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Man and Myth: John Tonelli didn’t need a banner to cast a shadow

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“Islanders Batman” was more than just another guy on the dynasty roster.

1980 Semi Finals: Buffalo Sabres v New York Islanders Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images

“You know what they need? They need someone like John Tonelli.”

If you walked through the concourse at Nassau Coliseum and listened to the Islanders fans chatting among themselves at any point since about 1986 (particularly during the team’s woebegone eternal dark ages), there’s a pretty good chance you heard more than one person make the above claim to the person next to them.

You will most definitely hear it tonight, as the Islanders limp back home after a winless - and nearly goal-less - four game road trip to celebrate the man by hoisting his old No. 27 to the rafters.

As old as I am, I missed the entire John Tonelli experience myself. But I sure heard enough about him from others to understand that Tonelli was more than just another guy on the dynasty roster. Over the course of 30-plus years, Tonelli was never simply an ex-Islander. He basically became the Islanders version of Batman; more just a mortal man, but a symbol of what a New York Islander could and should be.

He was drafted by the them, but he didn’t come up through the Islanders system in the usual way. He played in the WHA with the Houston Aeros alongside Gordie Howe for three seasons before coming to Long Island. And on a team full of once-in-a-lifetime Hall of Famers, it was Tonelli who felt like something different; a guy with an incredible, but seemingly achievable, level of excellence through sheer willpower.

Tonelli’s reputation hung around Islanders long before his name and number hung over the Coliseum ice. Part of it came from his knack for being part of some of the biggest goals in franchise history: his criss-cross assist on Nystrom’s OT Cup winner in 1980, his goal to give the Islanders a then-NHL-record 15 game winning streak, his assist on Ken Morrow’s OT goal against the Rangers in ‘84 to continue the Drive for Five. That stuff is all on the record.

Off the record, there was a mythology about Tonelli that only grew with age. Stan Fischler called him, “indefatigable.” Linemate Bob Nystrom and Pat Flatley both called him “a workhorse.” Other words you often see describing Tonelli include “tenacious,” “dogged,” “relentless” and “whirling dervish,” a phrase no one under 70 would ever use (except me). Tonelli was recently compared to a rototiller, a piece of machinery used to pulverize soil with metal teeth. That tells you the kind of player he was.

Every picture of the guy seems to come either right before or right after a seismic event that dropped everyone right down on their asses. When Tonelli scored to send Game 5 of the opening round against the Penguins into overtime in 1982, Rangers coach Herb Brooks was in attendance at Nassau Coliseum. When asked what he thought would happen in sudden death, Brooks told reporters a two word answer: “Tonelli. Nystrom.”

Sure enough. Boom. This picture tells the result:

Pittsburgh Penguins v New York Islanders Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images

Even people in the game felt that Tonelli was superhuman. Bob Nystrom, the guy on the ice on the bottom left up there, told author Greg Prato in the book Dynasty: The Oral History of the New York Islanders 1972-84 that Tonelli was, “If you wanted the puck, you sent him into the corner, because he would come out with it.”

Tonelli’s split from the team in 1986 even had a fighting spirit. Tonelli was the first Islander to challenge Torrey and ownership to be paid what he felt he was worth. And he was willing to wait, and risk exclusion from the tight knit team, to get it.

He eventually signed a contract, but was later traded to Calgary. Oilers GM Glen Sather was so pissed about it that he went full paranoid super villain, telling an Edmonton paper, “Tonelli going to the Flames is a plot against us.” Tonelli’s first game as a Flame was, of course, against the Islanders. He became a major contributor right away in Calgary and he went right back to the Stanley Cup final that season.

His original team was never quite the same again. It’s not hard to point to that event as the first major crack in the once-impermeable Islanders facade, even as Tonelli became a journeyman over the next few years until his retirement in 1992. The holdout and trade also began a decades-long standoff between the franchise and the player that had once meant so much to its identity and history.

None of that diminished him in the eyes of fans, though. If anything, not having him around added fuel to the fire of his legend. Tonelli was already ensconced as the guy with superstar hands and third liner legs. The ultimate combination of skill and heart. He had 30 and 40 goal seasons, played in two All Star Games and was chosen for a Canada Cup team. He could play with Bryan Trottier in a scoring role or with Wayne Merrick in a checking role. He played hard every shift in all situations and scored a lot for a team that won all the damn time.

The banner going to the rafters on Friday night is a tangible representation (a Bat Signal, if you will) of what had been implicit all this time. John Tonelli was an ideal that Islanders fans have been clamoring for, either consciously or subconsciously, for decades. Word of mouth passed from generation to generation honored the guy who never quit and would simply keep working until the game was won.

John Tonelli (the person) waited 30-something years to have his number retired. John Tonelli (the symbol) was never and will never be forgotten. And, as has been the case since 1986, they could use a little bit of him right now.