In the New York Islanders' dressing room faces were dripping with sweat and champagne. Butch Goring's face also had a little dried blood on it, from a 40-stitch gash opened by a skate blade 10 days earlier during the first game of the Stanley Cup final against the Minnesota North Stars. The cut didn't slow him down much. Goring, at 31 the oldest Islander, missed one period while a doctor sewed up his tongue, lower lip and chin, and that was the only period in the five-game series in which the North Stars were free of his infernal pestering. Goring came on like a hatch of blackflies; he killed penalties, worked the power play, forechecked, exhorted and scored five goals, including two in the Islanders' clinching 5-1 victory last Thursday night.
Now, in the thick, steamy, champagne-sweet air, it was Goring's turn to be pestered, because he had been named the MVP of the series. He spoke into nine microphones about his style of play. "I've always been sort of a hound," he said. "I learned when I was a kid that the only way to get the puck is to go and get it. Since I'm not six-foot-three [he's 5'9", 166 pounds], I've got to trick them and use speed and pester them."
The beaming woman behind him was his mother, Audree, who had come with the family from Winnipeg to see the Islanders win their second straight Stanley Cup. There is a marked resemblance between mother and son, a determined, bright-eyed, terrierlike expression that they share. Audree was born in England, and she still speaks with a slight accent. "He plays just like he did when he was a boy," she said with a mother's pride. "Butchie is just good old country Butch."
Your mother should know. Good old country Butch earned something of a reputation as a nonconformist early in his career with the Los Angeles Kings, with whom he spent 11 seasons. Those who knew him then tell tales of how Goring would prepare for road trips by packing nothing but a toothbrush. New York reporters enjoy recalling the time Goring packed only a white turtleneck for a two-week road trip—and then spilled ketchup on it. No problem. He simply turned it inside out. He has been known to shake up a stuffy Long Island golf outing by appearing in jeans and barefoot, but, he says, "I'm not crazy or anything. I don't streak. I've just never been a sheep and a follower."
Even in uniform he's an individualist. He wears No. 91—the number he had in L.A., 19, is Bryan Trottier's—and is the only player in the league to use buckled skate boots instead of laceups. Goring's helmets are the same bowl-shaped ones he wore as a boy, but to him what they lack in protection they make up for in luck. Put it all together with his unusually tenacious, crablike forechecking style, and you have one odd hockey player. But can he play. "We knew what to expect from their dominant guys, [Denis] Potvin, [Mike] Bossy, Trottier," said North Star Coach Glen Sonmor after Game 3, "but I don't think we were prepared for so much offense out of Goring."
Goring's hat trick in that game ended any realistic chance Minnesota had of winning its first Stanley Cup. Still, the North Stars prevented a four-game sweep when they beat the Islanders 4-2 in Game 4 in the best-played game of the series. Nineteen-year-old Don Beaupre gave Minnesota the kind of goal-tending it would have needed every game to have had a prayer against the potent Islanders, who were held to fewer than five goals only three times in 18 postseason games. Significantly, they lost all three.
Of the four Minnesota goals in Game 4, two came on power plays and a third was scored three seconds after an Islander penalty had elapsed. Had the North Stars power play been as effective throughout the series, the outcome might have been different. In 33 power-play chances, the North Stars scored just six times while allowing two shorthanded goals. The Islanders, on the other hand, scored on five of 16 power-play opportunities and allowed no shorthanded goals. The result was that New York, the stronger team physically, could clutch, hook and interfere with the North Stars to neutralize their superior skating attack.
Game 5 was decided early. At 5:12 of the first period a Minnesota clearing pass struck Referee Bryan Lewis and was picked up by Bob Bourne, who fed Goring for the score. Twenty-five seconds later Wayne Merrick made it 2-0 when linemates Bob Nystrom and John Tonelli dug the puck free from behind the net and got it to him. It was that line's 18th goal of the playoffs—all scored while at even strength against their opponents' best lines. Few of the goals were pretty. "I can remember when I was a kid watching Goring on TV and saying to myself, 'That's how I want to play,' " says Tonelli. "When he's working, it makes me want to work that much harder. He turns me on. He deserved that award."
Less than five minutes later, Goring scored again to put the lid on the game. The only suspense left was whether Trottier would extend his record for scoring in consecutive playoff games. He had gotten at least one point in 24 straight games over two seasons, but he had separated his right shoulder in the first period of Game 4 and was seeing limited ice time. However, with 2:54 left in Game 5 he assisted on the Islanders' fifth and final goal. It was Trottier's 29th point of the '81 playoffs, second only to Bossy's record-setting 35. Said an awed Bourne, "Trots played five periods with a separated shoulder. That meant more to us than anything. How can you come out and not work as hard as you can when you see him doing it? And he'll let you know if you're not. He's like Bobby Clarke that way. He'll pick you out of a crowd to tell you. I ask myself, would we have won the Cup without Butchie? No. Would we have won without Bossy? No. But personally, my vote for the MVP would have gone to Trottier."
Helping to hold the massive, silver Stanley Cup while his wife, Nickie, sipped champagne from it, Trottier was asked how high he could raise his injured right arm. "Just enough," he said with a smile.
Unquestionably, it was Goring's arrival from Los Angeles in March of last year that pushed the Islanders over the hump. Pairing him with Clark Gillies and Duane Sutter gave New York a second scoring line. At the time, Nystrom, Merrick and Tonelli could only be counted on to check, and the task of scoring fell primarily to Trottier and Bossy. The Islanders needed more balance, and Goring gave them that. Further, he gave them new blood. Around the league, the Islanders were seen as one big happy family—a group of chummy chokers who were world-beaters during the regular season but busts in the playoffs. To get Goring, General Manager Bill Torrey traded Billy Harris, the team's original draft choice in 1972 and a favorite of his, and Defenseman Dave Lewis, who was probably the most popular player on the team. Whack! It was like a cold, sharp slap in the face to the entire club.
"The Islanders are a very close-knit team," says Goring, who at first was none too wild about the trade. He had just signed a long-term contract with the Kings and, like most athletes, enjoyed the life-style in Los Angeles. "But the Islanders never blamed me that their friends were traded," he continues. "In a sense they blamed themselves. Maybe if they'd played a little better.... It could have been any one of them. "
Some observers believe Goring's immediate acceptance was the first sign of the team's maturing. In the 12 regular-season games he played with the Islanders last season, they went undefeated. Right from the start, he was talking it up in the locker room, offering constructive advice, acting like good old country Butch. "I wasn't going to change the way I'd always been," he says. "Once I had time to think about the trade, I realized it was probably my only chance to play on a legitimate contender. You never know the true value of that until you win a Stanley Cup. I would have played 15 years in this league without having so much as a whiff of the Cup. To win it once is almost enough, but to win it who knows how many times...."
Ah, that's the question. With their overpowering performance in this year's playoffs, the Islanders have put themselves on a different plane from the rest of the league. "And now we've got to stay there," says Torrey, whose main threat comes not from a rival team but from free agency. Early this summer the players and owners will try to work out a compensation agreement, with the players seeking greater freedom to peddle their services to the highest bidder. Bourne becomes a free agent next week, and next season will be option year for Nystrom, Bossy, Potvin, Tonelli and Mike McEwen. The Islanders, near bankruptcy two years ago and still debt-ridden, can ill afford a bidding war with heavily financed teams like the Rangers and the Kings. Nor can they afford to lose the likes of Bossy and Potvin, both of whom are likely to ask for upward of $750,000 per year. To add to Torrey's potential problems, next year Coach Al Arbour's contract expires. The NHL's most respected coach, and highly coveted, he, too, may leave, which would release some of the Islanders—Potvin and Bourne, especially—from the bond of loyalty they feel for him.
"I'm going to talk to Bill in the next week or so," says Bourne. "A lot of what the other players do will depend on what I do this year, and what Bossy and Potvin do next year. This is a tough team to leave. It's still family as far as I'm concerned. And I don't want to have to play against the likes of Trottier and Gillies."
Says Torrey, "We've never failed to sign anyone we wanted to keep. Maybe it tells me something when players want to leave a championship team." Like the times, they are a-changin'.