As hockey’s best show, the Islanders in their heyday were like the most popular television series. They produced a spinoff, and a long-running one at that. The Florida Panthers came from Islanders stock and the franchises still have a whole lot in common, from the roots to the rafters.
Finally, for the first time, they are facing each other in the playoffs. They will be on the same postseason ice after having spent all this time under the same family tree.
“My son Drew is an unequivocal Panther fan as is my daughter Heather. I think all of my brothers are rooting for the Panthers, too, although with a little more guilt than I am,” said Rich Torrey of Shoreham, an accomplished author/illustrator of children’s books and one of four sons of Bill Torrey, who started the Islanders as their general manager in 1972 and organized the Panthers as their president in 1993. He still is with the latter team — which hosts Game 1 tonight — as a special advisor and alternate governor.
The younger Torrey said his brother Artie probably is the most conflicted: “His four daughters are diehard Islander fans. Whether they are going to root against Granddad, I can’t say. It may be that no matter who wins, they will be happy.”
There might not be as many mixed emotions between the two teams, but there sure have been a lot of crossed paths. Islanders Hall of Fame goalie Billy Smith once was the Panthers goalie coach. His former teammate Duane Sutter was the Panthers head coach for parts of two seasons.
Like Torrey’s Islanders, the Panthers earned phenomenal early success. The former reached the Stanley Cup semifinals in their third season, the latter made it to the Stanley Cup Final in their third season—with a roster that included former Islanders Tom Fitzgerald and Mark Fitzpatrick. Torrey, having been ousted by a new Islanders management group in 1992, had something to prove and he (and general manager Bobby Clarke and coach Roger Neilson) assembled a group of players that felt the same way.
“They were gritty, two-way players. It was like a team of Selke candidates,” former Islanders and Panthers public relations director Greg Bouris said, referring to the league’s top award for defensive play. Bouris, who was one of the first people Torrey hired for the Florida team and who now is director of communications for the Major League Baseball Players Association, said, “Previous expansion teams didn’t have a lot of players to choose from, the way the Panthers and Ducks did. There were some real players available in that draft.”
Unlike Torrey’s Islanders, though, Torrey’s Panthers never won four Cups, or even one. A big reason is that in Florida, he never had a young Hall of Fame cornerstone like Denis Potvin. At least not on the ice. Potvin was the Panthers’ TV analyst for their first 16 seasons, did Ottawa Senators games for four years and is back now.
This season, he has been impressed with a Panthers team coached by Gerard Gallant (a former Islanders assistant) and buttressed by strong veteran goalie Roberto Luongo, who started his NHL career you-know-where.
Luongo can identify with others who have New York connections. Jiggs McDonald followed his Hall of Fame run as Islanders TV announcer with nine seasons as the voice of the Panthers on radio. Panthers owner Vincent Viola is from Brooklyn and his vice chairman Doug Cifu is from Syosset (alas, both were Rangers fans). The Panthers’ former president is Michael Yormark, twin brother of Brett, who is CEO of Barclays Center.
Small world, eh. Who knows what would have happened to each team if Torrey had prevailed in getting ownership and government officials to take seriously the plans he commissioned in the early 1990s for a new Nassau Coliseum? And who knows what the landscape would have looked like had the Islanders not edged out the Penguins for the final playoff spot in 1990, giving Pittsburgh the right to draft a kid from what was then called Czechoslovakia? The kid was Jaromir Jagr, now 44, and starring for the Panthers.
One thing is for sure. Every game in this series will be played beneath a banner honoring Torrey. He is enshrined in both arenas, which are closer than you might have imagined.