Appleton Arena has seen its fair share of great players suit up for the Saints since its construction in 1952. Generations of St. Lawrence hockey have come and gone, but few players have had more of an impact on St. Lawrence hockey, and the greater hockey world, than Brian McFarlane ’55 and Bill Torrey ’57.
McFarlane holds the record for goals in a career at St. Lawrence with 101, and spent more than 30 years in various roles, including color commentator and show host, for CBC’s Hockey Night Canada. Torrey won four straight Stanley Cups as General Manager of the New York Islanders before taking over the GM role with the Florida Panthers and taking them to the Stanley Cup final just three years into their existence. Both were recently honored as the first ever recipients of the Legends of Appleton award for their contributions to the game of hockey at St. Lawrence and beyond.
Despite their illustrious careers, it’s clear when speaking with both of them that what matters most isn’t their championship rings or impressive resumes, but the people they’ve met and the relationships they have formed along the way, which is a testament to their character.
When asked about his time at St. Lawrence, McFarlane didn’t speak of his records, but rather his teammates, coaches, and St. Lawrence faculty who made his time in Canton special.
As McFarlane tells it, he had low marks leaving high school in Canada, and few people believed he would go on to great things. One person who did was J. Moreau Brown, director of admissions at St. Lawrence. As McFarlane said, “His final words were ‘well McFarlane, we’re going to take a chance on you,’ and I promised not to let him down.”
One hundred and one goals later, McFarlane surely kept his promise.
Over the course of his four years at St. Lawrence, McFarlane was involved with a number of groups in addition to the hockey team, but none were more important to him than KSLU, the student-run radio station at St. Lawrence. It was here that he truly discovered his interest in broadcasting and began his path to the pinnacle of the industry.
KSLU afforded him his first opportunity to do play-by-play for hockey between two local teams, but he had to think on his feet, with no knowledge of either team, no program, and no color commentary partner.
“When the intermission came nobody said anything to me, so I kept talking through the ice scraping. I have no idea what I talked about. I’m glad there was only like 50 people listening,” McFarlane recalled with a laugh.
While that first broadcast was a sign of things to come, things were not easy when McFarlane graduated and set out to start his career in broadcasting. After a brief stay in Schenectady, New York, McFarlane, his wife, and his new baby moved to Toronto with just a few hundred dollars in their pockets. They lived in motels, heating the baby’s bottle under warm water in the bathroom sink. Times were lean, but he never gave up. They found an apartment, and by a stroke of luck, the director of CBC sports moved into the apartment above them. One job led to another, and eventually, McFarlane landed as a color commentator and host for Hockey Night in Canada.
“When I look back, when I started in Schenectady I wasn’t sure where it was going to take me,” says McFarlane. Luckily for the hockey world, it took him all the way to the top.
Of his own admission, ‘Bowtie’ Bill Torrey was not the same caliber of hockey player as McFarlane, but his knowledge of the game is more than evident. After playing three years at St. Lawrence, Torrey didn’t expect to make a career in hockey, but luck was on his side.
A chance meeting with Walter Brown, who was president of the Boston Bruins at the time, turned into a friendship that later afforded Torrey the opportunity to work with the AHL’s Pittsburgh Hornets.
“I was fortunate to come along at the time that I did, when the league doubled in size from six to 12. I hadn’t planned a career in hockey, but I loved the game, and I grew up just a few blocks away from the Forum, so I was exposed to it. Walter Brown said that hockey was expanding and they’d be looking for Canadians, since a lot of people in the US didn’t know hockey,” Torrey recalled. “Mr. Brown was the first person I had ever heard talk about expansion.”
Three years after the NHL expansion of 1967, Torrey took the position of vice president of the Oakland Seals, later named the California Golden Seals.
Torrey spent three years with the Golden Seals, but parted ways with the team after the relationship soured. However, luck was in Torrey’s corner once again. In 1972, the NHL added a pair of teams in Atlanta and Long Island, and Torrey took over as GM with the New York Islanders, where he would establish one of the great NHL dynasties.
Fourteen straight playoff berths, six conference championships in a seven-year stretch, and four straight Stanley Cups from 1980-1983. No team has won more than two Stanley Cups in a row since then. He may not have been the best player on the ice, but he certainly knows how to build the best team on the ice.
After the Islanders, Torrey again took a position with a new NHL team, this time as president of the Florida Panthers. The Panthers were an instant success. They filled the arena to nearly 94% capacity regularly and narrowly missed the playoffs in their inaugural season. In 1996, just three years after their creation, the Panthers represented the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals, beating the East’s top team, the Philadelphia Flyers, in the process. Though they fell in four games to the dominant Colorado Avalanche, the early success of the Panthers is no doubt due to the hockey smarts of Bill Torrey. The number 93 is retired in the Panthers organization in honor of the year the franchise was created with Torrey at the helm.
Much like McFarlane, Torrey didn’t expect to make it the NHL, but, like a true Laurentian, he blazed his own path to the top, through the AHL and three different expansion franchises.
“I didn’t really expect this, I thought I would move back to Montreal and get a job, but I decided I would take a shot, and I’m still at it,” Torrey laughed.
In addition to his innate ability to construct a high-end NHL roster, Torrey boasts a wonderful personality and sense of humor, most evident when he discussed his relationship with McFarlane.
“I played with him for three years and got to know him really well, even tried to date his girlfriend, who’s been his wife for 50 years now,” Torrey said with a laugh. “Over the years, as he became an NHL broadcaster, I would see him in places, and we’d get dinner and stayed close.”
It was fitting then, given their friendship, that Torrey and McFarlane would be honored together as the first two recipients of the Legends of Appleton award.
“I was so thrilled that Bill Torrey and I were honored together,” said McFarlane. “I have the utmost respect for Bill and his contributions to hockey, and St. Lawrence. It was a very meaningful, very emotional weekend for me and my wife.”
“I have a very special relationship with Brian, and to get that honor together, it’s really something special,” Torrey added.
As members of teams that helped establish the St. Lawrence hockey culture and tradition of winning, it’s impossible to find to Saints who are more deserving of the honor of “Legend of Appleton.”