Monday, March 9, 2020

When the Islanders Traded Cousin Billy for a Dynasty

BILLY HARRIS WAS A LOT OF THINGS to the New York Islanders, their first overall draft pick, first to score a goal at the Nassau Coliseum, their first leading scorer, the ironman who didn't miss a game over their first seven seasons.

He was also a Harris like me, imaginary kin that gave a kid from Long Island a sense of identity with the hometown team, bragging rights if you will. Billy was, I sometimes claimed, my cousin.

Billy Harris was a lot of things, then he was gone.
But, first in, first out, he was also the surpassed star whose midseason exile to the Los Angeles Kings, 40 years ago March 10, helped change the underachieving Islanders into champions.

He and defenseman Dave Lewis were sent to L.A. exchange for center Butch Goring, whose number 91 the team raised to the rafters just 10 days ago.

Widely hailed as the final piece of the puzzle, Goring was a vital cog in the Isles' dyanastic run -- four consecutive Stanley Cups, plus a fifth finals appearance a year later -- and winner of the 1980-81 Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

The trade was a cruel blow to me and, I'm sure, to the team's original building block.

But the eight-year-old franchise was already bearing the burden of great expectations, labeled as chokers, a squad that couldn't win in the clutch. They'd finished the 1978-79 season with the National Hockey League's best record then bombed in the playoffs, eliminated in round two by the hated New York Rangers.

So, when back-to-back losses to the Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals dropped the Islanders to 31-28-9 on March 9, third place in the NHL's Patrick Division, General Manager Bill Torrey swung one of the greatest trade deadline deals in league history. Cousin Billy was sent packing.

"We were sacrificial lambs," he told Newsday in a 2017 interview.

My tribute...
A star with the junior Toronto Marlboros, Harris had rolled up 57 goals and 72 assists during the 1971-72 Ontario Hockey League season. The expansion Islanders, who had yet to play an NHL game, took him first overall in the 1972 Amateur Draft, ahead of future Philadelphia Flyers legend Bill Barber, Montreal Canandiens sniper Steve Shutt and longtime NHL forwards Peter McNab, Don Lever and Al MacAdam.

Taken by other teams on that day: goalie Michel "Bunny" Larocque plus defensemen Jim Schoenfeld and John Van Boxmeer. Also taken by the Islanders, forward Derek Black, who would die of cancer before reaching the NHL, and winger Bobby Nystrom, whose 1979-80 season would end gloriously.

Harris was a more than serviceable forward for those early Islanders. He posted 28 goals and 50 points during an inaugural season that saw them win a then-record low 12 games. He hit the 50 point plateau again the next year and, as the team improved around him, so did his numbers.

He peaked in 1975-76 with 32 goals and 70 points playing right wing with rookie of the year center Bryan Trottier and fearsome left wing Clark Gillies, both future hall of famers. Sportswriters dubbed the high-scoring trio the Long Island Lighting Company, named for a doomed local public utility.

... His response.
For Harris too, the glory was short-lived. Rookie Mike Bossy arrived in 1977 and bumped him down the depth chart. Playing with less heralded forwards, his production fell too. In 1978-79, he had just 15 goals and 54 points. Then, the arrivals of Swedish winger Anders Kallur and rookie Duane Sutter in 1979-80 made Billy Harris expendable. He was just 28.

He played parts of four years with the Kings and three others with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs (where he wasn't even their first Billy Harris), then retired from the NHL.

For a time, he ran a soy-based scented candle business in Rosseau, Ontario, offering autographed pictures to customers who requested them. When a problem arose with my order, we had occasion to speak. I confessed my false claim of kinship and sent him a photo of my enduring tribute, my Islanders jersey emblazoned with our name and his number. Billy laughed and autographed my picture accordingly.

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Sunday, February 2, 2020

A Steel Curtain Call for the Super Bowl's First Dynasty

ACCORDING TO CHINESE ASTROLOGY, the Year of the Ram started on Jan. 28, 1979 and ended on Feb. 15, 1980.

According to the Pittsburgh Steelers, it ended some three weeks earlier, with 12:15 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XIV, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.
Vince Ferragamo and Mean Joe Greene
(Sports Illustrated photo)

It ended, 40 years ago, with one of the most indelible plays in Super Bowl history.

The upstart Los Angeles Rams made it to pro-football's biggest stage despite winning just nine games during the regular season, the fewest ever to that date for a team appearing in the National Football League season finale.* The defending champion Steelers were making their fourth Super Bowl appearance in just six seasons, having won matches IX, X and XIII.

Led by its already legendary quarterback, Terry Bradshaw, Pittsburgh had gone 12-4 during the 1979 season, then beat the Miami Dolphins and Houston Oilers in the playoffs. They had the NFL's highest-scoring offense while their Steel Curtain defense had allowed the seventh fewest points.

Los Angeles QB Vince Ferragamo wasn't even his team's starter until the 12th game of the season, after a broken finger sidelined incumbent Pat Haden. Though he'd steered L.A. to an aggregate 6-1 record, the big game was just his eighth NFL start. Plus, the Rams had outscored their opponents by just 14 points during the regular season, beating the Tampa Buccaneers 9-0 for the conference championship.

Experts were predicting the biggest slaughter since Abraham spared Isaac.

The official game program
L.A.'s game-opening drive stalled on its own 26-yard-line after three plays for a net total of five yards. Then the Steelers went to work, Bradshaw deploying running backs Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier to gain 55 yards, setting up a Matt Bahr field goal. Steelers 3, Rams 0.

Five minutes and nine plays later, L.A. answered back. Running back Wendell Tyler's 39-yard dance through Pittsburgh's defense put the Rams in the red zone. Moments later, Cullen Bryant bulled in from the one. L.A. 7, Steelers 3.

Early in the second quarter, Harris plowed into the end zone, putting Pitt back on top, 10-7. Then strange things started to happen, things that make odds-makers and bookies nervous.

Rams placekicker Frank Corral tied the game five minutes after Franco's plunge. Then, after the teams traded three-and-outs, L.A. defensive back Dave Elemendorf's interception of a Bradshaw pass led to another Corral F.G.

At halftime, the score stood: Los Angeles Rams 13, Pittsburgh Steelers 10.

With Pittsburgh's ground game struggling in the third, Bradshaw connected with Lynn Swann for a 47-yard TD, the Hall of Fame-bound wide receiver beating double coverage to haul in the heave.

Wendell Tyler on the run.
(Sports Illustrated photo)
The champs were back on top, 17-13, but the Rams refused to lay down.

Ferragamo quickly connected with Billy Waddy on a 50-yard passing play that put L.A. on the Pittsburgh 24. Running back Lawrence McCutcheon then tossed a half-back option TD pass to receiver Ron Smith.

Though Corral missed the extra point, it was Rams 19, Steelers 17 midway through the third and things were about to get even worse for Pittsburgh.

Swann, leaping high for a catch, had his legs cut out from under by a Rams defender. The acrobatic receiver landed hard on his right shoulder, his helmeted head slamming to the Rose Bowl turf. He left the game with concussion.

Bradshaw was intercepted twice more before the quarter's end, the second time when Rams cornerback Rod Perry caught a pass meant for the Steeler's remaining Hall-bound wideout, John Stallworth.

The third quarter wrapped with L.A. clinging to that slender two-point lead, but the Rams could do little with the possession gained by Perry's piracy. Their punt gave Pittsburgh possession on its own 25-yard-line with 12:59 left on the clock. Then, the Steelers galvanized.

A Harris run gained two yards. An incomplete pass left them there. It was third and eight on the Pittsburgh 27 when Bradshaw took the snap, dropped back about 10 yards, then uncorked one of the greatest throws in pro football history.

Perry leaps in vain as Stallworth gathers in the pass.
(Sports Illustrated photo)
His high tight spiral sailed 46 yards down field. Just clearing cornerback Rod Perry's outstretched hand, the ball was caught by Stallworth in full stride at the Rams' 36. With Perry lying prone on field, the Steelers receiver raced untouched to the end zone. Steelers 24, Rams 19.

The champs never looked back, scoring once more after a Ferragamo interception to seal the win, 31-19.

Despite three interceptions, Bradshaw was named the game's most valuable player, largely on the strength of 60 Prevent, Slot Hook and Go, a play they'd repeatedly tried and failed to execute in practice that week.

It would be Bradshaw's last Super Bowl. An elbow injury would force him to retire after the 1983 season.

The victory over the Rams also marked the end of the Pittsburgh Steeler dynasty, the first of the NFL's Super Bowl era. They'd not return to the big game until 1996.
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* For a now-standard 16-game NFL season.

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