The Tampa Bay Lightning of recent years can tell you how hard it is to win a Stanley Cup. They can also tell you nothing is better than growing with a set of teammates that finally achieve their Stanley Cup dreams. In a recent interview with Betwayinsider former Islanders, Clark Gillies and Bobby Nystrom discussed at great length the process of becoming a champion.
The Islanders got close in 1978 and 1979, especially in 1979 when the Islanders won the Presidents Cup and advanced to the Conference Finals against the hated New York Rangers. Unfortunately, in 1979, the Rangers were the underdogs but they went on to upset the Islanders in 6 closely contested games ending with a climatic Rangers win at Madison Garden in Game 6 to send the Cinderella Rangers to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Bobby Nystrom: It became apparent when we won the Stanley Cup [laughs]. You know what, we had a couple of teams in 1978 and 1979 that we really thought we were right there at that point, especially in ’79 when we won the Presidents’ Trophy. We thought we were on our way, but the playoffs are so totally different.
Clark Gillies: I agree totally with Bob, it was a real learning process for us. It took losing those two years against Toronto and the Rangers. It took losing to help us figure out what we needed to do to put the effort in to win.
One of the things we were missing in ’78 and ’79 was that physicality. Facing the Bruins in the second round in 1980, that’s when we really woke up. Everyone was picking the Bruins to outmuscle us and intimidate us. I think we showed them in a big way that we weren’t going to be pushed around in 1980. It springboarded us to beat the Flyers in the finals and I think from that point on, we had the respect of everyone in the league.
Respect was earned in those two series wins against two of hockey’s toughest franchises and from that point on a destiny truly was born, but some key additions took place after that 1979 season that really catapulted the islanders into the pantheon of history. Ken Morrow fresh off his pivotal role in the 1980 Miracle on Ice and Butch Goring really solidified what was already a contender into being a champion.
After getting close in 1978 and 1979 but falling short would make for changes on most teams, but that was not the case with the leaders of the Islanders Bill Torrey and Al Arbour who decided instead of tearing down and starting over, they would just add to an already outstanding team.
Now not all teams have to get along, of course, you have the early 1970s Oakland A’s or the late 70s New York Yankees but for the most part team unity goes a long way to winning championships and the islanders had that.
Clark Gillies: I think we were all friends. Al Arbour would say if we weren’t pulling for each other. He once came into the locker room, and you’ll remember this Bobby, he said: “I don’t care if you go to dinner, go to lunch, or if you ever see each other off the ice. You come through that dressing room door, you better be willing to go through a wall for each other.”
There were guys that hung out with certain guys and we’d get together as one big group every once in a while, but all-in-all we really liked each other. We were together for a long, long time and we were more like brothers than we were teammates. I think I knew everything from one second to the next, I knew what Bob was going to do, he knew what I was going to do. We just got to know each other so well that we were just like a bunch of brothers, working for the same goal and it developed tremendous chemistry. We just knew each other’s habits and it was a kind of feeling.
The islanders were the dominant team in the NHL for almost half a decade and the ability to keep the team together and the coaching staff intact was huge. Will, we ever see another dynasty like the Islanders or the Edmonton Oilers who stopped the Islanders reign and then dominated the rest of the decade of the 80s, will the answer to that is probably no. The reasons for the lack of Dynasties in Pro sports today are linked to how easily players can move from one team to another and that’s just the first reason and nowhere near the only reason. The Islanders from 1980-84 were a special group and listening to players like Clark Gillies and Bobby Nystrom makes you realize just how special that time in the NHL was.
If you enjoy hearing from the legends of pro sports, then be sure to tune into “The Grueling Truth” sports shows, “Where the legends speak”
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