The NHL lost a living legend yesterday with the death of Bill Torrey. If anyone created a formula for creating and developing expansion franchises it was Bowtie Bill. He took a team that struggled to compete with their wealthier neighbors in Manhattan and in eight years they stood atop the NHL summit when they hoisted the Stanley Cup (an act they repeated three more times) while it took the Rangers forever to end their curse in 1993/94.
The only way I can pay tribute to this departed legend is to reproduce in its entirety my chapter devoted to Bill Torrey from my new book The Art of the Dealers: the NHL’s Greatest General Managers.
Those of you who bought my bought will know that I ranked Torrey 19th when the book was released last fall but after the conclusion of the 2017/18 regular season Torrey has now dropped to 20th place according to my rating system. Still this should not detract from the enormous legacy of greatness he left with his passing.
Bill Torrey Rank #20
Peak Rank #10 – 1983/84
Peak Value +114 – 1987/88
California Golden Seals, 1970-1971
New York Islanders, 1972-1992
Florida Panthers, 2000-2001
Patrick Division Titles: 1977/78-1978/79, 1980/81-1981/82, 1983/84, 1987/88
Playoff Appearances: 1974/75-1987/88, 1989/90
Stanley Cup Finals Appearances: 1979/80-1983/84
Stanley Cup Victories: 1979/80-1982/83
“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 the game of hockey today.
He was the second greatest general manager of the 1980s according to my rating system (second only to Glen Sather).
In short, Bill Torrey was a presence in the NHL and his legacy shall endure for decades to come.
And so, given all these blandishments and superlatives why is it that that Bill Torrey only ranks 20th in the eyes of my rating system?
The answer is found in the early lean years when Torrey was suffering his baptism under fire with the California Golden Seals and the early lean years of the New York Islanders. During that time period Torrey accumulated 39 of his 70 minus points. At the end of the 1973/74 season, Bill Torrey’s career value was a -39. It would take Torrey five seasons to dig his way out of the hole and emerge on the plus side in terms of career value.
And then there is the case of his final four years with the Islanders and his brief stint managing the Florida Panthers. During that time period his career value was reduced by 30 points—a significant drop and he fell seven steps in rank from 10th to 17th in the eyes of my rating system when he handed over the managerial reins for good in 2002.
This is not meant as a disparagement of Bill Torrey’s magnificent achievements. Instead it offers a lesson about the long, rough road Bill Torrey had to take to achieve managerial greatness: that sometimes to be a great general manager one is obliged to endure a lot of hard knocks, bruises, sacrifices, and broken bones on the journey.
Bill 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. The Hornets were the farm club for the Detroit Red Wings. During the years Torrey worked the Hornets went from doormats to winners, playoff contenders and in 1966/67 Calder Cup Champions.
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 November 1970 he became the general manager of the Seals but did not last long thanks to the constant interference of Seals owner Charles O. Finley. One month after he took over as general manager Bill Torrey resigned. 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’s 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 mistreat 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.
Future New York Rangers general manager Neil Smith who worked for the Islanders in early 1980s recalls, “He was very, very good to me. I was a very small part of that at the time. I was doing pro scouting for Al Arbour and Al was the one I interacted with the most. Bill was always ‘Mr. Torrey’ to everyone and he held a high level of respect with everyone but it was never an ego thing he was a real good man and at that stage of my life I was just pinching myself that I was having a chance to be a part of that.”
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 let that happen 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. Also the Islanders would establish a strong organization where talented individuals would be hired, trained, developed, and given the ironclad support from ownership and management Torrey himself never received with the Seals.
Torrey later explained to E.M. Swift, “We spent our time and money mostly on kids. I told [Islanders owner Roy] Boe, ‘O.K. you’re going to go through the expansion draft and 19 problem children. Either the guys can’t play, they’re too old, or they have personal problems. Second, your product is going to be constantly compared to the [New York] Rangers.’ Who were then the second-best team in hockey. Also, we were in the East Division with Montreal, Boston, the Rangers and four other established teams. We were guaranteed last place. But there was a ray of hope if we were patient because everyone in hockey knew that the amateur draft was loaded. What other choice did we have?”
Bill Torrey’s very first NHL draft with the Islanders was a lovely one: snagging Billy Harris, Lorne Henning, and Bob Nystrom in the first three rounds and Gary Howatt in the 10th round; losing goaltender Richard Brodeur to the rival WHA.
During the 1972 Expansion draft, Torrey drafted Billy Smith and Ed Westfall. Both men along with Torrey’s draft choices would form the nucleus of the Islanders.
The Islanders only won 12 games in 1972/73 but their last place performance meant they would get the number one pick in the 1973 draft. Torrey (along with every other NHL general manager) had his eye on future blue-liner immortal Denis Potvin for quite some time.
Habs General Manager Sam Pollock tried every stratagem to do to Bill Torrey what he had done to the California Seals in past years. On the morning of the 1973 draft Pollock went on a four orbit walk and talk around the Mt. Royal Hotel in Montreal, offering him more and more “prime” players from the Canadiens roster in exchange for Potvin but bow-tie Bill would not be snookered.
Denis Potvin, along with Dave Lewis and Andre St. Laurent were drafted by the Islanders. Potvin became the first New York Islanders player to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1991.
Every year Torrey (with the help of Jim Devellano) added more talented youngsters to the Islanders roster: Clark Gillies and Bryan Trottier in 1974; Ken Morris in 1976; then, in 1977, Mike Bossy; then the brothers Sutter: Duane in 1979 and Brent in 1980.
Still there were times when Torrey missed some opportunities: In 1976 Torrey had a chance to draft Brian Sutter but chose Alex McKendry instead. In 1979 Torrey had a chance to draft Dale Hunter in the second round but selected Billy Carroll instead.
Bill Torrey also augmented his roster with canny trades. In 1972 Torrey acquired goalie Chico Resch from Montreal for a draft choice. In order to make sure that Denis Potvin signed with the Islanders and not the rival WHA Torrey sent Terry Crisp to the Flyers in exchange for Denis’ brother Jean. In 1974 Torrey acquired centre Bob Bourne from the Kansas City Scouts. Then, in 1980, Torrey sent Billy Harris and Dave Lewis to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for centre Butch Goring.
In 1981 Torrey took a page from Sam Pollock’s playbook when he sent two players to the hapless Colorado Rockies in exchange for their first round draft pick in the 1983 draft who turned out to be future Hockey Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine.
Year after year the parts were in being put into place but the Islanders needed leadership behind the bench to make these great talents play like Stanley Cup Champions. Bill Torrey made another great contribution to hockey history when he hired Al Arbour to become the head coach of the Islanders. Arbour had shown future promise as a head coach when he was with the St. Louis Blues but when the Blues went into auto-destruct mode in 1973, 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.
At his peak Al Arbour became one of the five greatest head coaches in NHL history; leading his charges with firmness, compassion, an earthy humor, and a tactical brilliance that bordered on virtuosity.
And one of the reasons why Al Arbour was able to achieve 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 General Manager and head coach in NHL history.
The Islanders had their first winning season, playoff appearance and playoff round victory in 1974/75. They won their first divisional title in 1977/78 and by 1978/79 had the best regular season record in the NHL (there was no President’s Trophy in the NHL back then).
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.
Indeed in 1977 Torrey traded his eighth through 15th round draft picks in that year’s draft to the Montreal Canadiens in return for cash to keep the team afloat.
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 1979/80 to 1983/84.
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 1988/89 to 1991/92 the Islanders endured four losing seasons; failed to make the playoffs three times; and two last place finishes.
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. Torrey had not lost his keen eye for building NHL teams from scratch. He hired Bobby Clarke to serve as general manager and Roger Neilson to man the team as head coach. The Panthers responded with what was then the greatest debut performance in the history of NHL expansion (a record that was surpassed this season by the Vegas Golden Knights). When Bobby Clarke left the Panthers to work again as general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers, Torrey tapped Bryan Murray to replace him.
The Panthers reached the Stanley Cup finals in their third season, again, setting an NHL record which may never be broken. Torrey remained as team President and did a brief stint as the team’s General Manager before retiring for good in 2001 but he was already a living legend when that happened.
He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder in 1995 and was honored by the Islanders with his own banner which hangs today from the rafters of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York (Torrey also has a banner hanging from the rafters of the BB&T Center where the Panthers play today).