The Shifting of a Dyansty
The Islanders' reign runs out
by Pat Calabria
The torch was not simply passed from one generation to the next on the evening of May 19, 1984. Instead, it was tugged, yanked and finally loosened in an epic matchup between two dynasties — one ending and one beginning — in a thrilling and momentous Stanley Cup final. On the night the New York Islanders surrendered their long reign to the Edmonton Oilers, it marked more than just a change in champions. It was a departure in styles and substance, too.
While no one could be sure at the time, expectations ran rampant that the Oilers would match, or surpass, the Islanders’ resounding achievements, and that what the 16,000 fans in Edmonton’s Northlands Coliseum were witnessing was the orderly and anticipated succession from one powerful ruler to the next. Like the Islanders inheriting the throne from the Montreal Canadiens four years earlier, the Oilers were a worthy replacement whose time had arrived after a series of bitter disappointments. But in other ways this changing of the guard was unlike any that had come before.
First, the Islanders had not defeated the Montreal dynasty in the 1980 final; the Canadiens had been eliminated in the quarterfinals, so they never actually got the opportunity to defend their championship head-to-head. And, in retrospect, the meeting between the Islanders and Oilers was a monumental point in time and battling like a pair of great thoroughbreds charging wire-to-wire.
In fact, rarely in the history of the National Hockey League had two dynasties developed such a rich rivalry and then gone one-on-one in the final round two years in a row. The Islanders swept the Oilers in four games 1983, but Edmonton reversed the decision the following year in five games. From 1980-1990, the Islanders and the Oilers accounted for nine of the 11 Stanley Cups contested. Not since Montreal and the Toronto Maple Leafs captured 13 Cups in 14 years, 1956-69, had two great franchises been so dominant, and so distinctive.
But the clash between New York and Edmonton also came when the sport itself was in a period of transition, so that the personality of each club was worn almost as proudly as the logo on their jerseys. The older, conservative Islanders were a hard-hitting, defensive-minded, counter-punching team whose goal-scoring was built on the foundation of sound fore-checking and forcing costly mistakes. On the other hand, the brash Oilers — led by the incomparable Wayne Gretzky — represented the new move toward speedier and more unpredictable offenses, piling up goals not in bunches, but in bushels. The Oilers’ best defense was usually reserved for attacks on their occasionally flamboyant lifestyles.
The franchises were even built differently, came from different backgrounds, and inspired vastly different strategies. The Islanders, although not NHL blue-bloods, had nevertheless been born in a conventional fashion: Long Island was granted an expansion franchise which began toiling in futility in 1972-1973. Although the team went through two coaches in its first two seasons — winning a total of only 23 games — Al Arbour took over in the third season and quickly steered it to respectability. And, despite several years of falling short of the Stanley Cup with a star-laden lineup, general manager Bill Torrey continued to patiently build through the amateur draft.
Edmonton, however, was largely regarded as a team of bandits, as much for its outlaw past as for its new-fangled, thunderbolt offense. The franchise had not even started in the NHL. Indeed, it began operating in the old, rival World Hockey Association. It became a part of the more established league when the NHL absorbed four WHA franchises in a merger agreement in 1979-80, when many of its players were unheralded, or even unknown. There was even suspicion that the great Gretzky would not be able to take the nightly pounding in his new league that he had been able to avoid in the more goal-oriented WHA.
But the Islanders and the Oilers did have something in common.
New York had made a shocking leap to contender in only its third year of existence, twice rallying from 0-3 deficits in playoff series and coming within one game of reaching the Stanley Cup final in 1975. Edmonton was eliminated in the preliminary playoff round its first year in the NHL, but after ranking only 14th in the 1980-81 regular season, it knocked off heavily-favored and third-ranked Montreal before being ousted — by the champion Islanders — in the quarterfinals. Two years later, the Oilers would reach the final. Three years later, they would win their first Cup.
So the rise of both teams was quick and surprising. And it was against this backdrop that New York met Edmonton in the 1983 final, a meeting filled with soap opera theatrics, gamesmanship and outward animosity between the clubs. In many ways, this landmark series of the ‘80s was a throwback to the time of goalies with no masks, players without helmets and chicken-wire around the rink instead of glass. Not because of the style of play, but because of the intensity which characterized it.
It was a heated, riveting, remarkable series between two teams destined to be linked to one another the way, say, the Brooklyn Dodgers will always spark memories of the New York Giants. Or the way Affirmed will always be linked with Alydar.
The Islanders were virtually unchanged from the club that had swept Quebec and then Vancouver in the last two playoff rounds the year before. But thinned by injuries and fighting complacency, the team dropped to second-place in the Patrick Division (behind Philadelphia) with a 42-26-12 record, good enough only for sixth overall in the league. Until 1986 when the seventh-place Canadiens won, this was the lowest finish ever recorded by a team that would go on to capture the Cup.
Durable center Bryan Trottier suffered through 10 games without a goal during one stretch in the regular-season. Sixty-goal scorer Mike Bossy went seven games without scoring. Bill Smith, the fearless goalie, played Nov. 30- to January 18 without recording a victory. Rookie defenseman Paul Boutilier, bewildered by the turmoil disrupting the three-time champions he had just joined, asked: “Is this what it’s like every year?”
Nevertheless, the Islanders eliminated the pesky Washington Capitals in four games in the first round of the playoffs, but had to battle the Rangers, their resilient and dangerous rivals from Manhattan, in the next round. But they won the series in six games, then ousted the Boston Bruins in six games in the Wales Conference finals. And still the Islanders were thought to be vulnerable, especially against the young, fresh Oilers and their powerhouse offense.
“It’s them, the big city guys, against us, the small-town guys,” Oilers coach Glen Sather warned, conveniently forgetting his opponents were located in the leafy Long Island suburbs, 25 miles from the city skyline. “We’re the new kids on the block and we’re ready to take their marbles.”
Edmonton was led by Gretzky, whose 71 goals and 125 assists both topped the league. Three other players — Mark Messier, Jari Kurri and Glenn Anderson — scored at least 45 goals. The offense set a league record with 424 goals and the team’s 47-21-12 record for 106 points was the NHL’s second best, bettering the Islanders’ finish by 10 points. Although the Islanders won all four regular-season meetings between the clubs convincingly, the Oilers had charged into the playoffs, anxious to rebound from their stunning first-round loss to Los Angeles the year before.
Edmonton, in fact, compiled an 11-1 record over the first three rounds, sweeping the Winnipeg Jets in three games, eliminating the Calgary Flames in five games, and sweeping Chicago in four games in the Campbell Conference finals — outscoring the over-matched Blackhawks 23-11. Edmonton’s whopping 10 shorthanded goals had already set a Stanley Cup record. The Oilers’ speed and daring seemed to be matched only by their abundant confidence — many would say cockiness — a characteristic which infuriated the defending champions.
“We want to beat them more than anything,” Islander left wing Clark Gillies said. “You know why? Because they think they’re the greatest thing since sliced bread.”
Said teammate Bob Bourne: “They think they’re so hot. They’re so damn cocky. The thing that really bugs me is, they don’t respect us. They’re not the Stanley Cup champions. We are.”
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