The New York Islanders - along with every other NHL team and many other businesses - have temporarily suspended operations due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 Coronavirus. The Center for Disease Control and World Health Organizations have strongly advised the public to practice self-quarantining and avoid close contact and crowds to limit the spread of the virus. But that doesn’t mean we can’t gather in a virtual space and talk about old hockey players.
As long as the Islanders are on pause, we’ll run this series to give folks a place to chat, reminisce, and generally relieve the stress of the times.
There’s a pretty good chance the 2019-20 NHL is over. We don’t know, of course, and the league could resume in any number of ways in the next few weeks. If it doesn’t, it will leave many teams with a sense of incompleteness and lingering questions about what they actually were this season.
The NHL is no stranger to wacky, shortened seasons. The league boasts a short players strike, three lockouts and an influenza outbreak in its history, so fans have been used to a sense of unfinished business for a long time. With that in mind, I thought the first player in this series should be an Islander who’s time with the team was limited, prolific and cut short at one of those lockouts.
Steve Thomas was a hugely popular member of the 92-93 Islanders team that made a frantic, overtime-fueled run to the Wales Conference final before losing to the eventual champion Montreal Canadiens. Thomas’s linemate Pierre Turgeon was the team’s absolute star that season, and was later the victim of one of the worst on-ice acts of violence in NHL history.
But, man, Thomas was spectacular that year, too. After Turgeon’s 58 goals, the Islanders had three other players with 30 or more goals. Thomas’s 37 came in one behind Derek King’s 38 for third place on the team. His 87 points put him second to Turgeon’s 132 on the team scoring list that season. The 5’-10” winger even had a great nickname: “Stumpy.”
Thomas also added nine goals and eight assists in the playoffs, and his 17 points were second behind Ray Ferraro’s 20 that spring. I mean, look at this. Feel the electricity in the Coliseum when this goal happens.
None of this was out of character for Thomas, even before he came to the Islanders. He had 35 goals for the Maple Leafs in 1986-87, his third season in league. After a trade to Chicago and a couple of injury-shortened seasons, he scored 40 for the Blackhawks in 1989-90. He had 20-goal seasons for each club, too.
At the age of 29, Thomas was traded to the Islanders, along with center Adam Creighton, in the deal that sent captain Brent Sutter and forward Brad Lauer to Chicago. As with the “other” big trade that day that saw Pat LaFontaine and Turgeon switch teams, Islanders fans quickly got over the loss of a longtime hero once they saw that the new guy was pretty damn good in his own right.
In 1993-94, Thomas was even better, leading the Islanders with a career-high 42 goals. That season ended... uh, a little short of the Conference or Cup final. But Thomas was ensconced as one of the team’s offensive and public leaders. Fans looked forward to what he, Turgeon, King and the rest would do in the 94-95 season.
And then the lockout happened. And the 94-95 season was shortened to just 48 games. Thomas had just 11 goals and 15 assists in that short season, and the Islanders, who had traded Turgeon to Montreal, never really had a chance at a playoff berth.
And then he was gone. Just before the 1995-96 season was set to start, GM Don Maloney sent Thomas to New Jersey for agitating forward Claude Lemieux, who was then flipped to Quebec for agitating forward Wendel Clark. I’ll give you one guess which one of these trades didn’t quite work out.
Thomas spent three solid years with the defensive-minded Devils, then left to return to the Maple Leafs as a free agent, where he had a late-career renaissance and scored 28 and 26 goals in his mid-30’s. He bounced around the league after that, playing for the Blackhawks again, the Mighty Ducks and the Red Wings before retiring after the 2004 season. When healthy, he was generally productive for the large majority of a 20-year NHL career, something very few players achieve.
Steve Thomas spent just four years with the Islanders, only two of which were complete seasons. But he made himself into a cult hero by unleashing a potent scoring punch and coming through with some huge goals in his time.
It’s a shame that time on Long Island was just so short (although I guess it was longer than Claude Lemieux’s...)