The Enforcer Olympics – New York Islanders
Lebron James infamously said in Miami, “Not 1.. Not 2… Not 3… Not 4…” But only Boston and beautiful New York have managed to win four straight championships in the North American Big-4 sports leagues. The Celtics dominated the 60s and the Yankees owned the 30s but, for hockey fans, it’s all about the New York Islanders. The Isles won in 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984 and the fact that only three franchises have managed to pull this feat off in the modern era shows how truly difficult it is. That’s why the New York Islanders are our 4th instalment of the Enforcer Olympics. The high-flying Isles were only able to fly freely because they boasted some of the toughest enforcers to ever lace em’ up. That’s why today we celebrate the tough guys from Long Island.
Bronze – Bob Nystrom
Whether you remember him as Bob, Mr. Islander or, as his teammates called him, Thor. The Swede from Hinton, Alberta was an absolute force for the Isles. The rugged right-winger played his entire 14 seasons in the NHL for New York. During his time in Long Island, Mr. Islander amassed 99 fights, 1023 penalty minutes, and 513 points, including the Game 6 overtime winner against the Philadelphia Flyers in 1980 that secured the franchise’s first-ever Stanley Cup. With his knack for finding the back of the net, especially in the playoffs, Nystrom was far from your typical enforcer. Never shy to drop the mitts, he’s earned the Bronze spot on the Islanders’ Enforcers Olympics podium.
Bob Nystrom vs Doug Risebrough – December 23, 1977 – 2nd period – 9:19
The fans at the Montreal Forum got an early Christmas present with this festive scrap. Nystrom delivered a huge cross-check to Doug Risebrough’s face and immediately dropped-the-gloves because he knew what was coming. Mr. Islander started the action with a flurry of unanswered uppercuts to the Canadiens forward. Even though Riseborough was able to gather himself and land a couple of jabs, he spent most of this battle holding on for dear life. To be fair, Nystrom’s huge 6”1 frame would be difficult for any of us to handle. Combine that with his ability to just tee-off huge right hooks without any obvious fatigue and you have the recipe for a damn good fighter. This tilt ended the same way it started: Nystrom feeding a series off uppercuts until the linesmen eventually jumped in. Fortunately for Risebrough, the Canadiens got the 7-5 win because he definitely didn’t win this scrap.
Bob Nystrom vs John Wensink – April 17, 1980 – 1st period – 15:31
Nothing is more 80s than two heavyweights dropping-the-gloves in the famed Boston Garden and slugging it out with their locks flowing in the wind. While John Wensink may be known for his legendary taunt of the Minnesota North Stars’ bench, he was one tough fighter. And so was Nystrom. The Islanders legend started this bout by landing about five clean punches to Wensink’s nose…the Bruins enforcer didn’t flinch. Wensink had a tendency to grab his opposition’s hair and, at about the 7-second mark, it looked like he did exactly that. Unfortunate for him…it didn’t help. Nystrom unloaded about seven more big right hooks while Wensink desperately tried to tie him up. This scrap was all Nystrom, and to the disappointment of Bruins fans, the linesmen jumped in before their tough-guy could do much damage. To pour salt in the wound, the Islanders left Beantown with a 5-4 overtime win that would lead to an eventual Quarterfinals playoff series win.
Bob Nystrom vs Bob Kelly – May 24, 1980 – 1st period – 5:55
Kelly didn’t want Nystrom, but he got him. The two started this bout by grappling in front of the Flyers bench until Nystrom was able to let off his signature uppercuts. While the crowd that gathered around the two warriors made it tough to see the action, you can tell those uppercuts hurt Kelly. This fight was significant because the Flyers were clearly trying to set the tone to start the game, but Nystrom wasn’t having it. This would go on to be our bronze medalists signature game. A scrap, a goal, and a game-winner sent Nassau Coliseum into a frenzy as they watched their team lift their first ever Stanley Cup. Nystrom was something special and, although this fight may not make any fight highlight reels, it set the tone that the Isles weren’t about to be bullied. Especially in their own barn.
Silver – Mick Vukota
Please take a second and think of something you’ve done 160 times in your life. Well, our Silver medalist Mick Vukota has scrapped that many times in his career, earning him the prestigious distinction of the most fights in Islanders’ history. This alone could earn him the top spot on the podium, but there were a lot of tough dudes who played in Long Island. During his decade with the Blue-and-Orange, Vukota put up an unimpressive 45 points but an insane amount of penalty minutes. 1879 to be exact. Although the Saskatoon native went undrafted, he was picked up by the Islanders who were looking to add some toughness to their roster. Vukota did exactly that by punishing defensemen on the forecheck with huge hits and the occasional dirty play. Regardless, he did what he was asked to do and did it well. Even more impressive? Somehow he still looked intimidating in those hideous fisherman jerseys.
Mick Vukota vs Jeff Bloemberg – April 05, 1990 – 3rd period – 20:00
As Frank Sinatra said:
Start spreading the news
I’m leaving today
I want to be a part of it
New York, New York
Except I don’t think Frank Sinatra would be willing to take part in the scrap that Thursday night in The Garden. All hell broke loose when our Silver medalist grabbed Jeff Bloemberg at the final buzzer and absolutely unloaded. In this beatdown, Bloemberg wasn’t able to land a shot and spent more time ducking than throwing. This scrap served as the kindling to an all-out brawl with heavyweights like Ken Baumgartner and Chris Nilan who made sure they got to join the party. During this melee and after Kris King tried to avenge his fallen teammate, Vukota ended up scrapping twice. Unfortunately for the former Peterborough Pete, Vukota was just too powerful and was forced to keep his head down the entire time. The Isles’ big man was always a force to be reckoned with and made his impact felt during the battle of New York. While the Rangers won more games than the Isles in the 90s, they definitely didn’t win as many fights and Vukota was a large reason for that.
Mick Vukota vs Larry Melnyk – October 18, 1988 – 1st period – 06:05
Kudos to Melnyk for stepping in for his teammate because Vukota clearly wanted Stan Smyl. Nevertheless, our Silver medalist had no trouble TKO-ing Melnyk instead. The two dropped-the-gloves after Vukota gave Smyl a pretty vicious slash…and the rest was history. The former Spokane Chief ate a series of punches from the Canucks defenseman and never lost his cool. He just waited for the perfect time to let off a couple of jabs and then, BAM! A massive right hook that absolutely buckled Melnyk. Vukota ended up falling on top of Melnyk and – to add a little insult to injury – looked to have added a couple of facewashes. As he skated off, you could see the Islanders enforcer mouth something to the scrum – I’m guessing it was to Smyl and it likely along the lines of, “This is your fault!” This fight was over fast and the fans at Nassau Coliseum were lucky enough to see a TKO and watch their Isles send Vancouver home with a loss.
Mick Vukota vs Tony Twist – March 24, 1992 – 3rd period – 5:33
You aren’t afforded the luxury of picking-and-choosing your opponent when you live the life of an enforcer. Would Vukota have rather not fought the guy that Owen Nolan said he saw break someone’s helmet with his thunderous right-hand? Maybe. But you don’t get on the podium without fighting the best. Tony Twist was one of the most lethal punchers and clearly looking to make his name by fighting an established enforcer like Mick Vukota. In this bout, the two squared-off and, in an attempt to get an inside position on Twist, Vukota went for what looked like a Goldberg-style spear. The Nordiques enforcer was able to make space and tee-off some of his legendary right hands, but Vukota responded with a flurry of right-hooks of his own. It looked like the fight was going to end by Vukota tossing Twist into the Islanders bench, but the warriors kept battling. They grappled and threw a few more jabs until Vukota tossed Twist to the ice and ended the spirited bout. The judges would call the fight a draw and, with a 5-2 win that Tuesday night in beautiful Québec city, the Nordiques would call it a win.
Gold – Clark Gillies
Anyone who’s seen the Beverly Hillbillies knows exactly why they call Clark Gillies Jethro. While I wouldn’t call them doppelgangers, they do have an uncanny resemblance. The primary difference? Jethro was known for his “six-foot stomach,” while Gillies was known for punching them…hard. This is why he is officially the Islanders’ Enforcer Olympics Gold medalist. While the former Regina Pats star played in New York for over a decade and was a crucial part of their 4 Stanley Cups, which included tallying 16 points and 63 penalty minutes when the Islanders beat the Kings, Bruins and Flyers to hoist their first Stanley Cup. Hockey was never Gillies’ first passion. Oddly enough, baseball was. At 16, Gillies signed with the Houston Astros and played 3 years in the Appalachian League for their Virginia minor league team. Luckily for Islanders fans, Gillies had hockey in his blood and, when both the Oilers and Islanders selected him in the 1974 Draft, he decided to take his talents to Long Island. The rest is history…
Clark Gillies vs Dave Schultz – January 09, 1975 – 2nd period – 15:15
You can’t bet on who will win in a hockey fight but oddsmakers would have likely set the line for a fight between a rookie and one of the most established enforcers in the league at… hmmm… 100 to 1. Well, Vegas would have lost a lot of money on this one. Clark Gillies wasn’t afraid of anyone and he proved it when he battled Dave Schultz that Thursday night in The Spectrum. Jethro was immediately able to get inside position and deliver a combination of body shots and uppercuts. The two only mixed it up because Schultz delivered a late hit on Gillies that forced him to get retribution. And he did exactly that. There weren’t too many big punches thrown because, until the linesmen jumped in, the two heavyweights spent most of the time against the glass. This was a big moment for Gillies! He’d just fought one of the toughest guys and won. You could tell Schultz was embarrassed because, as they skated to the box, Gillies flashed him a coy smile and Schultz tried to deke past the ref to get a round two. Schultz was denied and Gillies put the league on notice. The Islanders won’t be pushed around, not even by the Schultz and the Flyers.
Clark Gillies vs Jerry Butler – April 21, 1978 – 1st period – 2:05
Only in the 70s could you get away with tossing a huge left hook over the top of a linesmen’s head and staying in the game. Granted, it was the playoffs – but sheesh! – one centimeter lower and Gillies would have KO’ed that linesemen. Credit to Jethro’s accuracy because he landed that hook right on Jerry Butler’s nose and followed it up with two massive right hands that dropped the Leafs forward. But Gillies wasn’t done. Before the linesmen jumped in and escorted the Islanders Captain to the sin bin, he unloaded about 5 huge shots to Butler while he was down on the ice. The modest Gillies never liked the role of Captain and relinquished the C the following season to Denis Potvin. Fortunately for Islanders fans, he did it because it allowed Gillies more freedom and added to the team’s chemistry. This choice would lead them to win the Stanley Cup. While the Leafs would go on to win this series against the Islanders, I bet Jerry Butler and that linesmen will never forget this bout.
Clark Gillies vs Dave Hoyda – January 06, 1979 – 1st period – 7:07
Want to know one sure way to get a bench clearing brawl against the Islanders? Take a run at Mike Bossy. On January 6th in Philly, Dave Hoyda decided to do exactly that. Still donning the C, Clark Gillies couldn’t let such nonsense go unpunished. The two met in the crowd at center ice where Gillies started pushing people aside to get to Hoyda. That’s when the Isles legend started throwing bombs at a falling Hoyda that included two massive right uppercuts and two big hooks. Hoyda was lucky he went down as early as he did because had he stayed on his feet there was a good chance Gillies would’ve TKO-ed him. In classic 70s fashion, this was a fire-started for what would become an on-ice war. Hoyda was able to regain some redemption by pummeling Gary Howatt so badly that he looked like he was going to grab a stick to attack Hoyda. Fortunately, Ed Westfall grabbed him before things got out of line and escorted the injured Islander to the dressing room. With the carnage on the ice at the end of this melee, Gillies made it abundantly clear that you never touched Mike Bossy.
This concludes the 4th installment of the Enforcer Olympics. Honourable mention to Rich Pilon, Eric Cairns and Ken Baumgartner, but there can only be three. The Islanders have a storied history and fans at Nassau Coliseum hope they can get back to their glory days sooner than later. Next week we travel to the land of mountains, mesas and the Colorado Avalanche. Don’t worry, a Québec Nordique player might make one or two appearances…you’ll have to tune in to see.