Columnists, Ice Hockey, Sports

Off the Post: John Tonelli and the makings of an NHL dynasty

From 1979 to 1983, Long Island was the place to be. The New York Islanders won the Stanley Cup four seasons in a row, forming a brotherhood and dynasty unlike anything we’ve seen in the modern game. Forward John Tonelli played a leading role in the historic run and remains a franchise great more than 40 years later. Despite lifting the Cup four years in a row, Tonelli said the feeling of winning it all never got old.

Alexia Nizhny/DFP STAFF

It became almost like you wanted it more because that feeling,” he said. “Once you’ve accomplished the win, you never want to lose that feeling.”

The New York Islanders selected the Ontario native in the second round of the 1977 draft. Before his historic NHL tenure, Tonelli was playing in the World Hockey Association for the Houston Aeros. In 1978, he found himself at a crossroads that would ultimately define his professional career.

Due to financial issues, Houston folded its team and sent all of its players’ rights to Winnipeg, which was then coming into the NHL from the WHA. Tonelli was then faced with a choice: Winnipeg or New York? Boy, did he make the right decision. 

“At the end of that ’77 season, they invited me up to the Nassau Coliseum to watch the Islanders play,” Tonelli said. “I’ll never forget how full that building was and the energy in that building. It convinced me that I wanted to come play for the New York Islanders.” 

Tonelli was a grinder who battled on the boards with his physical edge but also had five 30+ goal seasons. His hybrid of grit and pure offensive talent secured the then 21-year-old a spot in the Islanders’ lineup after training camp. 

“I was pretty much [on] the third line or fourth line [in my first year with the Islanders] and it probably made me hungrier than ever to find that niche or that spot where I could succeed and be a piece of the puzzle,” Tonelli said. “To be part of a winning team, you’re a piece of that puzzle that contributes.” 

The left-winger slotted onto a line with Wayne Merrick at center and Bob Nystrom on the right side. The trio took pride in shutting down their opponents’ top-scorers in the D-zone but also lit the lamp themselves on the other end of the ice. Tonelli, Merrick and Nystrom bought into their roles, and it made all the difference for their team. 

The New York Rangers booted the Islanders from the 1978-1979 playoffs in the semifinals. Tonelli said his group learned a lot from that series and still needed to find the component to get them over the hurdle. And in came Butch Goring the following season. 

“At the trade deadline, we pick up Butch Goring,” Tonelli said. “He’s a piece of the puzzle that we [were] missing.”

Tonelli said head coach Al Arbour knew exactly how to utilize his roster — from the superstars in the top six to the third-string defensemen. 

“[Arbour] was that guy who knew every individual … there were 24 players, probably dressed 20,” Tonelli said. “He managed to make all 24 players feel like they contributed.”

Arbour’s team made it to the top of the heap in the 1979-1980 campaign, beating the Philadelphia Flyers in the finals to clinch the franchise’s first — of four — Stanley Cups. Leading the series three games to two, the Islanders headed into overtime in Game Six with the chance to win it all. 

And with the help of Tonelli, that they did.

In practice, Tonelli and Nystrom ran through two-on-two plays constantly. Breaking the puck out of their end, the forwards would go down inside the far blue line and criss-cross, hoping the defensemen would bite. Their teammates never did –– but it got the Flyers. 

“In overtime Game Six, this play develops through the neutral zone. And here we go, the drill that we’ve been practicing forever happens,” Tonelli said. “Their defenseman, Bob Dailey, bit for one split second just to give Bob Nystrom enough time to get open and give me enough time to make a decision … Bobby and I finished it.”

Tonelli went on to score other clutch goals in the years to come, like in the elimination Game Five against the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1982 where he scored the game-tying and overtime goals. The moment against Dailey and the Flyers, though, was a dream realized — a life’s work coming to fruition. 

“Slow motion. You’re in slow motion,” Tonelli said. “When you’re a little kid, you dream about playing in the NHL … and now, when you make it to the NHL, you’re dreaming one day, ‘hey, maybe I can be part of a team that wins the Stanley Cup.’” 

While he didn’t get a day with the Cup the first time around, Tonelli made up for it the following year.

“When I got it, I rented a limousine with my best friend, and we took it to 17 different places that day. It was so much fun,” Tonelli said. “We took it to the country club, to the fire department, to the police department, to some restaurants.” 

Tonelli’s No. 27 now hangs in the rafters of UBS Arena, and previously, the Coliseum. The jersey retirement ceremony in February of 2020 gave Tonelli the opportunity to reflect on a legendary career and the people he and his teammates skated for every night. 

“How lucky I am to be part of a family, and I call Long Island my extended family. The fans were the biggest part of it for our team,” Tonelli said. “Our team jumped over the boards for each other, for our coach, for our trainers, for our office staff, everybody involved with our team. And the biggest part, we jumped over for those fans.”

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