“Bill Torrey knew.”
Those were the words from Denis Potvin during a spirited memorial service for the Islanders’ architect, referring to the innate sense that Torrey had for building a hockey team and dealing with people.
Perhaps the only thing he could not have foreseen was that about 275 people, including figures whom Potvin called “hockey royalty,” would turn out at Torrey’s beloved Meadow Brook Club on Friday afternoon for a couple of hours of memories and laughter.
“I think he would have been embarrassed by all the accolades,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in an interview after making a warm speech about his close friend, who died May 3. “But this was all about Bill and all of the people in his life. He clearly was beloved. He had an impact on everything he touched. In addition to everything he did as an executive, a talent judge, he was a genuinely good person.”
Shortly after the former Islanders general manager’s death, the family held a private funeral in Florida, where Torrey had lived since he began working for the then-expansion Panthers in 1993. But his four sons were clear that they wanted to have a gathering on Long Island, where he created his legacy in turning the expansion Islanders into a dynasty. It was at Meadow Brook in Jericho where the Hall of Famer repeatedly brought the Stanley Cup after the Islanders won it.
Friday’s service was billed as a celebration of Torrey’s life. It drew Hall of Fame players and front-office people, other former Islanders players and employees, and family members and friends.
Potvin, the pivotal draft pick in Islanders history, spoke of the way Torrey knew just whom to scout, draft, acquire and hire. As an 18-year-old defenseman, Potvin had a lucrative offer to sign with the World Hockey Association but chose the Islanders because Torrey “knew the hook” and executed it by acquiring Denis’ brother Jean.
Everyone at the microphone (introduced by emcee Jiggs McDonald) and in the seats had their own Torrey story. Jim Devellano spoke of having learned while working under Torrey with the Islanders and then using some of his old boss’ “magic” in his own Cup-winning Hall of Fame career as a general manager with the Red Wings. Bettman recalled how Torrey welcomed him into the league.
Most of the speeches were peppered with quips. Fellow former NHL general manager Lou Nanne told of having once made a trade with Torrey that involved dinner at The Palm restaurant. Torrey’s son Rich said his dad was so frugal, he wore clothes “until they vaporized.” Youngest son Artie said his dad was as tough negotiating a raise in allowance as he was in hammering out a forward’s contract. “And I wasn’t allowed to hold out,” he said.
Bryan Trottier said, “Bill had so much humility, but he had that spirit, that joy. I saw Bill in every one of his sons up there. I told them they should all be comedians. And that was Bill.”
The crowd loved every minute of it. The only boos were good-natured, directed at Rev. Peter Garry, who confessed before his invocation that he is a Rangers fan. Clark Gillies jokingly stormed out. Bettman offered dispensation to the priest.
The guests had come from every corner of hockey: longtime executives Glen Sather and Cliff Fletcher; generations of Islanders alumni, including Ed Westfall, Bob Nystrom, Lorne Henning, Glenn Resch, Butch Goring, Pat LaFontaine, Brad Dalgarno and Benoit Hogue; current co-owner Jon Ledecky and former GM Garth Snow.
All of them knew how much Torrey knew. “That man meant the world to me,” said Tom Fitzgerald, drafted by Torrey with the Islanders, acquired by Torrey for the Panthers and now the Devils’ assistant general manager. “He’d sit there and pat me on the back and say, ‘Fitzy boy, you stay at it and you’re going to get where you want to be.’ ”
Said Trottier: “It would probably be his greatest thrill to hear, ‘Thank you Bill, you had a great impact on my life.’ ”
Then again, he probably knew that.