Ask 100 Islanders fans to name the team’s television play-by-play announcer during the early 1980s glory days and 98 likely will say Jiggs McDonald. (At least among those old enough to remember the early 1980s.)
But while that mostly is true, it is not the whole story. When the Islanders won their first Stanley Cup in 1979-80, McDonald was calling Atlanta Flames games. He was in the Islanders’ division but not in their booth.
That distinction goes to Tim Ryan, who called road games on WOR (Channel 9), and Steve Albert, who worked home games on SportsChannel New York. Recently retired former Islanders captain Ed Westfall was their lead analyst.
While Ryan and Albert, a member of the famed Albert family of announcers, had long and distinguished careers, that era — and that season in particular — still resonates.
“It was really special,” Ryan said from his home in Victoria, British Columbia. “I was just a broadcaster of the road games, so I wasn’t hanging around them every day; I had another job [at CBS].
“I was seeing them from afar with a chance to really get to know them at the same time. And it was a thrill for me. I never saw a connection like [coach] Al Arbour and [general manager] Bill Torrey.”
Albert called more games than Ryan did and got to know the team more intimately because he was staying in an apartment complex in which several players lived across the street from Westbury Music Fair.
“The best part of living there was getting to know the Islanders as regular people, not just stars on the ice,” Albert said from his apartment in lower Manhattan.
“I remember hanging out with Bob Nystrom and his wife in the pool in the summer. My next-door neighbor was Garry Howatt, the ‘Toy Tiger.’ He was kind of quiet off the ice. That was fine with me. I mean, who wants a noisy neighbor?”
Ryan grew up in Toronto, was the original announcer for the expansion Oakland Seals and called Rangers games for two seasons in the early 1970s while working as a sports anchor and reporter at WPIX (Channel 11).
NBC hired him to do its national game of the week in 1972 — teamed with analyst Ted Lindsay — but when NBC dropped the NHL in 1975, Torrey hired him for the Islanders’ broadcast team.
(Torrey and Ryan had worked together in Oakland, and it was Ryan who suggested Torrey when owner Roy Boe was searching for a general manager for his new team.)
Ryan would stay with the Islanders through the second Cup, but in 1981, with his national TV responsibilities — now at CBS — expanding, he gave up the local telecasts.
It was the ride of a hockey lifetime, though, capped by the 1979-80 championship run.
When CBS opted to cover Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final nationally, Ryan found himself in a strange position. Dan Kelly was CBS’ hockey announcer, but Ryan also worked for CBS and had been with the Islanders all season.
“The compromise wound up being I did the second period, Dan did the first and third,” Ryan said.
Kelly also called the overtime, including Nystrom’s Cup clincher at 7:11. Ryan was assigned to the aftermath at ice level.
“So after the Nystrom goal, it was fun for me to go and do the interviews, but on the other hand, I wish I had had the chance to call the goal,” he said.
“They could have said, ‘Sorry, Tim, I know you work for us now, but you don’t do hockey.’ They could have said, ‘You’re not on.’ But they did say, ‘This is kind of an unusual situation, and so here is our idea.’ I was disappointed. I would have preferred to do the whole game, but I thought it was a decent compromise.”
Albert, who had called games for the Nets’ two ABA championship teams in the mid-1970s, was happy to hop on the Islanders' train.
He recalled that the 1979-80 regular season was nothing special — the Islanders’ 91 points were their fewest in a season from 1975-76 to 1983-84 — but that things began to click after the trade for Butch Goring from the Kings.
“I recall Al Arbour entering the season put more emphasis on the playoffs than the regular season,” Albert said. “That turned out to be a pretty good strategy.”
Ryan recalled the blunt efficiency with which Torrey and Arbour shaped the team.
“If they made a trade of someone who turned out to not fit in as a person, as a personality, he’d be gone,” Ryan said. “Michel Bergeron [whom the Islanders acquired from the Red Wings in 1977-78] was one of those guys.
“Terrifically talented guy. Torrey said, ‘We made a terrible mistake with him. We wasted a trade.’ He was done. He didn’t fit. They just had an ethic the players bought into . . . They were all great guys. There wasn’t one jerk.”
The bonds have endured for Ryan. His son Kevin lives in Boise, Idaho, where he is a passionate fan and watches every game.
Ryan has two Cup rings that Torrey insisted on giving him, even though Ryan does not believe such honors should go to announcers.
“Torrey had my name engraved on rings each time, even though he never asked me to be a homer on my commentary, knowing I would not agree to that,” Ryan said.
“I took pride in being objective in my calls, unafraid to be critical of performances. Islanders fans and the players themselves weren’t always happy about that.”
Albert has a ring from the first Cup season, after which McDonald took over for home games when the Flames moved to Calgary. He said it is one of two “terrific keepsakes” he has from that season.
The other is a rare 1979 Christmas album the Islanders recorded called “Home for the Holidays.”
“To have the actual ring from the first of the four straight Stanley Cups is pretty special,” he said.
For several years, Albert thought he had lost the ring and had given up on finding it. A few months ago, it turned up in an old briefcase.
“What a relief,” he said. “Can you imagine losing that ring? That is one of my prize possessions. You better believe I’ve got it in a very safe place now. I’m not taking any more chances. I’m so grateful I’ve got it.”
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