Bill Torrey was the only thing standing between the Islanders and utter doom. This was back in the late 1970s, when the franchise was drowning in debt and the general manager was desperate to find someone willing to take on the responsibility of preventing the team from going out of business, or worse.
Torrey found his man in John Pickett, a minority partner under principal owner Roy Boe. “We really had a sinking ship,” Pickett recalled over the phone Thursday, hours after Torrey died. “He got me in a very weak moment. I tell you what really turned it around, and it was because I was a big fan.”
The general manager knew of Pickett’s passion for the team and both men knew that much of the red ink stemmed from the huge indemnity owed to the Rangers, the established franchise in Manhattan. Islanders attorney Bill Shea — the high-profile man after whom a stadium was named — was advising them to just walk away from the obligations and let the chips fall where they may.
That was when Torrey told Pickett, “You know what’s going to happen to Denis Potvin now? He’s going to go to the Rangers as soon as we walk away from this.”
To which Pickett replied, “That is not going to happen.”
It did not. Potvin became a villain rather than a hero at Madison Square Garden. The Islanders became a thriving business and a four-Cup dynasty. And Torrey proved once and for all that he was, as his son Richard called him on Thursday, “a force of nature.”
He was forceful enough to change the whole meaning of the words “Long Island.” The region gained new fame and stature because of what the Islanders did, and the Islanders did it because of Torrey.
They aren’t making general managers like him anymore, unfortunately. Maybe they couldn’t. Maybe it no longer is possible for someone to reach the Hall of Fame by the power of his personality, insight and sense of humor. Then again, I think of what one of his contemporaries once told me, that Torrey could take over the Atlanta Braves — then a last-place baseball club — and turn them into a winner.
“He was probably one of the greatest gentlemen in sports, and I have certainly known most of them,” Pickett said on the phone from Florida. “He was very bright. He got along with everybody. He was an incredible negotiator. He was sort of like that old general manager in Montreal, Sam Pollock.”
In fact, he was every bit the match for Pollock at the 1973 draft. The latter is said to have walked Torrey around the block 10 times, trying to get him to trade the No. 1 overall draft pick, which everyone knew would be Potvin. Too bad nobody listened to Torrey in the 1980s when he insisted that a new Nassau Coliseum was needed. He left behind the drawings he commissioned.
Ed Westfall, Torrey’s first choice in the 1972 expansion draft and a lifelong friend thereafter, said, “He was so good at picking the right people to do the right job.” Torrey hired Jimmy Devellano as his assistant and Al Arbour as coach. Both wound up in the Hall of Fame.
Pickett recalled being in a meeting with the three of them: “I said, ‘I’ve been reading about this really hot new goalie who’s going to become available. We’ve got a couple of bucks lying around; why don’t we go for him?’ I can’t begin to tell you what those stares were like. I knew right there that I’d better be quiet.”
There were bumpy times for Torrey’s Islanders in the late 1980s and early 1990s. New owners shuffled him out. But he bounced back big time by making the Florida Panthers an almost instant success.
Richard Torrey said his dad was certain of being a failure at only one thing: Retirement. So he never did it. He was working to his last day, on behalf of the Panthers. But his family and anyone who knew Bill Torrey realized that the heart of his career was on Long Island, a place that is better because he was here.