Lou Lamoriello has done far more winning than losing in his Hall of Fame career, including three Stanley Cups with the Devils, and now he has the Islanders on a playoff track. But often it is the losses that linger, some more than others.
Even when it is 40 years after the fact, in this case a college hockey game at Cornell's Lynah Rink in upstate Ithaca on March 6, 1979.
“With memories, unfortunately, some of the things that don’t go right stick out a lot more than the things that did go right,” the Islanders' president and general manager said.
“And I would have to say that that is certainly a game that sticks out in my mind quite a bit . . . I remember it vividly.”
It was an ECAC quarterfinal between Cornell and Lamoriello’s Providence College team. He was only 36, but he already was a decade into his term as Providence’s coach.
His team lost, 6-5, in overtime after leading 5-1 with 12 ½ minutes left in regulation time.
Oh, and one of his stars, Randy Wilson, missed an empty net on a breakaway in the final minute, allowing future Ranger Lance Nethery to tie it with 13 seconds left.
When a visitor pointed out to him how profoundly devastated he appeared to be outside the visiting dressing room that night, Lamoriello said, “As years go on, stories get bigger and better, and more fabricated and more exaggerated, so I assume that’s happening here, too.”
Keith Olbermann, then a senior covering the game for the Cornell radio station, WVBR, recalled, “He spoke, words came out, but there’s no way he was actually thinking. It was genuinely the first time I’d ever seen anybody who hadn’t been physically injured evince signs of clinical shock. It was marvelous.”
Olbermann added, “If the Zamboni had come driving straight at us, I don’t think he would’ve moved. Or noticed.”
And yet, even after what Olbermann called “the greatest sporting event in human history,” the rest of the story was more complicated and nuanced. Sports and life are like that.
Lamoriello now sees “a positive” in Wilson’s miss. Wilson himself said he got over it in “five minutes” and considers it a blessing.
More on all that later. First, a recap:
Providence had upset Cornell, 8-5, in the quarterfinals the year before and seemed poised to do so again, leading 3-0 after two periods, then 4-0, then 5-1.
“I remember us making it 5-2 and Coach [Dick Bertrand] saying something on the bench like, ‘We need a goal every three minutes,’ ” Nethery recalled from Germany, where he advises a developmental team.
Cornell scored at 7:39 of the third, then at 9:35, then at 14:49. Bertrand pulled freshman goalie Brian Hayward, who later played 11 years in the NHL.
Lamoriello said it has been 20 or 25 years since he last saw a replay of what happened next, but he reconstructed it in precise detail.
There was a faceoff in Providence’s end. A Cornell giveaway sprung Wilson. Said Cornell radio announcer Roy Ives, “It’ll be a goal for Wilson. This will do it.” (You can see a grainy video of the play on YouTube.)
Wilson took a lefthanded shot from the slot rather than simply skate the puck into the net. He missed.
“I knew I had nobody around me,” he said. “My nickname at Providence was ‘Rocket.’ I was a rocket ship. I could skate like the wind. I did everything fast and hard, and my idea was to fire it into the top shelf . . . For some reason, I let it rip and it hit the post.”
Said Nethery, “Instead of just staking it into the net, he kind of dragged the puck a little bit and shot it and it hit the post and our defenseman coming back, Steve Hennessy, he went skating back hard.
“I think everybody else kind of stopped and watched what was going on and figured, ‘Well the game is over.’ ”
Hennessy collected the puck in the corner and sent it to Nethery at center ice. He took a slap shot from the blue line and beat goalie Bill Milner between his legs.
“I was probably just standing there,” Nethery said. “He passed me the puck and I started to skate with it without really realizing how much time was left.”
Nethery said two things worked in his favor: The ice was chewed up, causing the puck to wobble. And Milner had come out of the net with his arms up, forcing him to skate back to his crease off balance.
“It didn’t really come off my stick properly,” Nethery said. “It kind of bounced when I shot it and it was like a knuckleball where it dipped down, and as he was skating back, it went between his legs.”
Said Wilson, “Lance was not a great skater, but he had great hands. He gets over the red line, puck rolls up, he fires a knuckleball slap shot. Our goaltender Bill Milner had come out, got his hands up, he fell backing in, it goes in between his legs.”
Rob Gemmell won it for Cornell four minutes into overtime. Fans stormed the ice, led by Olbermann’s late friend, Glenn Corneliess. Cornell advanced to the semifinals, where it lost to New Hampshire in Boston.
Wilson felt bad for Lamoriello and his teammates, but he said he got over the loss quickly. That was because rather than continue in the ECACs and NCAAs, he was free to join the CHL’s Kansas City Red Wings.
They were coached by his father, Larry, an NHL player in the 1950s whose brother, Johnny, once held the league record for consecutive games played. (Randy’s brother, Ron, also later was a longtime NHL player and coach.)
Randy never had played for his father at any level. He scored four goals in 13 games for him that spring.
“It’s probably my most treasured experience, being able to play for my dad,” Wilson said. “He was my hero. He was my mentor. He was everything.”
The team was scheduled to move to Glens Falls, New York, that summer, with Larry as its coach, shortly after Randy’s wedding. But on Aug. 16, 1979, he died while on a run near his upstate home. He was 48.
“He went out for a jog and never came home,” Randy said. He was found six hours later at the bottom of a hill, having hit his head on a rock after suffering a heart attack.
Randy was slowed by injuries and never reached the NHL. He is 61 now, and a mortgage loan originator.
Those scant weeks playing with his father resonate far more than the loss at Cornell. He recalled a play in his first game for his father in which he split two defenders and scored the go-ahead goal.
“I come back, sit on the bench, and it’s probably my proudest moment,” he said. “My dad, I could see him walk down, he doesn’t say anything, but he casually put his foot up on the bench like coaches do.
“And he kicked my backside, and that was his way of patting me on the back. It’s kind of cool. That was worth it. I think that is why I missed the empty net.”
Nethery played 38 regular-season games with the Rangers and had five goals and three assists in the 1981 playoffs as they advanced to the Stanley Cup semifinals before being swept by the Islanders.
He has spent the past 35 years as a player, coach and executive in Switzerland and Germany. In 1985-86, he played in Davos, Switzerland, with Ron Wilson.
“Lance came in, saw Ron and said, ‘What the hell was going on with your brother? How did he miss an empty net?’ ” Randy said with a laugh.
Nethery, 61, still holds the ECAC career points record with 271, four more than fellow former Ranger Martin St. Louis’ 267 at Vermont. If he had not scored that goal against Providence and played the next weekend, he would not have the mark.
“It was probably the most incredible game or most interesting game I’ve ever played in,” Nethery said, “because of the crowd, because of the way the game went and maybe because of the year before. It was unbelievable.”
Olbermann, who rose to fame as an ESPN anchor in the 1990s, has been to countless sports events as a fan and journalist, including the 1978 Yankees-Red Sox playoff game at Fenway Park and the 1980 Olympic hockey tournament in Lake Placid.
Where does the Cornell-Providence game rank? “It’s No. 1,” said Olbermann, who wore a replica Nethery Rangers jersey to Game 7 of the 2015 Eastern Conference finals at Madison Square Garden against the Lightning.
“Other comeback games did not have that lady-or-the-tiger quality to them. In fact, the only one I think was similar to it was the Buckner / Mookie game in the ‘86 World Series, and even that only tied the series. This was cataclysm turned into ecstasy.”
There is a DVD of the full game that has circulated among Cornell alumni for years and includes the coaches’ video with Ives’ call synched to it. Wilson asked if he could get a copy made for him.
Asked if he would like to see it sometime, Lamoriello said, “No.”