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Dispatches from The Day The Island Shook: The Islanders first Stanley Cup, 35 years later

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Bob Nystrom, scores the goal.

The beginning
The beginning

Thirty-five years ago today, on May 24th, 1980, the New York Islanders won the franchise's first Stanley Cup, beating the Philadelphia Flyers in six games.

Bob Nystrom's goal at 7:11 of overtime settled many matters; it completed the team's evolution from expansion patsies, saved them financially, busted their reputation as playoff chokers and stole the spotlight from their regional rivals. And that's all before we knew it would kick off a legendary American hockey dynasty.

On this anniversary, let's stroll through some writings from the days immediately following the Islanders' first championship.

The Game:

*   *   *

The Words:

Six years ago, they were league laughingstocks, winning just 31 of their first 156 games. Two years ago, they were in bankrupt, $25 million in debt and  a hair's breadth from being moved or dissolved.

But Saturday - with a crowd of 14,995 rocking the Nassau Coliseum - the Islanders survived a two-goal Philadelphia comeback that tied the game at 4-4 in the third period, and got Nystrom's goal to complete a 4-2 triumph in the best-of-seven series. (Associated Press, May 25, 1980)

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"I was thinking of my father back home," Nystrom said. "He can't take games like these. I was thinking he might have a heart attack. I also thought I'd like to go out there and be a hero. I always feel comfortable going out in overtime." (United Press International, May 25, 1980)

*   *   *

In the first few moments of their finest hour, after they had finished rolling with each other in glee on the ice - after captain Denis Potvin had led the jubilant lap of glory with the silver trophy held over his head - the Islanders found out some strange new things.

Some of them discovered that champagne drunk out of a sterling silver bowl doesn't taste that great. Some of them opted for beer instead.

And left wing Clark Gillies, handed the Cup after the lap of triumph, found out something else:

"The Cup is a lot heavier than I thought," he said. But to him, it was the most wonderful of burdens. And to the Flyers, champions twice themselves, it was the bitterest of ends. (AP, May 25, 1980)

*   *   *

"The guys on this team weren't willing to die. We've had the word choke driven into us from the start and we heard it so much that we had to start thinking of it. We're not like that. We're winners and we're proud to show people we can win the big one." (Nystrom, UPI, May 25, 1980)

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"There were a lot of times this year when I wanted to get traded," said Henning, who only played in 39 games. "But now, I'd go through it all over again if I knew this was going to be the outcome." (AP, May 26, 1980)

*   *   *

- It was center Wayne Merrick, injured on his first shift, phoning his mother in Sarnia, Ontario, and saying, "We got the Stanley Cup. We got her, mom. I got to kiss the Cup."

- It was general manager Bill Torrey (always tidily dressed, bow tie ever in place) standing in a hallway with his shirt drenched from champagne and broken bits of potato chips nestled in his thinning hair. He spoke of the frustrations of the last two years, when New York had lost playoff series it was supposed to win.

- It was Nystrom, defiant on the subject of those last two years: "The choke label is gone and it better not ever be brought up again." (AP, May 26, 1980)

*   *   *

In that instant, with the Stanley Cup held so high and looking so brilliant, you imagined the star lighting up not only the day and the Coliseum, but all of Long Island, too. Finally, Potvin and the Islanders had moved out of the shadows. It was official. The Cup was so bright. Let the Rangers have Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island. The Islanders had the Cup. The Islanders had Long Island. Nothing else mattered. (Mike Lupica, May 26, 1980)