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Numbers Game: Islanders to retire Tonelli and Goring jerseys at February games

This is not a drill. Repeat: NOT A DRILL.

New York Islanders
Where have you guys been this whole time?
Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images

In a move I know I didn’t think would ever happen - let alone get announced on a random day in December - the Islanders announced two number retirement ceremonies slated for games this coming February.

Tenacious forward John Tonelli will have his No. 27 jersey retired on Friday, February 21st before the Islanders’ game against the Detroit Red Wings. A little over a week later on Saturday, February 29th against the Boston Bruins, Butch Goring - the fabled “Final Piece of the Puzzle” - will have his No. 91 jersey lifted to the Nassau Coliseum/Barclays Center rafters.

Listen to Goring and Tonelli reflect during this conference call with media:

Normally, number retirements are simple. A guy means a lot to a team and a few years later, they take his number out of circulation. But as we’ve said many times before, the Islanders are not a normal team. It’s a little surprising that the team didn’t want to wait until the opening of the Belmont arena in 2021 to unveil some new honors, but hey, let’s roll with it.

Tonelli came to the Islanders in 1978 after the WHA merged with the NHL and his team, the Houston Aeros, folded. The winger immediately became a indefatigable and versatile mainstay, bringing tenacity and talent to a team that was building a dynasty. He also directly helped start that dynasty by laying a puck right on Bob Nystrom’s stick tape in overtime of Game 6 against the Flyers in the 1980 Stanley Cup final. Tonelli made two All Star teams, had seasons of 31, 35 and 42 goals and always seemed to be involved in some of the franchise’s biggest moments, such as the comeback against the Penguins in the ‘82 playoffs and the team’s 15th straight win.

For a generation, Tonelli was a hero and a fan favorite, putting up quality numbers and backing them up with hard work and a heart you could see from the last row of the Coliseum. After his trade to Calgary in 1985, relations between Tonelli and the franchise deteriorated, and there always seemed to be a 27 on the roster. Recently, owners Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky have made a concerted effort to bring “The Original JT” back due to the love the fanbase still has for the guy.

But, wait. Doesn’t current Islanders captain Anders Lee wear No. 27? Yes, he does. But Tonelli, true to form, has taken care of that.

From the release:

“To have my number retired alongside several of my former teammates is incredibly humbling and something that my family and I will cherish forever. I have spoken with current Islanders team captain Anders Lee and from seeing the tremendous leader he is, I told him that I would be honored if he continues to wear our number until the end of his career.”

Good thing Anders is gonna be here for a long time. He’ll be the last No. 27 the Islanders ever have. Tangential congrats to Derek King, Mark Parrish and Michael Peca, too, I guess.

Here’s the captain:

Goring came to the Islanders in a trade with the Los Angeles Kings in March of 1980. He immediately became the second line center the team desperately needed, solidifying the lineup and sparking a late season run that carried the franchise to its first Stanley Cup. From that point on, the trade was seen as the best case scenario for every deadline acquisition and the phrase “The final piece of the puzzle” officially entered the sport lexicon.

Butch went on to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 1981 as the Islanders beat the Minnesota North Stars for their second straight Cup. He spent six years as a player for the Islanders, collecting 87 goals and 108 assists. Although his best statistical seasons were spent with the Kings, Goring’s impact on the Islanders can’t be overstated.

After being placed on waivers and picked up by the Bruins in 1985, Goring got into coaching (like, immediately got into coaching). He returned to the Islanders years later to coach their minor league teams in Denver, Utah, Las Vegas and Albany Troy, NY (aka Capital District). Butch was named coach of the Islanders in 1999 when the franchise was, quite frankly, at a very low period in their history. They weren’t successful but it’s hard to blame the coach with a roster like this.

Goring then re-returned to the team as a color analyst for MSG Networks, first working with Howie Rose and now with Brendan Burke. Butch’s analysis style is often characterized by not blaming goalies, wondering why something is or isn’t a penalty and mispronouncing last names. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that hearing his voice is like sharing season tickets with a chill, Islanders fan uncle, and I’ll bet many of you feel the same.

Goring actually wore No. 21 when he first came to the Islanders and through the 1980 Cup run. He changed to 91 the next season, the inverse of the 19 he wore for the Kings (and that Bryan Trottier already had a firm hold of on Long Island).

As for any other players that had worn 91 for the Islanders... I guess the team has decided who it wants to honor as having worn it. And given visitors a long story to tell for the rest of time.

No word yet on whether Butch’s iconic helmet or Tonelli’s equally iconic mustache will also be hoisted to the rafters.