The winter close-out sales are about over, and Robert (Butch) Goring is the basement bargain of the year in hockey. The Boston Bruins picked up the tiny center with the quirky skating style and helmet from the New York Islanders for the going, going, gone waiver price of $2,500. He soon enlivened an offense that had been sluggish at best.
In his first 29 games as a Bruin, the 35-year-old Goring contributed 11 goals and 17 assists. Two of the goals were game winners. He also killed penalties, played on the power play, and may have popped the popcorn in his few idle moments.
Says Assistant Coach Jean Ratelle, ``With Barry Pederson out for the season, we needed a smart center who could fit right into our offense. Butch is so experienced and versatile, he can be used in any situation. He made an immediate difference.''
The bowlegged, 5 ft. 9 in. Goring, only 160 lbs. after a five-course meal, is a quick spurt skater who is harder to contain than a hyperactive mosquito. He darts here, darts there, and is abruptly open in front of the opposition's net.
He was known with the Islanders, whom he helped catalyze to four Stanley Cup championships, as an almost peerless penalty killer. He can turn a man-down challenge into a 3-on-2 scoring opportunity. ``He's always in the way,'' says Islander Captain Denis Potvin of his former teammate.
The Boston rink, shorter than standard, is good for Goring because he can flit from one end to the other faster than younger players even though he isn't an outstanding straightaway skater. However he's skating, his effort level always appears higher than everyone else's.
``He's a leader and all our players look up to him,'' says Ratelle. ``He's into winning and he never plays a lazy shift, which is amazing considering the length of the schedule nowadays.''
There is a surmise among perceptive Bruin watchers that the team was not in supreme physical condition under deposed coach Gerry Cheevers. Goring, who plops to the floor and performs his daily regiment of 75 situps in front of his new teammates, sets an example for being in shape too. During a game he hustles onto the ice chattering encouragement at his goaltender and anyone else who cares to listen.
He is most noticeable though, for his helmet, or what's left of it. He's been wearing it since his youth hockey days, but it looks more like a Charles Lindbergh reject. It's a flappy Swedish model that didn't last long on the market, for obvious reasons.
``I'm not superstitious,'' says Goring, ``but I don't think I'll ever wear another one. It's comfortable and provides good protection. It's undergone a lot of body work and repainting -- the paint was still sticky when I played my first game for the Bruins.''
How does Goring feel about his trade from the Islanders to the Bruins, who are in fourth place in their division?
``The only thing that bothers me about it was the cheap price,'' he says. ``I always figured if the Islanders got rid of me it would be for something more than the waiver price. I had to ask myself if that's all I'm worth, and it hurt some.
``I told the Islanders I wanted to play regularly, though, and I wasn't getting to. The Bruins needed help at center, and I'm just delighted to be seeing so much action. If you are taking regular shifts you are more invovled with the flow of the game.
``I'm not a savior. I'm just going to do everything I can to help Boston win on the ice and off. I'll contribute any way I can.
``I think our attitude maybe can be more positive. I have no intention of coming here to be a nice guy who tries hard. I want to go out a winner.''
When will Goring, who has been waterbugging around the National Hockey League since the 1969-70 season, go out?
Both he and Harry Sinden, the Bruins' general manager who acquired him and subsequently replaced Cheevers as interim coach, say they'll sit down at the end of the season and discuss the question. Goring probably can continue for another year if he wants to. Ultimately he hopes to coach -- he was an assistant coach for the Islanders.
For now it's enough that he's the hockey bargain of the year.