UNIONDALE, N.Y. — Now that John Tonelli’s return to the Nassau Coliseum ice is near, his emotions are churning like his old piston-driving skating style.
Tonelli, a left wing who was a vital member of the Islanders teams who won four straight Stanley Cups from 1980 to 1983, will have his No. 27 jersey retired at Nassau Coliseum before the Islanders play the Detroit Red Wings on Friday night.
The ceremony is the latest move in a broader effort by the Islanders’ new owners to reconnect with the team’s glory days ahead of the franchise’s move into a new arena for the 2021-22 season. Fans have campaigned for years to retire the jersey of Tonelli, a popular player who was traded away in 1986 after a contract dispute, but the team’s commitment to do it only came in December.
“I am so excited and full of grateful emotion,” said Tonelli, 62. “This is the ultimate reward for me and my teammates.”
Tonelli had endured a longer wait than six of his peers from those four Cup-winning teams. The others — Denis Potvin, Bob Nystrom, Billy Smith, Clark Gillies, Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier — all saw their numbers raised between 1992 and 2001. Their Hall of Fame coach, Al Arbour, and the general manager who built those Islanders teams, Bill Torrey, also have been honored by the team with banners, and another teammate, Butch Goring, will have his No. 91 retired on Feb. 29.
Yet Tonelli’s jersey remained absent, even as his role continued to stand out, especially among teammates who were part of the franchise’s fabled run.
“JT was the worker bee, always fishing pucks out of the corners,” said Bossy, who had nine straight 50-goal seasons for the Islanders. “I don’t think I ever saw him come away from the corner with his helmet square on his head. He was always adjusting it.”
Tonelli was a perennial fan favorite whose hard-nosed style epitomized the attitude of those championship teams. An Islander from 1978 to 1986, he scored 206 goals in the regular season and 28 more in the playoffs. His overtime pass to Nystrom, who scored to win the first Cup, is on nearly every Islanders highlight reel, and Tonelli saved the team’s third Cup run when he scored the tying and winning goals in an elimination game against Pittsburgh in the first round of the 1982 playoffs.
“John had the grit of Nystrom, the strength of Trots, the skill of Gillies and the unselfishness instilled by Arbour,” said the hockey historian and author Stan Fischler, who was also the longtime color commentator on Islanders telecasts. “He was easily the most underrated Islander.”
But Tonelli has long been absent from official Islanders events in a bit of a passive standoff with the franchise that had roots in his departure from the team.
Tonelli felt he was underpaid after the 1984-85 season — during which he had scored a career-high 42 goals and finished with 100 points — and he became the first Islander under contract to hold out during training camp. He returned after three weeks, confident that contract negotiations with the team were progressing, and eventually signed a new deal the following January. Some in the organization felt he underperformed after signing, though, and Tonelli was even benched for a game midway through the season.
On March 11, 1986, Tonelli arrived at the Coliseum for the morning skate ahead of a game against the Calgary Flames. Tonelli remembers that he was working on his sticks in the equipment area when Torrey asked to speak with him privately. Tonelli said he sensed what was coming.
“All I asked him was, ‘Where?’” Tonelli said of being told he had been traded. “Bill told me it was Calgary, the team we were playing that night.”
Tonelli had to break the news to his father, Alex, who was at the rink that morning.
“Dad was hanging out with the guys and I had to go in and tell him we had to go, that I was no longer an Islander,” Tonelli said. “I could see the look in his eye, the sting.”
Tonelli switched sides and skated for Calgary that night — “I never should have played,” he says now — and then helped the Flames reach the Stanley Cup Finals that spring, where Calgary lost to Montreal in five games. Two years later he joined the Los Angeles Kings, playing three seasons and twice eclipsing the 30-goal mark.
His final campaign, ending a career in which he skated alongside Gordie Howe as a teenager and with Wayne Gretzky in his L.A. years, was split between Chicago and Quebec.
Islanders fans have clamored for years for Tonelli to be recognized alongside his former teammates, and the ice between him and the team began to thaw in recent years as the majority owners Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin focused on reuniting alumni ahead of the franchise’s move into a new arena.
Tonelli returned to the Islanders fold when he did the ceremonial puck-drop before a home game at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center in January 2018, but it was not until last December that the team announced that it would add his jersey to the rafters. All of the banners, Ledecky said, would occupy a similar place of honor at the team’s new Belmont Park Arena when it opens in 2021.
For now, though, the jersey will remain in use. The current Islanders captain, Anders Lee, will continue to wear the No. 27 jersey, with Tonelli’s approval.
“I consider 27 to be our number,” Tonelli said. “It’s not just mine.”