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.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive.