Bill Torrey: How We’ll Miss His Smile and Genius

The New York Islanders (1980-83) comprised the greatest hockey team ever put on ice.

If you don’t believe me, all you had to do was ask its architect, Bill Torrey.

Bowtie Bill, who died in West Palm Beach, Florida, at 83, had been saying it for decades and his point was irrefutable.

“Not only did we win four consecutive Stanley Cups,” Torrey rationally explained, “but we won 19 — count ’em 19 — consecutive playoff series. Nobody ever will come close to breaking that record.”

Arguing with Bill never was a particularly good idea because his logic was as impeccable as his hand-crafted cravats.

Stan Epstein, a SportsChannel producer, learned that lesson after the Islanders had won their second straight Cup in 1981 by defeating the Minnesota North Stars in five games.

Complaining that Torrey didn’t give members of the tv production crew championship rings as Bill did for his players, Epstein was told to confront the general manager directly, which Stan did.

When Epstein put the question — “How come we TV guys don’t get rings?” — to Torrey, Bill answered with a question: “Stan,” the Bowtied Man shot back, “how many goals did you score for us this year?”

Tongue-tied, Epstein conducted an orderly retreat.

There never was a retreat in Torrey. When he took over as Islanders boss in 1972, he had to build a franchise from scratch while the World Hockey Association raided NHL teams left and right. Constructing a new team was not nearly as easy as it recently was for George McPhee in Las Vegas.

“I don’t expect my NHL brothers will be overly generous with me in the Draft,” Bill prophetically said. “I don’t think anyone will throw a 25 or 30-goalscorer at us. We will beg and borrow any talent we can.

“I committed myself to youth. We decided to draft people who’ll be around for years rather than those who will not be with us after a year or two.”

The Islanders, who would become the first American-based hockey team to win four consecutive Stanley Cups, grew slowly but surely in spite of the WHA challenge.

“I was convinced that the WHA was a fact of life,” Torrey explained. “I knew we had to take them seriously because we were going to have to battle them for players. We did have an edge in one respect; the NHL was THE league. All things being equal, hockey players wanted to be in the NHL rather than any new league.”

Apart from his first Draft pick, right wing Billy Harris, and veteran defensive forward Ed Westfall, the Islanders’ original roster was doomed to defeat.

But, Torrey, who managed to find humor in everything, had an answer to that.

Torrey: “In our first season, I thought the first name of our team was ‘Hapless.’ Seemingly, after every defeat, some newspaper writer would call us the ‘Hapless Islanders’.”

Bill wasn’t perfect. He guessed wrong on his first coaching choice, Phil Goyette, who failed to complete the maiden season; replaced on an interim basis by ex-Ranger Earl Ingarfield.

Prior to his club’s second campaign, he made one of his landmark decisions; hiring Al Arbour as head coach. At first, Arbour was against moving to the New York Area, but Bill had the answer.

“I told Al and his wife, Claire, that Long Island wasn’t like Manhattan. I showed him our beaches, our golf courses and the suburban way of life. That convinced him and Al began to turn us into a competitive team.”

Torrey helped his new coach by fighting off the WHA and Montreal Canadiens general manager Sam Pollock by signing top-pick defenseman Denis Potvin. Prior to the 1973 Draft, Pollock tried all sorts of ploys to trade for the Potvin pick including a legendary few walks around the Mount Royal Hotel where the Draft was to take place.

“We walked around the block once and Sam was working on me pretty good,” Torrey recalled. “He had several possibilities and I considered them all. But I was convinced we had to build the team around Denis. Then came the Draft itself and Sammy wouldn’t give up.

“And when it came to our turn to make the selection, he called a timeout just as I was about to make my choice. Sammy had another offer, but I wouldn’t budge. I said, ‘The New York Islanders wish to draft as their first choice, Denis Potvin.'”

From that choice, Torrey began building with one gem after another: Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, Clark Gillies, Bob Nystrom, Bill Smith and Bob Bourne, just to name a few. When in 1977 some Islanders scouts tried to dissuade Torrey from picking Bossy on the grounds that he was weak defensively, Torrey had the perfect squelch: “You can’t teach a guy to score the way that kid can, but Al (Arbour) can teach him to play defense.”

The NHL 100 takes a look back at Mike Bossy's illustrious career after being named as one of the 100 greatest athletes to ever play hockey.

Often overlooked was Torrey’s ability to groom young hockey people into executive superstars. One such example was Jim Devellano, who was named head scout by Bill in 1974.

“When Bill gave me the job,” Jimmy D remembered, “he said, ‘You’re in complete control. Just do it.’ At one moment he was my mentor and in another he let me flap my wings. He gave me responsibility.”

Devellano was so successful that the Detroit Red Wings eventually signed him as general manager. Jimmy responded by turning the Motor City sextet, Since then Detroit has won four Stanley Cups.

Many other sharp Torrey selections added to what would be the first American hockey dynasty. From the WHA, Bill’s sidekick Jimmy Devellano nabbed John Tonelli, who would dish the rubber to Nystrom for the inimitable 1980 Cup-winner.

But getting to the summit was about as easy as climbing Mount Everest. In the 1978 playoffs, the Islanders were upset by the Toronto Maple Leafs and in 1979 further humiliation was heaped on the club when the hated Rangers knocked off the favored Nassaumen in six games.

Rumor had it that Torrey was close to giving Arbour the hook before the 1979-80 season, but never pulled the chute. What Bill did was pull off the trade that turned the club into champions. He dealt defenseman Dave Lewis and disappointing right wing Billy Harris — the club’s first pick in 1972 — to Los Angeles for center Butch Goring.

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With Goring on the roster, Trottier was given more room to display his talents and the Islanders once again took aim at The Cup.

“Hearing about the loss of Bill is tough,” said Goring, now MSG Networks Islanders analyst. “I’ve had a lot of respect for him; not only as a manager and a hockey person. When he traded for me, it changed my whole world. He was a special friend and will be missed.”

Looking backward, Torrey’s deal for Goring has tended to overshadow another key addition made during the 1979-80 campaign.

“Bill made one more move that was pivotal,” said Chico Resch, then goaltender who shared the pipes with Smith. “He got defenseman Gord Lane from Washington. Now Gordie wasn’t the best backliner, but he was as tough as they came and any forward who came near him had to be very careful. Now we had everything covered, including an intimidator.”

When the 1980 Olympics were completed he added another defensive star, Ken Morrow, a Gold Medalist under coach Herb Brooks. Morrow remains one of the most underrated backliners in NHL annals.

The rest is history.

Torrey’s franchise became a monster, beating the Flyers in 1980 for the first Cup; followed by Minnesota, Vancouver and Edmonton. During the club’s “Drive For Five” in the Spring of 1984, Arbour’s skaters won three more series before finally losing to Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers.

Although he never won another Cup in Nassau, Torrey continued to find starry players such as Pat LaFontaine, Patrick Flatley and Kelly Hrudey.

In his later years, Mister Bowtie headed South in 1993 as president of the baby Florida Panthers. In no time at all, the Cats reached the Cup Final in 1996, losing to the Colorado Avalanche.

News of Torrey’s passing caused grief to hockey people and fans throughout North America. San Jose coach Peter DeBoer, who was Panthers coach under Torrey, put it this way: “Bill was a class act,” said DeBoer. “When I was in Florida we had gone through three GMs, three ownership groups in my first three years there. Bill was the one stabilizing force; the one guy who always had a smile and a positive word.

“He had a small conversation at the right time to keep me focused. I’ll always remember him as an exceptional person.”

Torrey’s all-time pick, Potvin was moved to tears when he learned of Bill’s death.

I was, too.

A banner honoring Bill Torrey, the GM of the Islanders dynasty team of the ’80s , is raised to the rafters of Nassau Coliseum on January 13, 2001.

From 1972, when I met Bill at the Billy Harris-coming-to-the-Island press conference, to this past season when we’d schmooze in the Islanders’ press room, Bill always had that special smile-inducing quality.

The last time we met, I tried a joke on Bill. A grin spread across his face and then, “Stan, you can do better than that.”

I promised that the next time we met, I’d have another better one for my Bowtied pal.

Sorry, but I never will.

Rest in peace, old Buddy, the Champion manager of Champs!

A BILL TORREY STORY NOBODY KNOWS — BUT SHOULD 

The death of Bill Torrey has elicited any number of reactions, but the one The Maven likes best comes via Hollywood where my former intern Joe Dionisio, an ex-Newsday editor now screenwriter, sends this: 

Despite my years of work with the Islanders (via SportsChannel, the Maven and Chris Botta’s public relations crew), I had minimal interaction with Torrey. But three years and 1,400 miles later, I was lucky enough to get to know “The Architect” by sheer accident.

In the early 1990s, I moved to Florida and took a gig as a hockey columnist at the Palm Beach Post. The Panthers did not yet exist, but a neutral-site game on Dec. 9, 1992 at Miami Arena hinted that expansion was looming. (Steven King led New York to a 6-5 win over Tampa, leading me to write, “If the Lightning have nightmares, they can blame the horror authored by Rangers winger Steven King.” Editors weren’t thrilled.)

To feed my NHL addiction, I ritually left the office to eat at the Palm Beach Ale House, the lone sports bar showing puck on TV. More importantly, the bar had an elevated garage. Driving a Mazda so sickly that it needed to be push-started daily, I was able to roll my car down the incline, pop the clutch, and get back to the newspaper. Repair the car? No. My Palm Beach Post salary would not be confused with Oprah Winfrey’s.

So who is sitting at the adjacent table one night? The former GM of the Islanders. When I’m in a non-hockey market and see any casual fan wearing NHL apparel, I automatically say hello … my entire life, I feel like an unpaid ambassador to the sport. But seeing a future Hall of Famer next to me at a Florida sports bar doubly guaranteed I’d put my nose in his face.

We had a few drinks and discussed the possibilities of NHL expansion to South Florida and we came around to the Isles’ dynasty. That’s when Torrey’s conversation turned to his dynasty and his praise to Potvin, Trottier, Bossy and Smith.

UNIONDALE, NY – APRIL, 1992: Bill Torrey and Al Arbour pose with a trophy before an New York Islanders game in April, 1992 at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images)

Many times after that night, I’d bump into Torrey at that same Palm Beach Ale House, join him at a table, and listen to his great stories. Our chats got more intriguing after one of the most underrated historic weeks in NHL annals.  On Dec. 10, 1992 at the Palm Beach Breakers Hotel, the league announced an expansion to Miami and Anaheim.  A day later, on Dec. 11, Gary Bettman was named commissioner.

Torrey was soon on the Panthers’ payroll. In short order, he was kind enough to put me in touch with Greg Bouris, the PR director that Torrey and I both worked with back on Long Island.  Greg was one of several Islanders personnel who made the exodus and took jobs with the Panthers. I can credit Torrey for my gig hosting a hockey radio show at Miami’s WQAM.

Torrey’s work with the Panthers speaks for itself. Reaching the finals in year three was a remarkable accomplishment.  But I’ll most remember him as the only other lonely hockey fan in a sports bar where every other television was tuned to NASCAR, college football, golf, tennis and monster-truck rallies. Thanks for the beer, Bow Tie.

The Garden of Dreams Foundation helps kids facing obstacles in the Tri-State area, including Rangers fan Taylor Ryan who is battling a rare blood disorder called Langerhans cell histiocytosis.