John Tonelli ranks as one of the greatest New York Islanders of all time, and one of the NHL's all time better players. He was an energetic power forward who thrived on battles along the wall and in the corner. He was incredible in those corner actually. His feet were always moving, his arms always pumping, and more often than not he came out of the battle with the puck.
Tonelli often rode shotgun on the Isle's top line with Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy, but more often than not he excelled on the third line - the so-called "Banana Line" as they wore yellow jerseys in practice - with Wayne Merrick and Bobby Nystrom. That line has to rank among the greatest third lines in hockey history. It was often said that while Trottier, Bossy, Denis Potvin, Clark Gillies and Billy Smith were considered to be the keys to their success, it was Nystrom and Tonelli who were the heart and soul of the dynastic powerhouse.
When the Islanders drafted the 20-year old left wing from Hamilton, Ontario with their second pick in the 1977 draft (they used the same draft to pick up Mike Bossy), they were drafting a three year pro. Tonelli had already put three seasons in the with the WHA Houston Aeros. It was a great situation for a young player, as John was surrounded by teammates like Gordie Howe, Mark Howe, Terry Ruskowski, Rich Preston, and Morris Lukowich. Little known defenseman Larry Lund really helped John along as well in these early years.
The Aeros folded when the Islanders drafted John, and rather than sign with another WHA team he made the immediate jump to the National Hockey League. It still took John a couple of years to hit his stride at the NHL level, but he always seemed to raise his game in the playoffs.
For example, in his second season J.T. scored 14 goals and 44 points, relatively modest numbers. But in the playoffs he erupted with 7 goals and 16 points in 21 games. His last point of that playoff was an assist on the famous Bob Nystrom overtime goal that clinched the Isles their first Stanley Cup!
After winning their 1st cup, the Isles just wouldn't give up the old trophy. Instead they won it 4 consecutive years, thanks in large part due to the hustle and tenacity of John Tonelli.
For much of his career John was a consistent 30 goal, 65-70 point threat whose real value to the team's success could never be quantified in a statistic. But John's best year easily came in 1983-84. The year started out with John making the Team Canada team that participated in the 1984 Canada Cup. Coming off of a humiliating 1981 Canada Cup, Team Canada was looking for revenge against the mighty Soviets, but the team was not gelling as a unit and was really struggling on the ice. But it was John who stepped up at the right time to give his teammates the figurative kick in the pants. He did so in his usual fashion - by leading by example. While Paul Coffey and Mike Bossy are best remembered for their spectacular goal against the Soviets, everyone agreed the reason they beat them was because of J.T. And he was rewarded for his play by being named as the Canada Cup Most Valuable Player. He joins an elite group that includes Bobby Orr, Vladislav Tretiak, and Wayne Gretzky (twice) two have be named as the MVP of the most prestigious tournament in hockey. Tonelli followed up his great showing on the international stage with his best NHL season. He scored a career high 42 goals and 100 points!
However Tonelli's dream season coincided with the fact that the Islanders dynasty was in decline. They had lost the Cup the year earlier, and in '84-85 didn't make it past the second round. The Islanders knew that they had to rebuild rather than just age into mediocrity, so they began to make some trades. When John's scoring production plummeted to 20 goals in 65 games the following season, they opted to trade the popular Tonelli to Calgary for Rich Kromm and Steve Konroyd.
The Flames had hoped that Tonelli could lend his experience to a team that was a strong contender for the Stanley Cup, but couldn't quite get past their arch rival Edmonton Oilers. That first year the Flames were able to get by the Oilers and Tonelli was a force as the Flames made it to the Stanley Cup finals. Unfortunately they fell just short against the Montreal Canadiens.
The Flames faltered the next two years. They had also hoped that John could rediscover his scoring touch but it never came in Calgary. So the Flames released him just one year prior to their first Stanley Cup victory. Even though John wasn't a part of that team, he had left his imprint on many of the players that did hoist the Cup that year.
"J.T." extended his career by joining the Los Angeles Kings in 1988-89 - the same year Wayne Gretzky came to Hollywood. He was brought in for his experience and his leadership, but he felt he still had something to offer as far as on ice contributions were concerned. He proved he was right with back to back 30 goal seasons in his first two years in L.A.
By year three in LA John slowed to 14 goals and was released by the Kings at seasons end. John still wanted to give it one more year before he called it quits, and the Chicago Blackhawks were interested. JT signed a free agent contract with Chicago, but after only 1 goal in 33 games he was traded to Quebec where he rounded out his career quietly with 2 goals in 19 games.
John retired with 1028 NHL games played, 325 goals, 511 assists, 836 points, 4 Stanley Cups and a Canada Cup. When he finally did retire in 1992, John stepped aside from the game as he wanted to spend time with his family. This was something he had known for quite sometime, and he had prepared for when the time had come. He continues to live on Long Island and he got into the insurance business and has been very content ever since.
While John is unlikely to ever land in the Hockey Hall of Fame, he is considered by some to be the greatest grinder of all time.
"John is without a doubt the hardest worker I've ever seen," said Nystrom, a man who would also get consideration for one of the top muckers ever.
"Tonelli will give you 100, no, 150 percent on every shift. He works so hard and just grinds for every goal," admired coach Al Arbour
"If I'm not out there working as hard as I can, then I'm not going to accomplish anything," Tonelli once said. "I don't have all the talent in the world, I can't score like Mike Bossy, so I've got to go out and prove myself game in and game out."