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Standing on Ceremony: Tonelli puck drop means much to Islanders and their fans

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A legend returns after a long way away.

Pittsburgh Penguins v New York Islanders
oh hell yeah the archival pics are back
Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images

Ceremonial face-offs happen so often that calling them ceremonial seems like hyperbole.

Whether they’re ex-players or community members or kids or service dogs or whatever, there’s a better than 50/50 chance the game you’re going to will have a special face-off before the game’s real face-off. During (what we thought would be) the Islanders final season at Nassau Coliseum in 2015, it seemed like every game had some special person connected to the old barn dropping a puck. I myself took in half a dozen games that year and saw Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby, Patrik Elias and David Backes all take ceremonial face-offs with John Tavares and some Islanders legend.

But one person was conspicuously absent during those games. John Tonelli, the whirling dervish and clutch goals-corer of the Dynasty era, didn’t get a night of his own to celebrate his career with the team. Even in a season packed to the gills with special nights, it was weird that there wasn’t one for him.

1980 Quarter Finals: Boston Bruins v New York Islanders Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images

Tuesday night’s game against the Panthers isn’t an official “John Tonelli Night,” but he will be on hand to drop the ceremonial puck, the Islanders announced over the weekend. That in itself is a major event.

Why or how long Tonelli’s been away doesn’t matter anymore. Maybe he just didn’t feel like going to an Islanders game (he certainly wouldn’t be the first). And he wasn’t completely gone the entire time, just not really around, either.

The important thing is that he’ll be here now and he can be around more often, bringing another legend back into the team fold. Co-owners Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin have made a concerted effort to reach out to as many former Islanders as they can and bring them to games. Last season’s Alumni Night was a huge success, and Tonelli was at first expected to be there but was not.

Tonelli’s impact on the franchise cannot be overstated. Claimed by the Islanders in 1978 after the WHA’s Houston Aeros folded, Tonelli scored 17 goals and 56 points in his first NHL season. His point total dropped the next season, but he had 16 points in 21 playoff games that year, and without his perfect pass to Nystrom in overtime against the Flyers, there is no Islanders Dynasty.

He almost single-handedly kept the roll going in 1982, when he scored the game-tying goal and overtime winner in a playoff series against Pittsburgh, “the day the dynasty almost died.”

Seriously, if you don’t know what the picture at the top of this article is from, check out this video. There would be no dynasty without his heroics in the final game of that best-of-five:

The team went on to win Stanley Cups three and four after that, with Tonelli being a frequent and consistent post-season scorer. His regular seasons weren’t too shabby, either, including a 93-point season in 1981-82 and two All-Star Game appearances.

So he’s a big friggin’ deal. And his 1986 trade to Calgary - following a prolonged and ugly contract impasse - was a traumatic breakup for everyone involved. His first game as a Flame was against the Islanders, which couldn’t have been easy. He continued his offensive output with the Flames and later the Los Angeles Kings and was with Calgary when they went to the 1986 Cup final but lost to Montreal (Fun Fact: Glen Sather was super pissed that he got traded to the Oilers’ regional rival).

The Islanders clearly missed everything he brought to the roster, as did the fans that idolized his work ethic, hockey sense, muscle and goals that always came at the perfect time. The trade also unofficially denoted the end of an era in which the team could be considered one of the NHL’s very best.

Atlanta Flames v New York Islanders Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images

Talk to an Islanders fan old enough to remember and chances are Tonelli will be one of their favorite players. Along with Denis Potvin and Clark Gillies, his might be the player type Islanders fans are always clamoring for the team to go out and acquire all the time. Before John Tavares, Tonelli was known simply as “JT.” To some, he still is. There’s a good case the team could and should retire his No. 27, but between the six numbers they already have retired and the fact that Anders Lee is currently using it (and that Derek King and Michael Peca have already worn it), I wouldn’t expect it to happen anytime soon.

The first step is the most important. John Tonelli being in the house to drop a ceremonial face-off is good. Bringing back another major piece of the Islanders past is always good. It might just seem like another short, inconsequential moment before a game, but this time, it means a hell of a lot to a whole lot of people. They’ll probably let him know it on Tuesday night.

PS: The next target for the Islanders should be Zigmund Palffy.