Bill Torrey’s proud legacy as architect of one of hockey’s great dynasties

Bill Torrey watches his banner being hoisted during a ceremony honoring him before a game between the Panthers and New York Islanders. [Wilfredo Lee/AP]

A Hockey Hall of Fame induction is one of those catalysts for stock-taking of a life lived in the game.

So, it was with Bill Torrey back in 1995 when I spoke to him and others on the day of the big night, albeit, with the four Stanley Cup rings, probably not the biggest night of his hockey life. That was the impression that Bill Torrey gave me—he was honoured, professionally, personally, but yeah, in a heartbeat he would certainly trade the plaque for a fifth Cup, for a series win over Gretzky and the Oilers that would give he and a few others a legit glove-full of precious jewelry.

He had been gone from the Islanders for years, had taken on new responsibilities with the Panthers when hockey came to south Florida, but it’s the one that got away that you can’t stop reaching for. Likewise, the end of life sets off a wave of remembrances and Torrey’s death Thursday did exactly that for me. When I asked him about his team winning four Cups in a row, he reflexively pointed out, through gritted teeth: “Almost five.”

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OK, Mr. Torrey, four consecutive Stanley Cups and one round away from a fifth: 23 years ago I wrote that I doubt we’d see anything like that in my lifetime. As much as the Pittsburgh Penguins, two straight and still breathing in the second round, might present a threat to my mortality, they have won nine straight series. The Islanders won 19 in a row. Let that sink in.

In fact, it was in Pittsburgh that Torrey began his pro-hockey career and adopted the bow tie as his trademark fashion statement.

“I was wearing one when I got my first job in hockey with the Pittsburgh Hornets,” Torrey told me. “I thought my job was just going to be hockey, but then the owner had me booking the arena with Judy Garland and a lot of shows.”

Show business was a running theme in the early years for Torrey, variety giving way to vaudeville. In 1968, he landed in Oakland as vice-president of the Seals who were the expansion train-wreck against which many later misbegotten ventures would be measured. In his time with the Seals (or, for a time, the Golden Seals) Torrey reported to six owners he remembered, though none as much as the last, Charlie O. Finley.

It was Finley, who as owner of the Oakland A’s, seemed heaven-sent to make the lives of a commissioner and baseball traditionalists miserable in ways they couldn’t have imagined. So it was in the Seals’ office for Bill Torrey. The daily routine coming into the office was to duck and ask, “What next?”

“Finley had us trying out white skates, then green and gold skates,” Torrey told me. “And he wanted a mascot, a seal. Not a guy in a costume, a live seal out on the ice.”

After nine months, Torrey landed a job with the Islanders—better to work for a team that existed on paper than to report to a man who might have you riding a mule out to centre ice. (Link: An allusion for Charley O fans from back in the day.) Torrey knew that the team was going to suffer in the early days, not necessarily what an owner wants to hear, but a general manager’s first job is managing expectations.

“Our brethren didn’t leave us a lot at the expansion draft, and nine of the 18 players I drafted jumped to the World Hockey Association,” Torrey told me. “I sat down with the owners and said, ‘Look, there’s no way we can compete with the Rangers. We have to look down the road.’ We knew there were a lot of good young hockey players coming through the draft. We knew we’d be drafting kind of early and I knew there was a guy named Denis Potvin coming.”

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Unlike some expansion GMs before him, Torrey knew his team was going to live or die by the draft. The Islanders would live and thrive, landing not just Potvin first overall but, in seasons to come, Mike Bossy in the middle reaches of the first round and Bryan Trottier in the second.

Those three are in the Hockey Hall of Fame along with Clark Gillies and Billy Smith, along with coach Al Arbour, but still, I’ve always thought Torrey’s Islanders are often given the short shrift when fans talk about the game’s best teams ever. And I’ve always thought that about the stars on that team, Potvin in particular. With the Canadiens’ run in the late ’70s and the Oilers in mid-80s it’s easy to get lost in the interregnum.

If that team had played out of another market—if it had even played out of Manhattan rather than Uniondale—history might be kinder to them, or at least more generous.

What is almost entirely forgotten though is the fact that Torrey was able to ice such a great team despite an existential financial threat.

“One morning in 1978 we woke up and found the team was $22-million in debt,” Torrey told me. “We were an inch away from filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which would have meant the end of that team. A couple of (road) trips I had to pay cash at our hotel because our credit was no good.”

Torrey more than earned his place in the Hockey Hall of Fame with those Cup winners and he was influential in a way that deserves a nod here: Torrey’s late-season acquisition of Butch Goring is the origin story for that unofficial Canadian high holiday, the NHL trade deadline. Every GM of a contending team has circled his calendar ever since, but none have really hatched a trade that so impacted a championship.

Four Cups and almost a fifth gave Torrey an extended honeymoon period on Long Island, but not an indefinite one. And when he was let go after a couple of decades, he landed with the Panthers. There, the magic was fairly limited to one of the more unlikely runs to a Cup final ever—only a few months after Torrey made his acceptance speech at the Hockey Hall of the Fame, the Panthers snuck by Mario Lemieux and Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference Final only to be swept by Colorado in the Final.

I doubt Bill Torrey ever said, “almost six.” I guarantee he said “almost five” in his sleep.

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