Everybody knows the story of Butch Goring and the Islanders. Or, at least, the beginning of it.
A center for the Los Angeles Kings with a motor that wouldn’t quit and an unsafe-at-any-speed helmet, Goring was acquired by the Islanders late in the 1979-80 season for stalwarts Billy Harris and Dave Lewis. The adding of a true compliment to Bryan Trottier sparked the Islanders to the first of four straight Stanley Cups and five straight appearances in the Final. The phrase “The final piece of the puzzle,” basically didn’t exist in a sports context until Islanders GM Bill Torrey traded for Goring. Butch even picked up a Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP during the Islanders’ second Stanley Cup run in 1981.
Goring is having his old number No. 91 retired this weekend at Nassau Coliseum largely due to his contributions to the dynasty. But that wasn’t where his story ended as an Islander. Not even close. Butch’s blood has run blue-and-orange for the better part of the last 40 years.
Let’s start at the end of the dynasty. Off to a very slow start to the 1984-85 season, Torrey decided to shake up his roster, starting with his veteran core. Goring’s game had dropped precipitously, and so he was the first to go. He was placed on waivers and picked up by the Boston Bruins, who had some injury issues of their own.
At the end of his first and only season in Boston, Goring, who had also acted as an assistant coach for the Islanders, was named head coach of the Bruins and led them to the playoffs in 1986. He was fired early in his second season and replaced by the also-recently-retired Terry O’Reilly. Goring resurfaced less than a year later a few levels down from the NHL. The junior hockey Spokane Chiefs of the WHL named him head coach in May of 1987, but once again, he only lasted a season and change before being let go.
Which is when Butch returned to the Islanders and began a minor league odyssey that lasted almost a decade (and in three different cities no less!).
Up in the Toy Department
He ran the AHL’s Capital District Islanders, out of Troy, NY, for three seasons from 1990 to 1993. After coaching the International Hockey League’s Las Vegas Thunder for a season, Butch returned to the Islanders organization yet again in 1994 to run the IHL’s Denver Grizzles. A year later, Butch and the Grizzles moved to Salt Lake City, where they worked for four more seasons as the Utah Grizzlies, three of them under the Islanders umbrella.
Goring wasn’t only there because of his name. His record as a coach, particularly at the AAA level, was outstanding. Between the AHL and IHL, he only had two seasons under .500, and led his teams to the playoffs seven straight times in a nine year stretch. His two best seasons were back-to-back championship campaigns, first with in Denver, then in Utah. The Grizzlies won their first Turner Cup after leading the IHL in points in 1994-95, then repeated as champs a year later, despite finishing second in their division. Goring was awarded the Commissioner’s Trophy as IHL coach of the year in each of those championship seasons.
As bad as the big club was at this time, there were slivers of hope down the line. Their minor league teams, featuring a bunch of their recent draft picks and coached by Goring, always seemed to be having success. Among the future Islanders Butch coached through these seasons were Zigmund Palffy, Niklas Anderssen, Tommy Salo, Andreas Johansson and Todd Bertuzzi.
In 1999, Butch finally got the call he was waiting for.
Never Had a Chance on That One
Introduced as Islanders head coach on May 1st of that year, Goring exuded excitement and pride, vowing to do for the current Islanders what Al Arbour had done for the dynastic ones. He was quoted in the New York Times, saying ‘’It’s like a dream come true. I can’t say that a day has passed that I haven’t wanted to step into Al Arbour’s shoes. I’m going to coach this team the way I played.’’
To that point, the Islanders had missed the playoffs in five straight seasons. GM Mike Milbury had been, and would continue to be, oddly antagonistic towards the guys from the team’s glory days. But with his team flagging, ownership unwilling to pay for anything and whatever few fans willing to attend games calling for his head, Milbury must have seen a chance to make everyone happy, at least for a little while, by bringing back the always popular Goring.
In a rare instance of having nice things to say about someone else, Milbury said that Butch has, “Islander Blood” and also that, ‘’Over the last couple of years we’ve had trouble getting some stability. This should solve that problem. We’re glad to have him back.”
Alas, the good times didn’t last very long. With ownership committed to a payroll of around $15 million (that’s total, folks), Goring’s rosters were very young and very thin. His goal of having his players bring the kind of energy and work ethic that he did during his playing days was a lot easier said than done. He got a revelatory year out of winger Mariusz Czerkawski, and had promising youngsters like Brad Isbister, Olli Jokinen, Tim Connolly and captain Kenny Jonsson. Five goalies were used in 1999-2000 including a 20-year-old named Roberto Luongo, the fourth overall pick from two seasons earlier. Sadly, they finished 24-48-9-1 with an anemic 58 points.
The next season, after Milbury traded Luongo and Jokinen for wingers Mark Parrish and Oleg Kvasha, the Islanders seemed to be going backwards. Another 20-year-old named Rick DiPietro, the first overall pick from that season’s draft and Luongo’s replacement, didn’t exactly hit the ground running, and veteran goalie John Vanbiesbrouck was hung out to dry on most nights.
And so the “dream come true” came to an end early in March 2001, when Goring was let go after a particularly embarrassing loss to Tampa Bay. He was replaced by assistant coach Lorne Henning, another Islanders legacy, who lamented the axing of “a good friend, good person and a good coach” after less than two years on the job.
Goring’s next stop was Europe, where he coached three different teams in the Germany-based DEL for the next four seasons and change. In 2003, he led to the Krefeld Penguins to their first championship since 1952.
Then Islanders came calling again. This time, for good.
Chip and Change
He was named an assistant coach to head man Steve Stirling late in the season and acted as his, “eye in the sky” during games. Goring told reporters, “I can’t tell you how ecstatic I am to be part of the Islanders again.” Even Mike Milbury said it was “nice to have Butch back in the fold.” The Islanders made the playoffs, but lost to Tampa Bay in the first round. The next year, Stirling was fired and Goring took on his current, and perhaps second most famous, Islanders role.
In 2007, Goring was hired to be the designated Islanders voice on MSG Network’s Hockey Night Live, a post game show featuring a host and three analysts, one for each New York metro area team. He also did some work between the benches on select Islanders games. A few years later, he was tapped to replace color man Billy Jaffe on Islanders broadcasts, alongside play-by-play announcer Howie Rose.
Much like they were when he coached them, the Islanders were... not good during this period. Rumor at the time was that Jaffe’s contract wasn’t renewed because Wang felt he was too negative. That wasn’t a problem for Butch, who sounded so darn happy to be there that it made watching the team blow its umpteenth third period lead of the season almost palatable.
Howie and Butch were a team until 2016, when Rose was replaced by Brendan Burke. Whether it was with the old veteran Howie or the much younger Brendan, Butch’s role has always been the same: give a little insight into the x’s and o’s of the game, offer a peek into the mind of a player or coach at a particular moment and also throw in a few (general audience-friendly) stories from the old days whenever he can.
Butch’s style of commentary isn’t for everyone. There are many who would prefer a more analytical approach, breaking down all the quick little details in the moment that observers who haven’t played the game might miss. His inclination is more towards the excitable and anecdotal, such as his frequent laments about what does and doesn’t constitute a penalty these days (which, in fairness to him, nobody seems to know anyway). Goring is a lot like his former teammate Chico Resch, whose career as an analyst for Devils broadcasts has been twice as long as Butch’s. I like to refer to them as “Uncle Hockey” types; guys who are more into the spirit or feel of the game than the individual components of it. Personally, I’m a fan, but it’s an individual preference.
Goring jokes himself on air about being labeled a homer, but if you’ve ever listened to any of the other 30 team broadcasts, you’ll realize his leaning towards the Islanders isn’t nearly as egregious as many others. Anyone that’s ever heard Pierre McGuire work a Penguins game on a nationally-televised NBCSN broadcast knows what true homer-ism sounds like.
And like everyone who spends a long time in any form of media, Butch would come to repeat certain phrases, whether he consciously knew it or not. Most Islanders fans can recite the big ones by heart; “Up in the toy department,” “[Goalie] never had a chance on that one, Howie/Brendan,” “Playing the chip and change game” along with a host of malapropisms and mispronunciations that somehow only add even more entertainment value to every broadcast.
Here’s another lovingly-crafted video compilation by the one and only Spizzwolf that illustrates Butch’s particular brand of effervescence:
My personal favorite was a game in San Jose years ago, in which Butch butchered Joe Pavelski’s last name three or four different ways in the same highlight. I’m not sure I learned anything from the clip, but I sure as hell will never forget it.
One Unique Individual
Butch’s delivery on the mic might not always be smooth, but he’s clearly gained several tons of hockey knowledge over a lifetime spent in the game. You don’t put together a near Hall of Fame career, win four Stanley Cups, coach multiple teams to championships on two different continents and spend almost 15 years in broadcasting without knowing what you’re talking about. I’ll bet that head is absolutely packed to the gills with hockey insight. I hope he still has that helmet for protection.
Very few people have given the Islanders organization more of themselves for more years than Butch Goring has. Player, champion, assistant coach, affiliate coach, head coach, broadcaster, legend. They’re gonna need a pretty big banner to cover all of that, Brendan.