Schwartz: Islanders to honor Bobby Nystrom Wednesday on his Legends Night

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When you look up in the rafters of UBS Arena, you see Bobby Nystrom’s number 23 hanging along with so many other Islanders legends. But when you think about “Mr. Islander,” there are other numbers that come to mind: 7:11 and 5-24-80.

On May 24th, 1980, at 7:11 of overtime in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals against Philadelphia, Nystrom took a pass from John Tonelli and directed the puck past Flyers goalie Pete Peters to give the Islanders a 5-4 win and the first of four straight Stanley Cups.

As legendary broadcaster Dan Kelly said on CBS that day, “a goal that sends the Nassau Coliseum into a bedlam!”

“It changed my life,” said Nystrom during a phone conversation with WFAN.com. “No matter where I go, and certainly I’ve changed…I’ve got no hair now and a beard, but people still recognize me and come over all the time. Even the young kids are excited to get an autograph. I must say that I really enjoyed my life and scoring that goal made it even better.”

As the 43rd anniversary of the “shot heard around Long Island” approaches, the Islanders are in their 50th season of play in the National Hockey League. As part of the season-long celebration, the Islanders are honoring some of the greatest players in franchise history with a legends’ bobblehead series.

The first three were Denis Potvin, Clark Gillies, and Mike Bossy, and on Wednesday night, when the Boston Bruins pay a visit to UBS Arena, it’s the next “Legends Night” with the first 10,000 fans receiving a Bobby Nystrom bobblehead.

“I’m really excited,” said Nystrom. “It’s an honor. I’m going to really enjoy myself. I’ve got the kids coming in and the grandkids so it’s going to be great to be in front of all the fans and really enjoy the night.”

This will not be the first Bobby Nystrom bobblehead giveaway, but just like with all of the others in the legends series, the Islanders are going to great lengths to make sure that the players are depicted as well as possible. Denis Potvin worked closely with the Islanders on his bobblehead, and Mike Bossy’s family did the same for the giveaway this past Saturday night.

And Nystrom has also been involved in how his bobblehead will look.

“We had a number of conversations as to little changes that I asked for,” said Nystrom. “They were so good about it no matter what I asked for. I thought it came out absolutely fantastic. They did a terrific job. I certainly saw Mike’s and I saw Denis’ and I’ll tell you what, they’ve done a good job.”

And Nystrom certainly did a good job – make that a great job – during his 14-year Islanders career.

Selected by the Islanders in the third round (33rd overall) of the 1972 NHL Draft, the four-time Stanley Cup champion played in only 11 games during the Isles’ inaugural season in 1972-73 before becoming a regular during the 1973-74 campaign. He ranks fourth in team history with 900 games played and is ninth on the Islanders’ all-time list with 235 goals.

As an original Islander, he was part of the team’s quick rise from being an awful expansion club to a team that became a perennial contender for the Stanley Cup.

The Islanders reached the NHL’s semifinals in 1975, 1976, and 1977 before a heartbreaking loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1978 quarterfinals on a Lanny McDonald overtime goal in Game 7 at Nassau Coliseum. Then, during the 1978-79 season, the Islanders finished with the best regular season record in the NHL but were upset in six games in the semifinals by the Rangers.

The Islanders had their fair share of struggles during the 1979-80 regular season, but it all came together in the playoffs – and when Nystrom scored the overtime goal to win the Stanley Cup, the feeling was more of relief than elation.

“That is so true,” said Nystrom. “We had a couple of tough years and I thought they were going to break up the team, but they held tight and we got guys like Butch Goring and Kenny Morrow. It was a relief to finally see the puck go in the net and not have to go back to Philadelphia and know that we had won the Stanley Cup. It was just a magical moment.”

Even more magical moments came in the coming years, with three more championships and a fifth straight trip to the Finals in 1984, where the Edmonton Oilers halted the Islanders dynasty. Since the dynasty era, there has been a roller coaster of emotions for Islanders Country but many more memorable moments: the “Easter Epic” in 1987, the surprising run to the Wales Conference Final in 1993, and back-to-back trips to the NHL’s final four in 2020 and 2021.

But, of course, there were years like last season, when the Islanders could never get on track due to a long season-opening road trip, injuries, and multiple COVID outbreaks, all resulting in the team not qualifying for the playoffs.

Sometimes a team has to go through some heartache and bumps in the road before they can climb to the top of the mountain. Nystrom and the Islanders of the late 70’s and early 80’s are perfect examples of that.

“It was the same thing for us the two prior years when we won the Cup,” said Nystrom. “We kind of just pulled off (in 1979-80) and we thought we could just coast. You can’t coast in the NHL. They’ve got a new coach and, based on what I’ve seen, they’ve got a very good hockey club. Hopefully they can get back and really shoot for the Stanley Cup.”

There were, of course, a good number of down years in the post-dynasty era, with ownership changes and what seemed like a never-ending saga that was the search for a new arena on Long Island. The ownership group led by Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky has energized the franchise again with the construction of UBS Arena, and the commitment to restoring the Islanders as a world-class franchise.

In addition to that, they continue to honor the team’s past with a strong commitment to the franchise’s former players. In addition to his bobblehead night on Wednesday, Nystrom is also in town for “Alumni Weekend.”

“I think (the ownership group has) been absolutely fantastic,” said Nystrom. “In a couple of days, I’m going to see 70 to 80 alumni that have come in from around the world to get together and gather and reminisce. They built a building that’s just absolutely incredible and they’ve treated the alumni so well.  Anything that we want, they try to take care of it for us.”

Nystrom will hear the roar of Islanders Country again on Wednesday night at UBS Arena. There will no doubt be plenty of “23” jerseys in the crowd, worn by both fans who lived through the dynasty years and those younger fans who have learned to appreciate what Nystrom means to this franchise.

For the man who scored the goal to bring Lord Stanley to Long Island for the first time, looking up at his “23” jersey banner always brings a smile to his face.

“There’s nothing better than that,” said Nystrom. “I look back at the day (April 1, 1995) when they put my sweater in the rafters, and I think of dad, who has passed, and the buttons were popping off his shirt he was so proud. Every time I go in the building, I look at that and I’m amazed. I’m very happy and pleased that they did that for me.”

That honor wasn’t just for the Stanley Cup winning goal in 1980; it was for everything that Bobby Nystrom meant to the franchise from the day he was drafted. All of Islanders Country, as well as the bobblehead that will be given out on Wednesday, would nod in approval of that.

Follow Peter Schwartz on Twitter: @SchwartzSports

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