50 Years of Islanders: Peter Schwartz looks back at the impact of Eddie Westfall

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Eddie Westfall was having a wonderful career with the Boston Bruins.

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The veteran forward spent 11 seasons with the B’s and was on a pair of Stanley Cup championship teams in 1970 and 1972, but one month after that second Stanley Cup, Westfall learned that he was no longer a Bruin.

And how he found out is a big reason why his loyalty lies with another franchise to this day.

“My loyalty is very understood from my standpoint,” said Westfall during a recent phone conversation.  “We had just won our second cup in Boston in May, and in June, I found out from a customs and immigrations officer at Logan Airport that I wasn’t a Bruin anymore. So where do you think my loyalty lies?”

Fifty years later, Westfall’s heart is with the New York Islanders, and he is still living on Long Island.

In 1972, Westfall was exposed by the Bruins for the expansion draft and selected by the Islanders, who named him as the first captain in franchise history. Westfall had an understanding of what it meant to be the captain of a hockey team from his time in Boston, as he saw how the Bruins captains that he played with handled the role, and he brought that with him to Long Island.

Not all of what Westfall soaked in from his Boston days was hockey related.

“The first thing you learned when I was the captain was that the “C” didn’t stand for captain…it stood for cash,” said Westfall with a chuckle. “You’re always lending these kids…they didn’t have any money. I felt like a modern-day ATM. I used to put guys up…I wouldn’t let them stay in hotels or motels. I put them up at my house.”

Westfall was going from a team in Boston that had just won a Stanley Cup to a brand-new franchise in the suburbs of New York City that was collecting a bunch of castoffs from other teams. But, the architect of the team full of castoffs was a genius by the name of Bill Torrey, and the Isles’ legendary General Manager had to do some convincing to get Westfall to embrace the move.

“Yeah, he and (owner) Roy Boe,” said Westfall. “Roy Boe was wonderful. I knew Torrey from his days out in Oakland (when Torrey was GM of the California Golden Seals). I knew of him, but I didn’t know where Long Island was. I had been to New York City quite a bit with the Bruins but Long Island? I didn’t know where that was.”

Westfall would learn that Torrey was a big fan of how the Montreal Canadiens did business, and wanted to try and emulate that plan on Long Island – but that plan took a couple of years before there was some success. During their inaugural 1972-73 season, the Islanders won just 12 games, but the reward was the first overall pick in the draft, where they selected future Hall-of-Fame defenseman Denis Potvin.

There was a coaching change during that first season, too, as the Islanders replaced Phil Goyette with Earl Ingarfield, and then following that first season, Torrey hired Al Arbour as head coach.

The rest, as they say, is history.

During the 1973-74 season, the Islanders showed some improvement, and while they still didn’t make the playoffs, they added two more big pieces in the 1974 draft in Clark Gillies and Bryan Trottier, so the groundwork was being laid for a team that would accomplish some special things down the road.

The franchise then took a big step forward in 1974-75, qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time and stunning the hockey world with postseason victories over the Rangers and Penguins before losing to the Flyers in a seven-game semifinal series.

That season, the Islanders put the NHL on notice that they were a franchise to be reckoned with.

“That was major,” said Westfall. “That playoff year…I get chills today thinking about what these guys, young and old, were accomplishing.
It was really something. That still stays as a very fond memory of my Islander years.”

Westfall relinquished the Islanders captaincy following the 1976-77, handing that role off to Gillies as the Islanders built and Westfall was getting close to winning a third Stanley Cup as a player. Those Islanders teams in the 70’s were really good and were on a path to greatness, but that road to winning championships had some potholes with a pair of bitter playoff losses.

In 1978, the Islanders lost in the quarterfinals to the Maple Leafs when Lanny McDonald scored in overtime of game seven at Nassau Coliseum.  And then in 1979, the Islanders were the NHL’s regular season champions, but they lost in the semifinals to the Rangers in six games.

The Islanders had Stanley Cup talent but couldn’t quite seal the deal.

“Those two years, I was really disappointed that we didn’t go further and win it,” said Westfall. “It was just a matter of maturity; we were a good team, but some of the younger players just needed a little bit more maturity. Nobody would have said we’d have been lucky to win it if we had won in ’78 or ’79.”

Following the heartbreaking loss to the Rangers, Westfall called it a career, although the Islanders, who were on the cusp of finding that championship recipe, wanted “18” to stay on.

“I didn’t want to play anymore,” said Westfall. “I told them at training camp that I wasn’t going to play anymore.”

Westfall would remain with the franchise, though, turning in his skates for a seat in the Islanders’ television booth on Sports Channel. In his first season as a broadcaster, the Islanders won the first of four straight Stanley Cups. That added four more Stanley Cup rings to Westfall’s collection, and he had no remorse that they didn’t come as an active player.

After all, he played a big role in the maturation of those young players who finally learned how to win a championship.

“Watching these kids that I was part of them coming in, I learned about being a captain and what a captain should mean to a team,” said Westfall. “For me, it was a lot of self-satisfaction knowing that the team came so close my last two years as a player, and that they had finally matured and learned what was the real price you had to pay in order to win it.”

As the Islanders celebrate their 50th season, Westfall is also celebrating his 50th season with the franchise. He’s been an Islander since day one as a player, broadcaster, and honored member of the team’s alumni. Enshrined into the Islanders Hall of Fame in 2011, he’s still connected to the franchise, making appearances and always being there for the franchise that he loves.

“Somebody reminded me of that and I was laughing with (co-owner) Jon Ledecky before the season,” said Westfall. “Yeah, I’m still around. I’m regularly in touch with my friend Mr. Ledecky. I really enjoy his friendship and his enthusiasm with the team and the fans.”

And Westfall is also enjoying the current Islanders and what they’ve accomplished over the last few seasons, including a pair of runs to the NHL’s final four. He admires current Islanders captain Anders Lee, but he’s not sure he can have a “captain” conversation with Lee because the responsibilities that come with being a captain have changed since Westfall had the title.

“I only know him as a hockey player,” said Westfall. “I don’t know too many of the players personally. I don’t relate very well to the players. I sometimes wish I could. It’s hard for me to relate. That’s one of the things I found when I was still broadcasting, and that’s why I decided not to do that anymore: because I didn’t really relate well with the younger players. The role that I had as captain was altogether different from what I understand as the captain today.”

Eddie Westfall has been a New York Islander for 50 years and his loyalty to the franchise will never wane. He cherishes his time with the Boston Bruins and the two Stanley Cup teams that he was on, but he’s never forgotten how it ended in Beantown.

In fact, when Westfall retired after the 1978-79 season, the Bruins tried to lure him back to Boston. And the answer, of course, was no.

“Fifty years later, I’m still living on Long Island,” said Westfall. “As much as my dear, dear, dear friend Harry Sinden, the oldest friend I have in hockey, tried to convince me to come back when I retired as a player and work for him in Boston, that didn’t work.”

And Islanders Country has been a better place ever since with “18” as a resident.

Follow Peter Schwartz on Twitter: @SchwartzSports

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Featured Image Photo Credit: Jeff Goode/Toronto Star via Getty Images