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Islanders forged identity in magic spring of 1975

The New York Islanders' J.P. Parise (#2) scores

The New York Islanders' J.P. Parise (#2) scores a goal in overtime to defeat the rival New York Rangers in the 1975 playoffs at Madison Square Garden on April 11, 1975. Photo Credit: Getty Images / B Bennett

The Islanders thoroughly surprised the hockey world in the spring of 1975, so it was only fitting that they finished up by startling the sport's most famous good-luck charm.

When songstress Kate Smith was summoned to the ice in Philadelphia to psych them out, the Islanders politely lined up, shook her hand and presented her a bouquet of chrysanthemums.

By that time, the third-year franchise had shocked the Rangers on J.P. Parise's goal 11 seconds into overtime; stunned the Penguins by winning a seven-game series after losing the first three games, and staggered the defending champion Flyers by recovering from another three-games-to-none deficit to force Game 7 in the Stanley Cup semifinals.

At that point, the Flyers had seen the Islanders shake off their best punch (literally, as tough guy Dave Schultz tried sending a message in Game 5 and was pummeled by Clark Gillies), so they called on the iconic singer.

The Flyers had been remarkably successful when they played a recording of Smith's "God Bless America" in place of the national anthem at the Spectrum. This time, for extra effect, they brought in Kate herself.

"I was always a big fan, from the days of 'When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain,' " said Islanders captain Ed Westfall, referring to Smith's theme song from her radio and television shows. It was Westfall who gave the flowers to her.

"Everybody thought they were roses and they weren't," Westfall said recently. "Everybody thought I had preplanned this, but I didn't."

The floral arrangement had been sent to Islanders defenseman Gerry Hart from a female admirer. The sight of it gave the captain an idea.

"I'm sitting there, saying, 'Hartie, what are you going to do with the flowers? Can I have them?' He said, 'Sure,' " Westfall said recently.

As Smith finished her song, gesturing to exhort the raucous Flyers crowd, Westfall led the Islanders team out to greet her, stealing the show.

Not for long, though. They allowed a goal to Gary Dornhoefer 19 seconds into the game and lost, 4-1, to a better team. But the floral meet-and-greet was one final sign of that special group's resourcefulness. Forty years later, the 1975 team stands as the one that put the Islanders on the map.

"We were the country bumpkins from out on Long Island," said general manager Bill Torrey, who built that team from scratch.

"Those playoffs were important to us in so many ways," he said. "If we had beaten Boston or Philly in that first series, it would have been great. But we beat the team from the big city. It gave us legitimacy."

Forging an identity

The reverberations from that spring still are bouncing off the friendly walls and ceiling of Nassau Coliseum. The spring of 1975 not only established the foundation for the run of four Stanley Cups that began five years later, it forever cemented the relationship between the team and its constituency -- a bond that is making the franchise's final season on Long Island so thrilling and bittersweet.

"It would make my head spin how many people became hockey fans. They would meet our plane at LaGuardia," said Glenn "Chico'' Resch, then a mustachioed, goalpost-kissing rookie goalie who was nicknamed for his resemblance to Freddie Prinze's character in the television sitcom "Chico and The Man."

Westfall, who went on to have a long career as a TV analyst for the team, said, "Boy, it was really starting to show, how the fans enjoyed feeling that they really had a team now. You got a feel for how passionate they were. We all enjoyed Long Island, and we wanted to win for the fans. By the time that season was halfway through, we were light on our skates."

Most remarkable about the 1975 playoff run was the context, brief and deep. Three years earlier, the Islanders didn't exist. Two years earlier, they finished 12-60-6, which was then the worst record ever in the National Hockey League.

Entering 1974-75, many hockey people still thought of Long Island's team the way Flyers general manager Keith Allen had in March 1973 when Philadelphia defenseman Jean Potvin asked to be traded there.

"I remember him still, sitting in his big chair, behind his big desk, saying, 'What the hell do you want to go there for? They've got the worst team in the history of the NHL,' " said Potvin, who explained to Allen that he wanted to play alongside his brother Denis, whom the Islanders said they would take as the No. 1 overall pick.

The team did improve in 1973-74 with the addition of the younger Potvin, a franchise cornerstone, and the signing of Al Arbour as coach. They reduced their goals-against from 347 in the expansion year to 247.

When Gillies left home in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, in the summer of 1974 for his rookie season, his buddies said they would see him right after the regular season ended.

"I said, 'I'm not really sure about that,' '' Gillies said in recalling the moment. "I looked at the roster and I saw names like Dave Lewis and Lorne Henning and Garry Howatt and Bobby Nystrom, a lot of the guys I had played against in the Western Canada league and whom I knew were good players."

Torrey noticed something different, too. "I thought we had done well in the draft. But then at training camp, I saw that we actually had chemistry," he said.

Still, he kept making deals. "I didn't like what the league had given us in the expansion draft,'' he said. "It was terrible."

Two days apart in January 1975, Torrey made a pair of trades with the Minnesota North Stars, acquiring Parise and Jude Drouin. And the former laughingstock Islanders suddenly were a much more serious team.

"I can't emphasize enough the experience they brought and the desire to win," Jean Potvin said. "We all looked up to these guys an awful lot."

Getting on a glorious roll

After March 15, the Islanders went 5-1-5 (won-lost-tied in a pre-overtime era) and finished the regular season with their first win at Madison Square Garden. That set them up for the best-of-three series that is the stuff of Islanders legend. Parise's goal was replayed many times last month after he died. It stands as his lasting contribution.

"You could hear a pin drop in Madison Square Garden," said Billy Smith, who was in goal that night. "We were lucky. I mean, we caught them off guard. They probably, at that time, were a better team than us, but we worked hard."

That was only the start. Next was a series that established an Islanders-Penguins rivalry that has survived into the John Tavares-Sidney Crosby era. The key figure was someone who never skated in the seven games.

"Everybody bought in. They bought in to Al. He learned to be a coach with that team," Westfall said, recalling Arbour's signature pep talk.

The Islanders were down three games to none, mindful that the 1942 Maple Leafs were the only team to come back from that deficit to win a series.

"He said at the practice rink, 'If there's one guy here who doesn't think we can win this series, I want you to go in and take your stuff off and nothing will be said. Just get out of here,' " Westfall said.

Nobody left.

They were scoreless deep in Game 7 at Pittsburgh, with Resch expressing his relief at a shot that caromed off the post. "As athletes, especially goalies, we talk about the Unseen Hand. Players know there's another force going on besides who is playing better," Resch said. "I remember I just went over and said, 'I love you, red goalpost' and gave it a kiss. Why not? It was my best friend at the time."

By the end of the night, every Islander's best friend was Westfall, who scored the only goal of the game on a backhander.

After that, it was the full playoff treatment. Resch and Westfall were flown to Buffalo to appear on Hockey Night in Canada's telecast of the Sabres-Canadiens semifinal (they showed Resch's celebratory dance, which he dubbed the Chico Cha-Cha). On nights before home games, players got to stay at a luxury hotel. "That's where I met Freddie Prinze," Resch said.

The Islanders brought in a draftee to practice with them. "Bryan Trottier . . . I remember telling someone he's the next Gordie Howe, only with a lefthanded shot,'' Westfall said.

Neither the Flyers nor another 3-0 deficit intimidated them. Drouin extended the series with an overtime goal in Game 4 and Gillies sent a message to the rest of the league -- perhaps for years to come -- by standing up to Schultz near the end of a Game 5 the Islanders led 5-1.

"I knew this was going to be a pretty scary situation,'' Gillies said. "I didn't know I was going to beat the crap out of him, but I had a hunch he was going to have to fight pretty hard to have me not beat the crap out of him . . . As everybody has talked about, that was a real turning point for this team."

The Islanders won Game 6 at the Coliseum, 2-1, on a third-period goal by Hart, which brought them face-to-face with Kate Smith.

It eventually sent them much further. Gillies never really did return to Moose Jaw, except for an occasional visit. He got married that summer and, at his wife Pam's suggestion, settled on Long Island. They have been here ever since.

Trottier made the team for keeps the next season when he was the rookie of the year, and kept going until he made the Hall of Fame.

Arbour kept pushing and prodding until he found a way to win 19 consecutive playoff series.

Torrey kept making deals until he finally outdid his Parise/Drouin trades by acquiring Butch Goring in 1980.

Fans kept being passionate, having packed the house this season.

In a way, all of it can be traced to the spring of 1975, which had its share of epilogues.

Westfall was in Manhattan's Lenox Hill Hospital for a hockey-related surgery that summer and heard that Kate Smith (who died in 1986) was a few floors above, receiving treatment. He was disappointed to learn she wasn't receiving visitors and settled for sending a nice note.

But he did see her on TV that offseason, on the Philadelphia-based "Mike Douglas Show."

"She's telling the story," Westfall said. "She's saying, 'This handsome captain of the Islanders came out and handed me flowers. It drives me crazy. How did he know my favorite flowers were chrysanthemums?' ''

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