Friday, March 23, 2012
Born on this date in 1957, left winger John Tonelli first played junior hockey for the Toronto Marlboros in the 1973-74 season, scoring 55 points in 69 games at the age of 17. He exploded the following season with 49 goals, which added to his 86 assists, gave hime 135 points in 70 games played.
His skill and age made him a prime target for the new World Hockey Association, which was seeking an advantage in it's battle with the NHL for players. While the NHL would not allow a player into the league until they had reached 20 years of age, the WHA's thinking was that if a player was a legal adult at the age o 18, they would have no problem signing them to a professional contract, a strategy which would give them a two year head start on adding the newest, most exciting young players to their league in need of all the attention they could get.
Tonelli's signing with the Houston Aero, became the first test case for the WHA's underage player strategy when he was sued by the Ontario Hockey Association for breach of contract. The court eventually ruled in Tonelli's (and therefore the WHA's) favor because Tonelli was of legal age.
He joined the Aeros and, at the age of 18, was teamed with none other than Gordie Howe and his son Marty. Tonelli recalled, "My first camp I just remember Gordie Howe. I was just 18-years-old and the first couple of days he was just zipping by me. Gordie at the time was 48 and he was blowing by me and said: "Hurry up kid, let's get going." "
His first season was a learning experience and Tonelli scored 17 goals and 31 points. By the playoffs, he had gained confidence and it showed with 14 points in 17 playoff games as the Aeros made it all the way to the Avco Cup Finals.
He would spend two more seasons with the Aeros, which included seasons of 24 and 23 goals as his point totals rose to 55 and then 64 points. He also gained more valuable playoff experience, 17 games over two seasons, which would serve him well in the near future.
When the Aeros were unable to gain entry into the NHL following the 1977-78 season, ownership threw in the towel and folded the franchise, leaving Tonelli with the option of signing with another WHA club or joining the New York Islanders, who owned his NHL rights after selecting him in the 1977 NHL Amateur Draft following his second season with Houston.
"I still owe something to the WHA," said Tonelli. "If I had gone to the Islanders right out of junior, I probably would have had to spend some time in the minors. Because of the WHA, I had three years of pro experience when I went to New York."
Now with the Islanders, Tonelli joined a roster on the verge of greatness, which included the likes of Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, Denis Potvin, Clark Gilles, Bob Nystrom and both Billy Smith and Chico Resch in goal.
Tonelli was a solid contributor to the Islanders stellar lineup, his first three seasons, scoring and average of 17 goals and 51 points as the Islanders would begin their Stanley Cup dynasty by capturing their first championship in 980, Tonelli's second season with the club.
After winning a second title in 1981, Tonelli was teamed with Trottier and Bossy beginning in the 1981-82 season. The trio complimented each others strengths, with Tonelli's role being to go into the corners and dig the puck out for the two prolific goal scorers on his line. The impact on Tonelli's offensive numbers were immediately apparent, as he netted a new career highs of 35 goals and 58 assists for 93 points while the postseason saw the Islanders capture their third consecutive Stanley Cup.
Another 30 goal, 70 point season followed in 1982-83, as did a fourth consecutive championship for Tonelli and the Islanders, cementing their place in NHL history.
After scoring just 67 points the following season, Tonelli was selected as a member of Team Canada for the 1984 Canada Cup tournament in September. He nearly turned down the invitation, but went on to score 3 goals and 6 assists for 9 points in 8 games, including an assist on Bossy's overtime winner in the semifinals. Following the Canadian victory over Sweden, Tonelli was named the tournament MVP.
Bossy hugs Tonelli after Tonelli assisted on the goal that eliminated the Soviet Union from the 1984 Canada Cup, the Soviets first loss in four years
That success helped springboard Tonelli to a career best season while teamed with Bossy and Brent Sutter in 1984-85, scoring a career high 42 goals and tying his personal best with 58 assists for the only 100 point season as a professional.
"I think I have always worked hard on my game," Tonelli said. "The thing that I know for a fact, I'm not the most talented player in the world. I believe I can do things, but I have to work at them."
He became the first holdout in Islanders history prior to the start of the 1985-86 season, but rejoined the team in time for the start of the regular season. Still, his dispute with the club likely led to the trade which sent him to the Calgary Flames in March of 1986.
He would spend two seasons with the Flames, averaging 55 points before signing as a free agent with the Los Angeles Kings, where he enjoyed two 30 goal seasons while seeing an increase in scoring to 64 and then 68 points in 1989-90.
The final season of his career came in 1991-92 when Tonelli signed with the Chicago Blackhawks, where he played 33 games, including the 1,000th game of his career, before being dealt to the Quebec Nordiques for the final 19 games of his career before retiring from the NHL.
Tonelli reached 1,000 games while with Chicago
Tonelli's final NHL totals were 1,028 games played, 325 goals and 511 assists for 836 points. Additionally, the Islanders playoff dominance in the early 1980's allowed him to score an additional 40 goals and 75 assists for 115 points in 172 games.
Today's featured jersey is a 1982-83 New York Islanders John Tonelli jersey as worn during the fourth of the Islanders consecutive Stanley Cup championships. The Islanders adopted this jersey style in 1978-79.
While very similar to the sweaters which came before, this variant saw them add white stripes to the arms and flip the colors of the waist stripes, creating a consistency for the first time between the arm stripes and the waist stripe. This style would remain in use throughout their championship dynasty until 1994-95 when they made the unfortunate change to the much maligned "Fishsticks" jersey.
Bonus jersey: Today's bonus jersey is a 1976-77 Houston Aeros John Tonelli jersey as worn during Tonelli's time in the WHA as an underage player at the start of his professional career.
Extra bonus jersey: Today's extra bonus jersey is a 1984 Team Canada John Tonelli jersey from the tournament in which Tonelli was named the Most Valuable Player.
Today's video section begins with Tonelli's days with the Houston Aeros of the WHA.
Next, is Tonelli getting an assist on the game winning goal in overtime of the 1984 Canada Cup semifinal victory over the Soviet Union.
Finally, the hardworking Tonelli wins Game 7 in overtime to eliminate the Pittsburgh Penguins from the 1982 playoffs.