Legends of Hockey - Spotlight - One on One with Bill Torrey
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One on One with Bill Torrey

4 MARCH 2011
On February 15, 1972 Bill Torrey was named the first general manager of the expansion New York Islanders.
On February 15, 1972 Bill Torrey was named the first general manager of the expansion New York Islanders.
(Paul Bereswill/Hockey Hall of Fame)
Sporting his trademark bowtie, Bill Torrey established himself as a passionate executive with the rare ability to quickly make expansion franchises competitive in short order.

Born William Torrey in Montreal, Quebec on June 23, 1934, Bill studied business and psychology (two disciplines that could only help his future career in hockey) at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York.

Torrey`s hockey career began in earnest during the mid-1960s, handling marketing duties with the Pittsburgh Hornets, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings.

The NHL expanded from six to twelve teams in 1967, and one franchise was awarded to the Oakland Seals. In their inaugural season, the Seals disappointed management and fans by finishing last in the fledgling Western Division, collecting just 47 points. The team shuffled the deck and changed much of the team, both on and off the ice. In fact, just seven of original Seals; players remained after that first season. With the management changes came the hiring of Bill Torrey as Executive Vice-President.

The team rebounded with a revitalized look for 1968-69, and finished second in their division with a 22-point improvement. The Seals made the playoffs but were eliminated by the Los Angeles Kings in the quarter-final. Oakland slipped back to fourth in 1969-70 and again were defeated in the quarter-final, this time, by the Pittsburgh Penguins. These two seasons were the only two campaigns in which the Seals or Golden Seals made the playoffs (they were re-named the Cleveland Barons prior to the 1976-77 season).

Bill Torrey makes a presentation to Islanders captain Clark Gillies and a member of Telsa Pardubice following an exhibition game on January 4, 1978.
Bill Torrey makes a presentation to
Islanders captain Clark Gillies and a member
of Telsa Pardubice following an exhibition
game on January 4, 1978.
(Dimaggio-Kalish/Hockey Hall of Fame)
After elevating the Seals to playoff contenders, and frustrated by the persistent meddling of Oakland owner Charlie Finley, the New York Islanders recruited Torrey as the franchise's first employee and its inaugural general manager on February 15, 1972. Bill was handed a blank slate and instructed to create a team from scratch.

The franchise existed because the NHL tried to thwart the initiation of a new, competitive league. The World Hockey Association had made plans to introduce a team called the Raiders into the lucrative New York market by locating the team in the newly-built Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Long Island. However, Nassau County officials wanted nothing to do with the WHA`s Raiders. The only legal way to keep the WHA out of the Nassau Coliseum was to secure an NHL team to play there. Although there was opposition from the New York Rangers, the NHL and its president, Clarence Campbell, fast-tracked two franchise additions, in spite of having expanded the league just two years before. One franchise was awarded to Long Island and the other to Atlanta. The Long Island franchise, incidentally, was forced to pay a $4 million territorial fee to the neighbouring New York Rangers. The WHA was then forced to relocate its New York franchise, and the Raiders played in Madison Square Garden, but lacking crowds and funds, moved in their second season.

While acquiring veterans may have provided a modestly successful NHL initiation, Torrey chose instead to build through youth and the draft. Although he took veteran Ed Westfall from the defending Stanley Cup-champion Boston Bruins, he also plucked an untried Billy Smith from Los Angeles to play goal and forwards Lorne Henning and Bob Nystrom. He also chose Billy Harris in the Amateur Draft. The team had a disastrous initiation, winning just twelve games all season. But that last-place finish ensured Torrey of first selection in the 1973 Amateur Draft, and the shrewd GM, who was promoted to Vice President that summer, chose junior defence star, Denis Potvin. That same summer, he also hired Al Arbour, an ex-NHL defenceman and the former coach of the St. Louis Blues to coach the Islanders.

On April 19, 1993 Bill Torrey was appointed the president of the expansion Florida Panthers.
On April 19, 1993 Bill Torrey was
appointed the president of the expansion Florida Panthers.
(Doug MacLellan/Hockey Hall of Fame)
The team again finished last in 1973-74. While Potvin was selected as the NHL`s rookie of the year, the team offered flashes of respectability. They allowed 100 fewer goals than the previous season, and their 56 points represented a 26-point improvement from the previous season.

Torrey`s methodical creation of a winner paid off handsomely. Beginning in 1974-75, the Islanders enjoyed the first of fourteen winning seasons under Torrey`s command. The 1974-75 edition of the Islanders stunned the hockey world, gaining 32 points from the previous season and finishing with 88 points. And in doing so, the Islanders gained a berth in the playoffs for the first time.

The astonishing Islanders first beat the rival Rangers in the opening round. But if that wasn't shocking enough, down three games to none against the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York rallied and ended up winning four straight to take that series. They almost did it again in the third round, dropping the first three games of a series against the defending Stanley Cup champion Philadelphia Flyers, taking the next three games to force a seventh and deciding contest, but lost to the Flyers to end their season.

The core of Denis Potvin, Clark Gillies, Bob Nystrom and Billy Harris, as well as netminders Billy Smith and Chico Resch, had gelled, and were embellished further by the addition of Bryan Trottier in 1975-76, Trottier went on to score 95 points and copped the Calder Trophy as the league's best rookie, all the while helping his Islanders to a 101-point season.

The next summer, Bill Torrey selected Mike Bossy in the NHL Amateur Draft. The winger responded with 53 goals and a second straight Calder winner for the franchise. But while the team was evolving towards its dynasty, in both 1975-76 and 1976-77, the Islanders exited the post-season earlier than expected.

Bill Torrey was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1995.
Bill Torrey was inducted into the
Hockey Hall of Fame in 1995.
(Doug MacLellan/Hockey Hall of Fame)
The 1978-79 season saw New York finish first overall, with Bryan Trottier winning the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL`s leading scorer and the Hart Trophy as the league's MVP. Mike Bossy fired a staggering 69 goals to lead the league. Yet, the Islanders again were eliminated early, this time in the semi-final against the Rangers.

The New York Islanders rewarded Bill Torrey by naming him president of the team prior to the 1979-80 season. And the team responded by capturing the Stanley Cup, the first in franchise history. One of the shrewd moves made by Torrey was realizing that he needed an energetic second-line centre. He dealt Billy Harris and Dave Lewis to the Los Angeles Kings, receiving Butch Goring in return. Torrey was prophetic when he stated that he had acquired the final piece to the puzzle.

Torrey`s philosophy paid huge dividends. Almost all of the key contributors to the team's successful season had been homegrown Islanders, nurtured within the system. Of note is the awarding of the Conn Smythe Trophy to Bryan Trottier in 1980.

Torrey`s patience paid off in spades. That 1980 Stanley Cup championship was followed by further wins in 1981, 1982 and 1983. Butch Goring took the Conn Smythe in 1981, Mike Bossy in 1982 and Billy Smith in 1983.

While Torrey tinkered with the line-up, the dynasty came to a conclusion in 1984, although the Islanders went all the way to the final once again, only to lose to the Edmonton Oilers. Rookie sensation Pat LaFontaine, a Torrey draft pick, starred in his NHL debut.

Bill Torrey gives his induction speech at the 1995  Hockey Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.
Bill Torrey gives his induction speech at the 1995 Hockey Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. (Doug MacLellan/Hockey Hall of Fame)
The team lost players to injury (Bob Nystrom and Mike Bossy) and trades, but nevertheless, captured another division title in 1988, although they bowed out to the New Jersey Devils in the first round of the playoffs that spring. Following the exit, Denis Potvin retired, holding the record at the time for most goals by a defenceman (310), assists (742) and points (1,052).

By 1988-89, just one of the original Islanders remained, and in fact, it would be Billy Smith`s swan song. Regrettably, he was unable to go out on a high as the Islanders finished the season with just 61 points, tied for worst in the NHL.

Although Bill Torrey was named chairman of the board in 1989, the team struggled through the 1990s. Their amazing draft record fell well short of the previous highwater marks. By 1992-93, Torrey resigned as chairman but stayed on with the franchise in a consulting role.

At that time, the NHL awarded a franchise to Miami, and the team to be called the Florida Panthers. Astutely, on April 19, 1993, the Panthers hired Bill Torrey who had earlier moved to West Palm Beach, as president and general manager. Using a template with which he enjoyed success on Long Island, Torrey nurtured the roster and in their first season, set an NHL record for first-year teams by winning 33 games and collecting 83 points. The team included goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck and veteran skaters Tom Fitzgerald, Paul Laus, Scott Mellanby, Gord Murphy and Brian Skrudland, while Bobby Clarke served as the team's first general manager. Within three years of debuting, the Panthers were competing in the Stanley Cup final, the fastest an expansion team has ever reached the playoff final.

Before Bill Torrey retired from active hockey duty in 2001, he had great reason to be immensely proud of his resume. Under his command, the New York Islanders won six Patrick Division titles, reached the Stanley Cup final in five consecutive seasons and won four Stanley Cup championships in a row. His Islanders had fourteen consecutive winning seasons between 1975 and 1988. Among those who achieved Hall of Fame stardom with the Islanders under Torrey are Mike Bossy, Clark Gillies, Pat LaFontaine, Denis Potvin, Billy Smith and Bryan Trottier, as well as coach Al Arbour. In Florida, the team reached the Stanley Cup final once, giving Torrey six trips to the final in all.

For his remarkable contributions to hockey, Bill Torrey was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1995.

Kevin Shea is the Editor of Publications and Online Features for the Hockey Hall of Fame.