A few weeks ago at his website, the indispensable NYISkinny.com, Islanders statistician Eric Hornick recounted a game from 1985 that was the team's first without Butch Goring since he was acquired from Los Angeles five years earlier. After a prolific career with the Kings, Goring was a key cog in the Islanders' incredible run of four Stanley Cups and five straight final appearances.
But on Jan. 8, 1985, Goring was picked up on waivers by the Boston Bruins, where he finished his playing career and started his coaching career. The story of Goring's transition from player to coach is an interesting and unique one, and not just because of the Islanders connection.
A Dynasty-Weary Team Moves to Youth
During the first half of the 1984-85 season, the Islanders were not playing they way they had been accustomed to over the previous decade. They weren't bad, necessarily; just not up to their astronomical standards. While trying to work his younger players into the lineup, general manager Bill Torrey took his veterans to task, threatening moves to shake up the locker room.
The general manager called 11 of his veterans, including Goring, into a meeting Dec. 29 and told them it might be time to send them packing if their play didn't improve. Less than 10 days later, Goring was gone. (NY Times, Jan. 10, 1985)
By that time, the 35-year-old Goring had found himself replaced as the team's number two center by Pat LaFontaine and often spent long stretches of games on the bench. In 29 games with the Islanders that season, the 1981 Conn Smythe Trophy winner had only two goals and five assists. Although he acted as a player/assistant coach, he had recently found himself bumped from the fourth line in favor of a rookie named Roger Kortko.
Who the hell was Roger Kortko? One of handful of rookies tossed into the lineup that season.
''I think Mr. Torrey wanted to set an example, send a message, in a way,'' said [winger Bob] Bourne. ''Getting rid of Butchie shows the commitment to the youth movement here. We've got guys like Roger now, and a couple of other kids, and it's obvious we're going to start going with them.''
Coach Al Arbour, who had six rookies in the lineup against Montreal, may soon have two more youngsters, Gord Dineen and Ron Handy, ready to play. They were called up last month then sent back to Springfield in the American Hockey League. But Arbour was impressed.
''I wouldn't say Butchie's leaving was a weeding out,'' said Arbour, who will obviously have to sit out veterans as more and more rookies are added to the lineup. ''We've just got to find out what these kids can do.''
The Bruins were also in bad shape. They had lost center Barry Pederson (who would later be traded for some guy named Cam Neely) to a tumor in his arm and needed help desperately for the remainder of the season. For the low, low price of $2,500, Boston nabbed Goring to fill the third/fourth-line center position.
Goring wasn't too pleased to leave a place and a team that had been very good to him. But the writing on the Nassau Coliseum wall and the open spots on the Bruins convinced him to move on.
''I thought I could still play here,'' said Goring, standing outside the Islander dressing room and waiting to speak to his former teammates after the game. ''After four cups in five years, you'd hope it could end on a Hollywood set, really. But that's the way hockey goes.'' (NY Times, Jan. 9, 1985, which also describes Goring as a "fiery little slotman")
Goring's Third Act: Boston-bound
Goring got his Bruins tenure off to a hot start by scoring game-winning goals in his first two games. He would put up 34 points (13 goals, 21 assists) in 39 games with Boston, a stark contrast to his totals with the Islanders. The Bruins would finish fourth in the Adams Division in 1985 and lose to the Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs.
Meanwhile on Long Island, the Islanders lost not only Goring, but LaFontaine, who came down with mononucelosis the same week. The Islanders finished third in the Patrick Division and advanced to the second round before losing to Philadelphia.
At season's end, Goring's contract was up and he wanted to continue his hockey career. He did. Just not as a player.
In May 1985, five months after picking him up on waivers, the Bruins named Butch Goring the 16th head coach in team history. General Manager Harry Sinden had held the post during the previous season after firing Gerry Cheevers as coach. Sinden wanted to promote from within the team and liked what he saw in Goring.
His quotes after taking the job are classic Butch, and sound like something he might say during an Islanders broadcast tonight.
Goring noted he has no coaching experience - "except when I was about 14 playing in Winnipeg" - and that, "I'll have to feel my way around."
"However," he said. "I've been in professional hockey for 16 years and I've always paid attention. I feel I've learned my lessons." (AP, May 7, 1985)
This was something of a regular occurrence in Boston, as Goring was the fifth player to go directly from the ice to the bench. He wasn't even the only Bruin to do it that offseason. When announcing Goring's hiring, they also announced that his assistant coach would be retiring Bruins defenseman Mike Milbury.
Never Had A Chance on That One
Unfortunately, Goring's coaching tenure with the Bruins didn't last very long. In his first season behind the bench, Boston finished third in the Adams and were swept by Montreal in the first round of the playoffs. Thirteen games into the 1986-87 season and with a 5-7-1 record, the Bruins fired Goring and named Terry O'Reilly, another recently retired player, as his replacement. Goring's coaching record with the Bruins was 42-38-13.
Goring would go on to coach several minor league teams including Islanders affiliates such as the Capital District Islanders and the International Hockey League's Utah/Denver Grizzlies, with which he won back-to-back Turner Cups in two different cities.
In 1999, he got to experience what he called "almost a dream come true," by being named head coach of the Islanders.
The man who hired him was his old assistant coach, Milbury - now GM of the Islanders, who couldn't resist making the Goring announcement all about himself.
"He's had a long and successful career as a player and coach," Islanders general manager Mike Milbury said of Goring. "We've had problems as an organization in the last few years with regards to stability in our coaching situation. We think he's solved that problem."
"His being a former Islander is also a plus, but it's certainly not the reason to go about things. I think I have more integrity to bring in a guy with (this former) Stanley Cup team if I didn't think he could do the job." (AP, May 1, 1999)
As usual, Milbury over-promised and under-delivered. Goring may have relished the opportunity to coach his old team, but the rosters he was handed were a far, far cry from the glorious teams he played on (or even just a mediocre Bruins team).
Less than two seasons after giving him his dream job, Milbury fired his old friend. Goring was let go in 2001 after compiling a 41-88-14-4 record in 147 games behind the Islanders bench. He was replaced by another former Islander, Lorne Henning. Goring went on to coach for a few years in Germany with three different teams.
Since 2007, Goring has been the Islanders television analyst, working and (mostly) bantering with Howie Rose. His NHL coaching career might not have been as successful as his playing one, but few of his contemporaries have more stories from every corner of the sport.
Sometimes I get the feeling Howie and Butch would go through them all if they didn't have to call the game. Sometimes I wish they would, too.