“It was a four game series that felt like seven games”: The Islanders Win Their Fourth Stanley Cup

In 1983 the Islanders had already established a dynasty, winning three Stanley Cups in a row. They would face the upstart Edmonton Oilers in the ’83 Finals in an attempt to make it four in a row. That Oilers team featured five future Hall of Famers including a young Wayne Gretzky, who had an astonishing 212 points in 1981-82. front cover_originalThe Islanders would sweep the series in four games, a tough lesson for the young Oilers. This year is the 30th anniversary of the ’83 Finals, the last Islanders Stanley Cup win. The following is an excerpt from Dynasty: The Oral History of the New York Islanders, 1972-1984 and is republished with permission from author Greg Prato.

CHAPTER 29: STANLEY CUP ’83

Can the Oilers dethrone the Islanders as reigning Stanley Cup champs?

CLARK GILLIES: Just before I left to go to Edmonton, I called a buddy of mine in Moose Jaw, where I grew up. My friend was actually my midget coach when I was twelve or thirteen years old. His name is John Hunter. And I said, “John, am I going to see you up in Edmonton?” He goes, “Nope. Not coming to Edmonton. I’m coming to New York – I’m going to watch you win it at home in game four.” And I go, “OK. I like the way you think!”

STAN FISCHLER: It all came down to the first game. And the first game in Edmonton, Bossy was ill, he didn’t play. The Oilers so overwhelmed the Islanders in the first period, it looked like it was going to be a 9-0 win for Edmonton. It was the best period of goaltending I’d ever seen. I forget if it was Duane Sutter who scored the first goal…it was a 2-0 game. But the point is that they won that game, and that was huge. And they won the second game [6-3].

BOB BOURNE: Played a really good game the first one. And then the second game, that really set the stage for us was we scored a lot goals. Just really took over the series. And they never played well in New York. For some reason, they always put a lot of pressure on themselves.

JIGGS McDONALD: That was the year that Billy Smith’s face was on the front page of the Edmonton Sun, with a bulls eye – done like a target – and he was “public enemy #1.”

DUANE SUTTER: It was a huge controversy [over a play in which Billy Smith whacked Wayne Gretzky in the leg with his goalie stick, in game two], but Smitty thrived on situations like that. As much as they thought they were getting under his skin, it was just making him a better goalie. It kind of worked against them.

GORD LANE: That series goes right back onto Billy Smith. That was the year he won the Conn Smythe. Billy made saves with his bare hands and just stoned them. Another thing that I noticed about the Oilers is that they never would really change their style, and I think we kind of figured out after a while the way to actually play them. But Billy just flat out stoned them.

CLARK GILLIES: That was the series where he slashed Gretzky. He chopped him coming around the net. And nailed Glenn Anderson too, I think. That was the year the headline after the game where he slashed Gretzky, they had Smitty holding a hatchet in his hand on the front page of the paper, or something like that! None of that stuff ever phased Smitty. You’d think that some guys, if they hurt the star player on the other team that they’d get upset, and a little bit hesitant to go out the next night. That didn’t bother Smitty at all. He kinda told them, “They all learned their lesson – don’t get close to my net.” I think that was actually the message that was taken – “We better not get too close to him. He doesn’t really give a shit who he hurts on this team.”

But those first two games were totally Smitty. He just stood on his head. And then came back home. I don’t remember the scores, but I do remember that we beat them quite handily at home [5-1 and 4-2]. That was a real feather in our cap – there weren’t a lot of teams that were picking us to beat Edmonton. Never mind four straight, but to beat them at home. We just really stuck to business. I don’t think there was anybody in the locker room going, “Let’s shove it up their ass. These young guys, they’re going to beat us old guys?” Al always kept us pretty even-keeled. He said, “Let’s not get caught up in all the bullshit here. We’ll just go out and play, and if we play as well as we can, it should be good enough.” We always believed that.

STAN FISCHLER: I would have never imagined a sweep. Out of the question.

AL ARBOUR: I thought that they would put up a better fight. They had a good club, too.

DUANE SUTTER: We knew we’d have to be a disciplined group, and play a real smart, defensive game. Kind of “out experience” them. And we did. We played a very calm and collected game, a very disciplined game. They were a little bit more of a gung ho group, as far as “offense offense.” We played through a lot of injuries and there were a handful of teammates that were having a few personal concerns at home. But hey, we persevered and showed we were a team that should go down in NHL history as one of the best ever.

STAN FISCHLER: This was a very, very strong Edmonton team. I remember after the third win, there was a luncheon across the street, at the Marriott, and Glen Sather was there, and I was very impressed by his confidence. The guy oozed confidence. It was almost as if he was defiant. And I said to myself, “Boy, the Islanders better not lose game four. Otherwise, this could be big trouble.” And of course, it wasn’t until the very end, because the Islanders jumped ahead, and Edmonton came within a goal. It wasn’t until Kenny Morrow put it away [with an empty net goal at the end of game four]. It was a four game series that felt like seven games.

BOB NYSTROM: The Oilers were an amazing, amazing team. They had everything – they had fire power, they had a group of stars that was just absolutely incredible. The Kurris, the Coffeys, the Messiers, the Fuhrs. It goes on and on and on. And we were able to really shut them down – they scored six goals that series. That was playing our system to a T, and really shutting down one of the greatest hockey teams that was ever assembled. That was my favorite Cup of all. It was a tribute to how good we were at that time – certainly from a goaltender’s standpoint, and personnel like Bossy, Clark, Denis, and all the guys. It was a hell of a tribute to the type of team we had.

BOB BOURNE: They weren’t quite ready to win – it was almost like us in ’78-’79. They just didn’t know how to win. They came out and tried to play their big offensive game, and we were too good for them.

LORNE HENNING: I think [the Oilers] learned from us. But at the time, maybe they weren’t quite ready to pay the price to win.

BOB BOURNE: If you read Wayne Gretzky’s book, he said after we won the fourth game and he walked by our dressing room door, we were all sitting there with ice packs on our heads, our elbows, and our knees. He said that’s when they said, “Holy cow. This is what you’ve got to do to win.” So it kind of showed them what it took.

RON WASKE: I just remember [during the early '80s] we had to go through Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Boston, and Montreal, and the west coast teams got to play some of the lighter teams in the schedule. And they get to the Stanley Cup, and they’re not very beat up – but the Islanders were. I think that was the sign of a great team that went through some very difficult series to get to a four game sweep of Vancouver and Edmonton.

KEN MORROW: At the time I didn’t [realize how special it was to win four Cups in a row]. Truly, the way that I approached it was that was what I was getting paid to do. Not to take anything away from it, but I really wasn’t getting caught up in…we won our fourth cup, and automatically, we were talking about winning a fifth. That’s just the way it was. When you’re in that environment and you’re winning – and winning championships – you just want to keep it going. For me, I was so fortunate that I happened to step into the team at the right time, and got caught up in the wave. So I didn’t know any better up until then. I just thought this was going to happen, and wanted to keep it going.

AL ARBOUR: We had a pretty good team that year. It didn’t surprise me one bit. The following year did surprise me.

Greg Prato is a Long Island based journalist who has been featured in Rolling Stone and is the author of several popular books including the one excerpted here, Dynasty: The Oral History of the New York Islanders, 1972-1984. The book is available here as an ebook and paperback. This excerpt has been reprinted with permission.