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Interview: Islanders 'Dynasty: The Oral History' Author Greg Prato

I've read a lot of New York Islanders books. This is the definitive history of the dynasty.

From Harris to Flatley and all the dynastic points in between.
From Harris to Flatley and all the dynastic points in between.
Greg Prato

This might be over the top, but I've no vested interest here and this opinion is sincere: I know what you want for Christmas, or Hanukkah, or your next birthday or whatever holiday yields you gifted things.

New York writer Greg Prato, who's done his share of rock books, has come out with what I can fairly say is the definitive oral history of the New York Islanders, from expansion through the dynasty and a little beyond.

"Dynasty: The Oral History of the New York Islanders 1972-1984" takes an almost documentary approach to the formative years and glorious peak of what made this franchise one of the best in NHL history. Nearly 30 exhaustive interviews, from players, coaches, managers, prominent fans, media personalities and trainers, gives a comprehensive look into how it all came together, from Bill Torrey taking the expansion team on a decidedly non-Atlanta Flames course to Claire Arbour trash-talking an obnoxious Rangers fan.

Interviews include players who were the "core of four" -- present for all four Stanley Cups -- to players who missed out, like the delightfully pithy Billy Harris.

I got a chance to read the book (a proper review will come later, though obviously I recommend it) and speak with the author. What follows are excerpts from our conversation.

Dominik: What led you to do this book, at this time, in this format? (Prato has done several rock oral histories and another sports book. In the book's forward, he talks about the moment his father's cheering in the other room helped hook him on the Islanders wagon.)

Greg Prato: "I know there have been a few books over the years about the Islanders, but not in this format. And none that captured the whole period. ... I've done several books this way [in oral history form] so I kind of have it down. I prefer that format, to get the story straight from the people who were there. It's kind of like a documentary in book form.

"I also think that team doesn't get nearly the credit they deserve. They're one of the great stories in sports. And in the early '80s, if you lived on Long Island, they were the team. They were Long Island's team. Everywhere you went, people wore Islanders hats and shirts. It was like the Yankees in the late '90s. ... Just an amazing team, and every game, even when they were behind, you knew they had a chance. And in the playoffs, if they lost one, you knew they'd get it back the next game."

Dominik: One of the revelations for me was how funny Billy Harris is. He has a lot of good quotes in this book. (Harris, the original Islanders draft pick, was traded just before the Cups came. In the book, he says at first he was cheering his old mates on, but by Cup number four he was pissed.)

Prato: "Harris was one of the most honest guys I spoke to in the whole process. He was great."

"I thought, 'Well shit, if he's not one of the hick dirt farmers from out in Saskatchewan…'"

--Harris on Ron Greschner, as Greschner and other Rangers were chirping the Islanders to "go back to Long Island, you hicks."

Dominik: What were some of the things you learned that you didn't know at all before this project?

Prato: "Jimmy Devellano was a revelation, a real unheralded hero of the dynasty. Just how much he meant to that team. He was really a genius when it comes to putting together a team, and scouting all that talent. I think that bore out when he left and the dynasty ended soon after but the Red Wings had so much success."

Prato: "Also, Dave Langevin talks about the Bobby Nystrom goal, and how when a moment like that happens the crowd actually gets quiet right before it. I went back and watched the goal on YouTube and you can see what he was talking about."

Listen to the moment at 1:37 in this video. A sudden interjection of silence before the eruption:

Dominik: I always knew the 2-3-2 format the NHL suddenly switched to for the 1984 Stanley Cup final was a sore spot with fans, but I had no idea how many players and even Jiggs McDonald still chafe at that.

Prato: "They did, they thought it was a factor. Especially since they lost the first game on a fluke goal and then won Game 2. It's the most ridiculous thing I've seen in sports. To change it like that in the middle of a dynasty. Imagine if they did that to the Yankees in the late '90s -- there's no way that would happen. Some of them think the league wanted a different champion, a Canadian one."

Dominik: What led you to include guys like Bruce Bennett of Getty Images (a Long Islander and prolific hockey photographer) and Gary "Baba Booey" Dell'Abate (Howard Stern's longtime producer) in the book?

Prato: "I wanted different perspectives on the dynasty, to see how people think of that era. Bruce was very nice, very helpful."

Ed. note: Bennett has photographed more than 30 Stanley Cup finals over the years, but his first one was special, as it was the Islanders' first Cup -- and ye gods, the noise in the Coliseum. In the book, Bennett talks of separating the fan in him from the professional photographer.

Dominik: I've read a lot of Islanders books myself, and I have to say I think this is the authoritative history. From expansion to the aftermath of the dynasty. Did you have any trouble cobbling together interviews?

Prato: "Like I said, it's a format I'm comfortable with. But everyone was so helpful -- even the guys who did not participate were gracious in declining. And so many like Bobby Nystrom, Clark Gillies, Devellano, were all a big help. I don't think Al Arbour does many interviews these days, so it was great to talk to him and his wife, Claire."

Dominik: Have you kept following the Islanders through the years?

Prato: "I still follow them. I followed them very closely in the early 2000s when they rebounded -- I thought they were on their way back, so I think firing Peter Laviolette was a huge mistake. Huge mistake. During the Dynasty I ended up watching almost every game. I don't think I'll ever experience something like that in sports again. Teams like that just don't come around anymore."

Dominik: "So we have the Islanders covered. But there is more to this book. Who else are you appealing to?"

Prato: "Certainly Rangers fans can enjoy it. Obviously I don't like the Rangers [laughs], but there is a lot about them thanks to the rivalry, and the insights on the 1979 series [ed. note: the Islanders lost to the Rangers in the semifinals, escalating the rivalry and giving the Rangers one of their few trips to the finals in the last 60 years] would be interesting to Rangers fans. Also the Flyers were a big rival, so there is more there.

"But the stories are very reminiscent of the bond the Isles had with the community, and you get a flavor of the game back then. [The game has] really changed."

* * *

Obviously, I'm a fan of this book. As I was reading it, marking excerpts and thoughts worth sharing with the LHH community, I ended up with a full diary of notes. The book is 400-plus pages of insight from a fantastic collection of personalities. Guys who lived the Cup years -- Bryan Trottier is always so grateful for his teammates -- and guys who missed out on either side like Harris and Patrick Flatley, and guys who lived part of it like Jean Potvin.

If you're interested, you can check out excerpts at Prato's lulu site -- the Isles thoughts on Wayne Gretzky are priceless -- and ordering through that link gives you a 10% discount vs. ordering through a vendor like Amazon.

I'll post a follow-up review in a few days, with a couple of poignant excerpts. And if you have questions, drop them in comments (above are just excerpts from our conversation, so there's more if you want).

But whether you lived it or just heard about it from your dad or uncle or whomever, this oral history really captures every facet of how the Islanders became the only major sports franchise to win 19 playoff series in a row.

They were, and remain, the NHL's last true dynasty.