Bill Torrey once said that when he arrived in 1972 as the first employee of the expansion Islanders, “There was no office, no desk, not even a pencil.” From that humble start, he built the team into a dynasty and changed life on Long Island. For the indelible memories his blueprint produced, he has a banner above the team’s ice, depicting his trademark bow tie and his lasting title, “The Architect.”
It is a lasting tribute to the Hockey Hall of Fame executive, who the NHL said died at his home in Florida on Wednesday night. He was 83.
The NHL announced Torrey’s passing in a statement from commissioner Gary Bettman on Thursday afternoon.
“Bill was the first employee, general manager and architect of one of the greatest dynasties in NHL history — the New York Islanders, winners of four straight Stanley Cups,” Bettman said. “He was the first president of the Florida Panthers and built the organization into one of the most successful expansion franchises in league history — the Panthers reached the Stanley Cup Final in just their third season of existence. And his imprint is on virtually every team in our League, as he personally mentored and inspired generations of NHL general managers who have followed him and established the team-building blueprint based upon scouting, drafting and player development that today remains the model for lasting success.”
Bettman added that Torrey “was a close and cherished friend and a great source of counsel. I will miss his wit, wisdom and warmth.”
Torrey took the Islanders franchise from scratch, brought it within a game of the Stanley Cup Final in its third season, helped rescue it from the brink of bankruptcy and guided it to four straight Cup wins from 1980-83. He steadfastly believed in building through home-grown talent and saw five players that he drafted reach the Hall of Fame: Denis Potvin, Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, Clark Gillies and Pat LaFontaine. But he also had a knack for spotting talent elsewhere, recruiting Al Arbour and convincing him to coach the team, and making dramatic trades, most notably the one that brought Butch Goring and ignited the Cup run.
The Islanders were not the only team that flourished under Torrey’s touch. He immediately improved the expansion Oakland Seals when he became general manager in their second season in 1969. And after he left the Islanders in 1992, he became the first president of the new Florida Panthers franchise in 1993 and, in only its third year of existence, led the team to the Stanley Cup Final. When the Islanders and Panthers met in a first-round playoff series in 2016, all of the games were played beneath banners honoring Torrey. The Florida team hoisted one in 2010.
“Bill set the model for how to build a franchise with the leadership he instilled through his coaching staff, his innovative drafting methods and the trades he executed,” Islanders general manager Garth Snow said in a statement. “He was a pioneer, who became a mentor and even better friend, to so many in the industry. The teams he constructed set records that may never be broken, including the four straight Stanley Cup championships and 19 straight playoff series wins. On behalf of the entire organization, we send our deepest condolences to Bill’s family.”
Including the time he spent as a consultant and alternate governor, he spent more years working in South Florida than he did in Nassau County. Still, it was with the Islanders that he made the mark that will last in hockey history.
“Bill Torrey brought a lot of enjoyment to Long Island and he gave a lot of players opportunities to play in the league. It was a pretty good setup they found when they got to the Island,” Ed Westfall said when Torrey was elected to the Hall of Fame in the Builders category in 1995. Westfall, the first player Torrey chose for the Islanders in the 1972 NHL expansion draft, and the team’s first captain and longtime broadcaster added, “He put everything he had on the line to do the best job he could to bring a winner to Long Island.”
There were tough times, to be sure, such as a string of playoff disappointments and financial problems in the late 1970s. But the president and general manager did not abandon his plan. “I’d say it was his patience, that was probably the biggest thing. He’d stick with guys,” said Gillies, one of the junior stars Torrey scouted during the team’s first two seasons, when it had the worst record in the NHL.
By the third season in 1975, the Islanders were surprisingly competitive. Torrey made January trades with the Minnesota North Stars, acquiring Jude Drouin and J.P. Parise and saw his young team stun the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, in overtime of the climactic game of a best-of-three playoff series. “We were the country bumpkins from out on Long Island,” he said in a Newsday interview 40 years later. “We beat the team from the big city. It gave us legitimacy.”
William Arthur Torrey was born in 1934 at Montreal Children’s Hospital, across the street from the Forum, home of the Canadiens. He grew up watching that fabled franchise, which was renowned for grooming its own star players.
Recognizing he did not have the skating ability to play well as a defenseman, he focused on his double major of business and psychology at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. His first job in hockey came in the mid-1960s as general manager of the Pittsburgh Hornets of the American Hockey League and learned instantly how to cope with unforeseen circumstances. It turned out that the owner wanted him to attract, book and administer shows and concerts at the arena as well.
He had more abrupt learning experiences when he left for the Seals in 1968 to work for tempestuous owner Charles O. Finley. Despite boosting the team from last place to second in the all-expansion Western Division, Torrey left in 1971 amid a contract dispute.
Torrey returned to Pittsburgh and the arena-event business, still yearning for a role in hockey. He was recommended to Islanders owner Roy Boe by Nelson Doubleday, a former minority partner in the Seals. Torrey also had an offer from the other expansion team, the Atlanta Flames. His friend, Pittsburgh Steelers patriarch Art Rooney, advised Torrey to take the job on Long Island. Recalling the conversation in 2014, before the final Panthers-Islanders game at Nassau Coliseum, Torrey remembers Rooney saying, “If you have a good team, you won’t have to worry about selling tickets.”
Boe sold him by bringing him to Cold Spring Harbor and a seafood restaurant at which Torrey would later convince Arbour to be the Islanders coach. Torrey ended up living in that hamlet for many years. He was also a beloved member of the Meadow Brook Club.
Torrey withstood a record-setting bad 1972-73 season (only 12 victories), reassured that the first draft pick would be Potvin. To make sure that the standout defenseman would not go to the rival World Hockey Association, Torrey acquired Potvin’s brother Jean from the Philadelphia Flyers.
Potvin was joined in subsequent seasons by Gillies, Trottier, Bossy and numerous other young prospects. The franchise got on the map in 1975 when, after eliminating the Rangers, they came back to beat the Penguins after having lost the first three games of a seven-game series, and forced Game 7 against the Flyers after having lost the first three.
The franchise clearly was on its way. But it had trouble going far in the playoffs. That was not even the worst of their problems. Boe’s financial woes put the Islanders on the brink of bankruptcy. More than once, Torrey had to hurry off the team bus so he could pay the hotel bill in cash before the players checked in. Torrey spoke at length with Boe’s minority partner John O. Pickett, persuading him that the team was worth saving. Against advice from friends and financial advisors, Pickett agreed.
So Torrey was free to concentrate on hockey, making the history-altering Goring deal. The Islanders won a record 19 consecutive playoff series and their general manager was content to let his players and coach collect almost all of the plaudits. Torrey nonetheless emerged as one of hockey’s most prominent figures. He was recognized by his acumen, his smile and his bow tie.
“The thing I liked about them was that they were small,” Torrey said the day he was inducted into the Hall. “You can fold them up and put them in your pocket. You can’t spill on them.”
Torrey and his bowtie became fixtures in Miami, after a new Islanders ownership group let him go in 1992. He retained ties to Long Island, though, through his memories and the children and grandchildren who still live here. Torrey was wistful about the closing of Nassau Coliseum in 2015, mindful that he had commissioned an architect of his own to draw up plans for both a remodeling and a replacement on the same grounds. He said county officials were not receptive.
“I loved living here,” Torrey said in a corridor at ice level before his last game in Uniondale. “I’ve had kids grow up here and now I’ve got grandkids who have grown up here. I know this: People here love hockey. I just hate to see it all lost.”
There were some mixed and poignant feelings in the spring of 2016, when the Islanders and Panthers met in the playoffs for the first time. Torrey’s son Rich said that he and his brothers were all pulling for Florida, but it was hard on his brother Artie. “His four daughters are diehard Islanders fans,” Rich said at the time. “Whether they are going to root against Granddad, I can’t say. It may be that no matter who wins, they’ll be happy.”
Torrey had been with his whole family in Virginia this past weekend for his granddaughter’s wedding, said his son Richard of Shoreham, father of the bride. “He helped all the groomsmen with their bow ties,” Richard said.
Richard said his father was preparing to go on a hockey-related business trip. His driver, who also takes care of Torrey’s house, went in when there was no answer at the door. Richard said the cause of death still has not been determined.
“He packed more into 83, almost 84 years, than anyone I have ever seen,” his son said.
Torrey is survived by his four sons, William, Richard, Peter and Arthur, his brother, David, his sister, Jane, and his 10 grandchildren.