There have been some great tandems in NHL history: The Bruins’ Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito, the Red Wings’ Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay, the Penguins’ Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, the Oilers’ Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, the Islanders’ Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy, just to skim the list.
Islanders Hall of Famer Denis Potvin believes the organization’s Hall of Fame duo of general manager Bill Torrey and coach Al Arbour — with four straight Stanley Cups together — deserve inclusion.
“I don’t know that there was ever a tandem like Torrey and Arbour that seemingly worked so well together,” Potvin, picked first overall in the 1973 draft by Torrey, said in a recent interview with Newsday. “Al would say, ‘I think we need this component or that component’ and Bill would go out and get it. They came to decisions that just kept improving the team. Together, they were an outstanding duo.”
Together, Torrey and Arbour built a dynasty out of an expansion franchise. The Islanders were born in 1972 and won four straight Stanley Cups from 1980-83. This month marks the 40th anniversary of their first Cup.
Their former players who were interviewed were universal in their praise. They described how invested Torrey and Arbour were in making sure the Islanders won and how both family-oriented men made a point of caring about the players’ families as well. How both could be brutally honest in their assessments and downright stern when needed.
But, mostly, how they always worked as a leadership team.
“I looked at other GMs and coaches and it would look like they were against each other to a certain extent,” Bobby Nystrom said in a recent conversation with Newsday. “One would pit one against the other to establish who is doing the good job and who isn’t doing the good job.
“And that’s the thing I felt didn’t happen with Bill and Al,” added Nystrom, taken by Torrey in the third round in 1972. “We would fight guys in practice if we didn’t think they fit into our mold, and Bill and Al would see that and, you know what, they’d be gone. I really felt they were a true partnership.”
Torrey, who passed away on May 2, 2018, at 83, arrived on Long Island first. Owner Roy Boe hired the Montreal native as the Islanders’ first general manager after Torrey previously served as GM of the expansion California Golden Seals.
Arbour, a Sudbury, Ontario native who passed away in 2015 at 82, was hired by Torrey in 1973 as the Islanders’ third coach after Phil Goyette and then Earl Ingarfield led the team to a 12-60-6 mark in its first season. His NHL playing career as a defenseman stretched from 1954-71. He won Cups with the Red Wings, Black Hawks and Maple Leafs and coached the Blues for parts of three seasons before joining the Islanders.
Torrey’s savvy drafts built the core of the dynastic Islanders and he added to that foundation through shrewd trades. He acquired J.P. Parise and Jude Drouin from the North Stars in 1975 and obtained defenseman Gord Lane from the Capitals and Butch Goring from the Kings during that first championship season.
“Al had the hammer of your ice time and Bill had the hammer over your history of how long you were going to be an Islander,” Trottier, a Hall of Famer selected in the second round in 1974, told Newsday this past week. “I think there was very good communication between them. They had the team’s best interest always at heart. You could tell that they wanted to win really bad, both of them. I wanted to win. You’ve got to feel your general manager and coach want to win.”
Nystrom said Torrey and Arbour’s tight partnership left the players with no excuses when things were rough.
“If there was a situation that warranted it, Bill would come in and talk to the players and say, ‘Al’s my guy and that’s all there is to it. There’s not going to be any change,’ ” Nystrom said. “There was no scapegoat. We couldn’t blame it on the coach or on the general manager or the players. We had the team and that’s who we had.”
“When Bill came in the room, you knew you better get your butt in gear because there wasn’t one guy he’d pick on,” Hall of Famer Clark Gillies, drafted fourth overall by Torrey in 1974, told Newsday in April. “He was picking on the whole team when he came in there and getting the message to the whole team.”
Arbour, described as a master motivator able to juggle different personalities deftly, tended to be harder on his players when they were winning.
The Islanders did a lot of winning before lifting their first Cup, reaching the NHL semifinals from 1975-77. They finished with the most points in the regular season in 1978-79, but the Rangers upset them in the semifinals in six games. The Islanders struggled through much of 1979-80 before going on a season-ending 8-0-4 run after acquiring Goring and finishing fifth in the league.
“The genius of Al Arbour was he knew they were having a hangover from the Rangers,” said Pat Calabria, who covered the Islanders’ dynasty for Newsday. “Al was very patient. He built up confidence over the course of those months. A lot of times, he would take his foot off the gas because he knew what they needed was to have their confidence restored.”