“Bow Tie” Bill Torrey
California Golden Seals, 1970-1971
New York Islanders, 1972-1992
Florida Panthers, 2000-2001
Patrick Division Titles: 1977-1979, 1980-1982, 1983-1984, 1987-1988
Playoff Appearances: 1975-1988
Stanley Cup Finals Appearance: 1980-1984
Stanley Cup Victories: 1980-1983
“Bill Torrey was a mentor to me. I liked his style, I liked the way he acted, I liked the way he handled the media; he was a guy who understood the game and let the people working under him develop their skills. He was also good at letting people do their jobs. He was the kind of guy who knew he was in charge, and the people working around him knew he was in charge, but he wasn’t a dictator. He handled the media fairly and was upfront and honest with everyone he dealt with, all the while wearing his trademark bow ties.”
–Jim Devellano, The Road to Hockeytown
Bill Torrey wrote the manual on how to build an expansion team into a Stanley Cup champion, correction, a Stanley Cup dynasty; and, in so doing, established himself as one of the greatest general managers in NHL history.
He made Long Island, New York the hockey capital of the world; he brought several of the game’s greatest players into the NHL; and developed HHOF coaching and managerial talent who, in turn, also went on to develop coaching and managerial talent that does honor to hockey today.
In short, Bill Torrey was a presence in the NHL and his legacy shall endure for decades to come.
Still, despite managing four consecutive Stanley Cup winners, Bill Torrey was the second best manager during the 1980s and during the Second Expansion Era of the NHL (1979-1991); riding shotgun behind Glen Sather.
Torrey was born in Montreal and attended St. Lawrence University (the future alma mater of Mike Keenan and Jacques Martin).
During the 1960s he became involved with the Pittsburgh Hornets in the AHL; working in their front office. It was there he attracted the attention of Frank Selke Jr. who worked for the ill-fated California Seals team. Torrey was one of the few Seals employees here who showed skill and acumen. In 1970 he briefly became the general manager of the Seals but did not last long thanks to the constant interference of Seals owner Charles O. Finley. According to Seals historian Brad Kurtzberg, Torrey sued Finley in court (and won) because Finley’s interference was a violation of his managerial contract.
Torrey left California in December 1970 but in many ways his time spent in purgatory in the Bay Area provided invaluable lessons when he later became general manager of the newborn New York Islanders in 1972. Torrey assessed his experiences in California and learned what not to do; he learned how not to operate an NHL franchise; he learned how not squander precious future talent in exchange for ephemeral quick fixes; Torrey learned how not to treat subordinate personnel, coaches, and players.
Those negative lessons helped make Bill Torrey the dream general manager that he became; commanding the respect, loyalty, devotion, and admiration of everyone who served under him. In short, the professionalism of the New York Islanders became the foundation of their salvation, vindication, and glorification as an NHL franchise.
During his years with the California Seals he saw how the older NHL franchises robbed the expansion franchises of their top draft picks by offering them players from their back catalog as a quick fix. When Torrey took over in Long Island, he was determined not to get fooled again. The Islanders would keep their draft picks; they would draft wisely; they would nurture and groom their young talents; and they would keep their team intact.
Bob Nystrom came in 1972; blue-liner immortal Denis Potvin in 1973 (Habs GM Sam Pollock tried to acquire Potvin’s draft pick from Torrey but it was no go); Clark Gillies and Bryan Trottier in 1974; then, in 1977, Mike Bossy; then the brothers Sutter: Duane in 1979 and Brent in 1980.
Couple these gems with expansion draft picks goalie Billy Smith and defensive forward Ed Westfall; then season the mix even further by adding more key players acquired by trades like goalie Chico Resch and center Butch Goring and what you get are the makings of a hockey dynasty.
The parts were in place but Islanders needed leadership behind the bench. Bill Torrey made another great contribution to hockey history when he hired Al Arbour to be the head coach of the Islanders. Arbour had shown flashes of promise as head coach when he was with the St. Louis Blues but when the Blues went into its auto-destruct sequence, Arbour became expendable…and available.
Interestingly the famed partnership almost didn’t happen. Arbour was skeptical about living in the Greater New York City area yet Torrey remained persistent, overcame Arbour’s doubts, and got him to sign on the dotted line.
Al Arbour became one of the greatest head coaches in NHL history and one of the reasons why was because Bill Torrey was a bulwark of moral support. Arbour never had to look over his shoulder because Bow-tie Bill had his back. Theirs was one of the greatest professional marriages between GM and head coach in NHL history.
The Islanders had their first winning season, playoff appearance and playoff round victory in 1975. They won their first divisional title in 1978 and by 1979 had the best regular season record in the NHL.
Still it was rough along the way. Financial troubles plagued the Islanders during the late 1970s and (according to Jim Devellano in his memoirs) there were times when Bill Torrey would carry a briefcase full of cash to pay the team’s hotel bills because no hotel would accept the Islander team credit cards.
Still the Islanders persevered and in the first four years of the 1980s dominated the NHL; winning four consecutive Stanley Cups. What transpired in Long Island still remains one of the greatest managerial feats in NHL history since the league expanded in 1967. It is highly unlikely that any NHL team could win four straight cups or even make five consecutive Stanley Cup finals appearances like they did from 1980 to 1984.
Sadly, after 1984, the team slowly ground to a halt. Al Arbour retired from coaching (for a time). Key players were aging. Other teams were coming to fore. In 1988/89 the team suffered its first losing season since 1973/74. From 1988 to 1992 Bill Torrey earned 24 his 63 minus points. (That’s the reason why Bill Torrey finished second to Glen Sather as the best general manager of the 1980s according to my rating system—those failure points reduced Torrey’s career value significantly).
By 1992 the Islanders owners were no longer patient with Torrey. He was forced out as GM but he did not remain unemployed for long. The fledgling Florida Panthers hired Torrey as team President. The Panthers reached the Stanley Cup finals in their third season. Torrey remained as team President and did a brief stint as the team’s GM before retiring for good in 2001 but he was already a living legend when that happened. He was elected to the HHOF as a builder in 1995 and was honored by the Islanders with his own banner which hangs today from the rafters of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum (Torrey also has a banner hanging from the rafters of the BB&T Center where the Panthers play today).
(My next column will feature the late Lester Patrick.)