Photographer David Pokress spent most of the Islanders’ playoff run in 1980 covering the early weeks of the Mariel boatlift for Newsday, either in Miami or Key West, Florida, or, very often, in a newspaper-rented helicopter flying low enough to evade radar as it illegally approached Cuba.
Recalled the day before from a refugee camp in Fort Smith, Arkansas, to shoot Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final on May 24, 1980, Pokress arrived at Nassau Coliseum a half-hour before the opening faceoff, straight from John F. Kennedy Airport after a multi-flight trip.
He was without a press credential — he managed to enter the building thanks to a friendly security guard who slipped him one — and without an assigned position near the ice to shoot, as none of his Newsday colleagues knew he’d be there.
Yet 40 years ago today, Pokress managed to find the perfect spot — standing in an aisle in the lower bowl — to take his iconic photo of Bobby Nystrom celebrating his overtime winner as the Islanders earned the first of four straight Cups with a 5-4 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers.
“There were two or three other Newsday photographers,” Pokress recalled last month. “I said, ‘Where’s my position?’ They said, ‘We didn’t know you were coming. We don’t have a position to assign to you. Do the best you can.’
“I wandered around, over to the portal where the team comes out,” the Farmingdale resident added. “I said to the security guard, ‘Can I stand here?’ I borrowed film from the other photographers and I stood in the aisleway the whole game. I see [Lorne] Henning to [John] Tonelli to Nystrom. Boom. It happened right in front of me. It couldn’t have happened better. Everything a photographer could have wished for happened in that one magical moment.”
The black-and-white image perfectly illustrates the story: A jubilant Nystrom is skating away from the net with both arms raised while beaten Flyers goalie Pete Peeters is on his backside, his right pad lifted in the air. The puck, on its return trip out of the crease after ricocheting off the netting, has just re-crossed the goal line and is still airborne by an inch or so.
Of course, 40 years ago was well before the advent of digital photography. There was no instant confirmation that Pokress had the shot.
That would not come until the film was developed back at the Newsday office and he could look at the negatives.
“You don’t know until you see the film,” Pokress said. “I had every finger, every toe crossed. Is it in focus? I knew my exposure was right, that didn’t change for years. But is it in focus?”
The whole sequence was there, on one roll of 36 frames.
Peering through his magnifier, Pokress knew he had what he wanted.
“When you know you’ve got it? It’s the biggest fist pump you’ve ever seen,” Pokress said.
The photo lived on long after Newsday’s edition the next day.
The Islanders blew up the picture to a life-sized version and had it placed in the team office.
Nystrom wound up calling Pokress to ask for copies of the picture. That came with an invitation for Pokress and his wife to deliver them to Nystrom at a team party that also was attended by the Stanley Cup.
“I sat at the kitchen table and handed him a stack of photos,” Pokress said. “He autographed a bunch.”
Nystrom took the last photo in his pile and signed it for Pokress: “To Dave, thanks for making me famous.”
Pokress’ star also was soon to ascend, between his Nystrom shot and his well-received coverage of the Mariel boatlift, which began in mid-April. By the time it ended in October, as many as 125,000 Cuban refugees had come by boat to the U.S.
Pokress said, at one point, he purchased a boat for $10,000 on the company’s account to cover the refugees coming to Florida.
“We hired two guys to pilot the boat but I had a bad feeling [about them], so we ditched the boat,” said Pokress, who left Newsday as a staff photographer in 2008. “I was worried for our safety. We were renting helicopters on a daily basis. That’s how I ended up on the beach [in Cuba]. We flew with the same pilot. We came in wave height, not on the radar. We spent a fortune on helicopters.”
Pokress said everything wound up being worth it.
“Nineteen-eighty was a very magical year for me career-wise,” he said. “I took two of my best photos. The boatlift and Nystrom, which defined my career at Newsday. This five-week period had so much to do with how my life went for the next 25 years.”