't have won four Cups without having won the first. Had the Islanders not come through on that warm Memorial Day weekend 30 years ago, who knows if people today would be so passionate about the future of the team? Given that then-owner John O. Pickett had just rescued the team from the prospect of bankruptcy, who knows if there still would be such a thing as the New York Islanders?
"It is certainly a question worth asking," said Pat Calabria, who covered the 1980 Islanders for Newsday, later became a vice president of the franchise and now is an administrator at Farmingdale State College. "If the team hadn't started to win and increase its value, it might have been in such a position that even John Pickett would have had to give up."
You couldn't say the 1980 Islanders were running on a shoestring back then, but they did still keep their season-ticket accounts in a shoe box. They lived on a thin margin, especially after ruining two perfectly good regular seasons in 1978 and 1979 by being ousted from the playoffs by the Maple Leafs and Rangers.
"I just remember a feeling of tremendous relief," former defenseman Bob Lorimer said from his office in a Toronto financial firm. "We had the feeling that if we didn't do it that year, there would have been substantive changes."
Instead of leaving town, individually or collectively, the Islanders left a legacy.
"It really put Long Island on the map," said Trottier, the 1980 playoffs' Most Valuable Player and a Hall of Famer. "Little Long Island, a little team with no-names. Long Island had always embraced us, but it really embraced us then. It made us all feel like we had a home."
"Unless you're my age or older, you don't know how great that was," said current Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano, who recalls having been a big fan as a Hofstra student during the Cup years. "The spirit, the feeling in the county, the sense of success and achievement, it was the American dream in many respects."
Thirty-year-old memories are crystal-clear:
By that night, Henning (now an executive with the Canucks) was celebrating more than his wife's birthday. His 17-day-old son Brett was photographed atop the Cup.
Trottier leaped over the boards to join the happy scrum around Nystrom in the corner. "But somebody took my arm out from under me and I ended up doing a header," he said. "I never did make it down to the corner."
Team publicist Hawley Chester III was so overcome by the heat and emotion that he almost passed out after regulation and had to be treated in the locker room.
Trainer Ron Waske was relieved and proud of the way players had followed his advice through four brutally physical rounds (with much more to come over the years). "When you look back on it, you shake your head in awe at what that group of men did," he said.
Torrey and former players still cite the key March acquisition of Butch Goring, and how draftee Ken Morrow's play for the U.S. Olympic team helped convince the Islanders it was OK to trade defenseman Dave Lewis so they could get Goring.
Mike Bossy recalls being elated, and young. "As mature as we were portrayed to be back then, I had just turned 23. Bryan was 23. Clarkie [Gillies] was 26," he said.
Long Islanders Christopher Higgins of the present-day Flames and Mike Komisarek of the Maple Leafs credit the Islanders' legacy as the genesis for a generation of local pros. One of them, Rob Scuderi, won the Cup last year with the Penguins and brought it home to Nassau.
Eric Nystrom is part of that legacy, having played for the junior Islanders on his way to the NHL. His dad had a lump in his throat March 25, watching Eric finally play in the old rink. The kid scored a goal.
Islanders fans can identify. They know how much a Nystrom goal at the Coliseum can mean. "To me, the Islanders are emblematic of a time, the way the Brooklyn Dodgers were," Calabria said. "The way my father told me stories about Duke Snider going on the subway, Islander fans can tell you about running into those Islanders at the supermarket."
"Sports rallies cities and towns and people," said Bossy, who works in the Islanders' business department. "So many people tell me that that day was one of their fondest memories."
The Islanders still matter dearly to many people, even now, when they are out of the playoffs and possibly headed to Queens or elsewhere. (Said Mangano, "I will do all I can as county executive to make sure the Islanders stay here in Nassau County.") And all these years later, the heart of the matter is the back-ice pass, the goal and everything else from May 24, 1980.