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Joe Gergen: It's a mad, mad, mad locker room

Islanders celebrating beating the Flyers in Game 6

Islanders celebrating beating the Flyers in Game 6 at Nassau Coliseum to win their first Stanley Cup in overtime. (May 24, 2010) Credit: Newsday File / Paul J. Bereswill

This column appeared in the May 25, 1980, edition of Newsday

UNIONDALE - Clark Gillies is talking into a camera. He is still in his skates, which means he is standing very tall, and he has his left arm wrapped around teammate John Tonelli. With his right hand, Gillies deftly slips the microphone under Tonelli's chin.

"John,'' Gillies begins in his best television manner, "you've just won the Stanley Cup. How does it feel?''

Behind the home movie camera, which belongs to Gillies, is his cousin from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. The man's name is Don Crook ("Crook, as in thief,'' Gillies says), and he interrupts here to say that the lens is foggy, perhaps because the temperature-humidity index in the dressing room is 150 and it is raining champagne. "Blow on it,'' Crook says to Tonelli, who does as told.

And now back to you, Clarkie.

Suddenly, however, bright lights freeze the pair and a CBS microphone, attached to the arm of Sal Marchiano, forces its way into the picture. "We're here live from Nassau Coliseum,'' Marchiano says, raising the mike to Gillies' lips. Clearly, this is a great moment in electronic journalism, life imitating art imitating life. A take-off on a parody perhaps. Or a serious joke.

"Gee,'' Gillies says, "I was having my own interview.'' He smiles through his whiskers and speaks briefly to the folks out there in televisionland. And then returns to the camera held by his cousin from Moose Jaw. "About the overtime goal, John,'' Gillies says, straightfaced, "I saw you slide it over to Nystrom. Can you describe that goal for us?''

Tonelli, the man whose pass set up the goal that won the Cup in overtime of the sixth game of the final series between the Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers, is precise and analytical in his comments. "John, you're not usually so well spoken,'' Gillies says, still looking at the camera, when it is done. "Enjoy your summer and don't drink too much tonight.''

That's a take. Gillies hands the microphone to Crook, who turns and hands it to Garry Howatt. "Talk about the overtime period,'' Crook tells the Islander forward. "Hey,'' Howatt says, "I wasn't even on the ice during overtime.'' But Howatt finds something to say, which is just as well because they seem to have run out of champagne.

It is a time for improvisation, madcap nonsense without rhyme or reason. It is a time for silliness, for laughing out loud. It is a time for crying out of joy. That's what Gillies' mother, Dot, does when her son reaches out to kiss her as he comes off the ice. That's what Wayne Merrick's father, Len, does as the two men hug in the corrider outside the dressing room. That's what trainer Ron Waske is doing as he helps carry the Cup into the dressing room.

They are having the time of their lives, all of them. Al Arbour, the coach, is embracing John Pickett, the chairman of the board. Bill Torrey, the general manager, is dancing with Bill Smith, the goaltender. And the dish is running off with the spoon.

All because the Islanders have won the Cup. Tomorrow, perhaps, the saucer.

Smith, the winner in all 15 playoff victories, is the first to pop the cork. He does so while his teammates are shaking hands with the Flyers, a gesture the goalkeeper considers hollow. He clomps into the dressing room as the Cup is being carried to the ice by Lefty Reid of the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, and reappears two minutes later with a bottle of bubbly concealed under his jersey. "I want to spray the guys,'' he says.

The spray is welcome. They are tired and hot as they skate around underneath the Cup. It is a day for the beach, the start of Memorial Day weekend for goodness sakes, and here they have just played 67 minutes and 11 seconds of hockey in heavy sweaters, pads and longjohns.

"This is hockey,'' Smith says. "It's supposed to be cold out there. No way. It was an oven. I'm about ready to lie down.''

But even in the dressing room, there is no space to recline. It is filled with wives and parents and friends and acquaintances and just about everyone in the Coliseum who thought to bring an Instamatic. They are jostling for position with several camera crews, including Gillies', which are trailing enough cable to raise a bridge across the Sound. "Excuse me,'' an unidentified woman with white hair says at one point, "the Cup's coming through.'' And so it is, filled with champagne for another Islander to drink.

Bryan Trottier makes it to the dressing room, which is quite an upset. He is the last player to reach sanctuary. He has won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Most Valuable Player in the playoffs and people paw at him as he leaves the ice. He had this dumbstruck smile on his face and he waves back and forth between the clutching fans lined up by the rails.

"Bryan, you've just won the Stanley Cup. How does it feel?''

The question is not Gillies', who has tired of the business and found something to drink. Actually, the identity of the interviewer doesn't matter. It is the one universal question asked on Saturday evening, May 24, 1980, in the Nassau Coliseum.

Trottier says he is happy. But he hasn't yet decided whether it is the happiness of relief or exaltation. "When Bobby put the shot in,'' he says, "I don't know whether I was happy because the season was over or because we won the Cup.'' And he talks about the long playoff season, about the difficulty of beating Los Angeles, Boston, Buffalo and then Philadelphia in succession. He sounds 100 years old.

Over in another corner of the locker room, Olympian Ken Morrow is peeling the wrapper off a bottle of beer with his right thumb and shaking his head at the magnitude of it all. "I'm in a dream world right now.''

It is hot and it is humid and it is crowded in that dream world. Morrow doesn't seem to mind. Nor does anyone else in those heavy white uniforms. Merrick yells to his wife, Carol, who is standing on the shelf of a locker with some other wives. "She's done more than I have,'' he says. "You know, this is the greatest experience of my life, except maybe when my son was born.''

The Islanders have won the Stanley Cup. And the cow jumped over the moon.

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