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.
How the hell was Ken Baumgartner only an Islander for two and a half seasons? How is that possible?
The winger played just 175 games with them, and scored only one goal along with 12 assists. He went scoreless in four playoff games as an Islander.
But that doesn’t seem right. It feels - and felt, at least as far as I can remember - that he was around for longer and did more and was a very popular player for them in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Baumgartner had a ready-made nickname, too: “The Bomber.”
I mean, look at this picture. The man was and is an Islander legend.
Dom even wrote about him in an early FanPost on this site 11 years ago. Even before I even knew him, he agreed that, “It always seems like he was with the Isles for longer, but that’s how it goes with enforcers: Their personalities and mythology live on long after they’ve moved to the next stop on their journey.”
There’s probably a good reason why Baumgartner made such an impression. Actually, it’s more like 678 good reasons. That’s how many penalty minutes The Bomber racked up in orange and blue, representing 30.2 percent of his career total of 2,242 PIMs accrued between stints with the Kings, Islanders, Maple Leafs, Mighty Ducks and Bruins. (The Flin Flon, Manitoba native was actually drafted in the 12th round, 245th overall, by the Sabres, then dealt to LA).
Search his name on YouTube and you’ll think that 30.2 percent of the site’s videos are of Ken Baumgartner beating the ever-loving shit out of some other NHL heavyweight. Here’s one example, featuring Joe Kocur (Right off the opening faceoff. The list of the night’s referees is a nice touch). If you ever want to fall down a rabbit hole, you could do worse than looking up The Bomber’s greatest hits.
Baumgartner’s legend was really seeded in his first season with the Islanders. They went 23-6-3 immediately after acquiring him and Hubie McDonough from Los Angeles for Mikko Makela, and snuck into the playoffs where they faced the Rangers. A high hit on star Pat LaFontaine by the Rangers’ James Patrick in Game 1 sent the series off the rails right from the beginning and the game ended with a massive brawl. Baumgartner and Mick Vukota were each suspended one game for their actions, and the Islanders lost the series in five. The hit, LaFontaine’s hellish ambulance ride, the brawl, the suspensions and the loss to their biggest rival all added up to one very, very dark week in Islanders history. But we still had The Bomber.
He was both a tough nut and a smart cookie. Baumgartner was known for taking local college courses during his time as an Islander and served as the team’s NHLPA rep. When the players chose to strike in 1992, Baumgartner spent many hours haggling with Bill Torrey, the Islanders GM who was also at the bargaining table representing the league. When Torrey traded Baumgartner to the Leafs in a four-player deal in the middle of those negotiations, all parties made it abundantly clear that union matters had nothing to do with it. Baumgartner had been playing both forward and defense, but wasn’t satisfied with his ice time and asked Torrey months earlier if a trade could be found.
His exit was a disappointing one for Islanders fans (no offense to Claude Loiselle and Dan Marois), who had to watch The Bomber play for eight more seasons away from them. After stops in Toronto and Anaheim, he played all 82 games for the Bruins in 1997-98, and piled up 199 PIMs at the age of 31. He played one more season, then retired for good.
In 2002, he completed his MBA degree from Harvard. Seriously.
Ken Baumgartner was a man of his era, when heavyweights squared off nightly. He was an enforcer, but also a character and a guy who thought as well as he fought. He was, above all else, a guy who you felt safe having on your side.
(Note: MSG+ is playing more classic Islanders games this week. You can catch Baumgartner picking up a season-high 23 penalty minutes in the game against the Hartford Whalers from 1990, starting at 10 pm ET tonight.)