Uniondale, N.Y. — Say what you will about the New York Islanders' several superstars, and there is plenty to say, the team's dominance of the National Hockey League dates from the arrival of Butch Goring, a disheveled looking little fellow who is their oldest player and hardest worker.
Coach Al Arbour is blessed with all-star talent like center Bryan Trottier, right wing Mike Bossy, defenseman Denis Potvin and goalie Bill Smith, all of whom may be without peer at their respective positions. But it is the ever-hustling Goring -- 32 years old, short and skinny, long hair straggling out of a bedraggled helmet he wore in kid hockey -- who makes them go.
When he joined the team in March of 1980, through a trade with the Los Angeles Kings, the Islanders were still trying to fit all the pieces together. They showed great youthful promise but were leaving much of it unfulfilled.
Some of them weren't so sure about accepting Goring, either, since two popular veteran Islanders Dave Lewis and Billy Harris, were shipped to Los Angeles in the deal. Goring ingratiated himself with his new teammates in the fastest possible way, though; he helped them win.
The Islanders did not lose in their last 12 regular-season games with Goring, who waterbugged his way around and through frustrated opponents with his odd bowlegged skating style. That momentum carried over into the playoffs and culminated in their first Stanley Cup.
Last year they repeated, with Goring the surprise Most Valuable Player of the playoffs. Known to opponents as a persistent pest around the puck, he scrambled his way to 10 goals -- two of them shorthanded -- and 10 assists.
Reflects captain Denis Potvin, ''When Butchy came here it allowed about 10 guys on the club to find a home.''
He means that the acquisition of Goring gave Arbour the second center he had lacked for flexibility on both offense and defense. Opponents previously had been able to key on the young Trottier, who seemed to be fighting himself under the pressure of such a burdensome load.
''Butch just made us a complete team,'' Arbour said. ''I could do many more things mixing up the forward lines, and he gave us superior penalty killing. With him out there in short-handed situations, we're always a threat to score, and when we do it takes an awful lot out of the other team.
''He's a small guy, 150 pounds or so, but his heart is huge.''
So considerable is Arbour's respect for Goring, he has made him an assistant coach.
''He leads by example and words both,'' says Clark Gillies, the big winger. ''He never stops hustling, and if we start dragging he has something to say that picks us up.''
Jean Potvin, brother of Denis and a former Islander now doing commentary for the team's broadcast, says Gillies enables Goring to play his scrambling, all-over-the-ice game by protecting him when play turns rough.
''Shortly after Butch became an Islander, Clark took him aside and told him to go in the corners and not worry about it, because if anybody jumped on him, he -- Clark -- would take care of the problem. Butchy had never had anyone to look out for him like that. He couldn't believe he went into the corners against the Flyers and nothing happened.''
Looking back on his emergence as a major cog in the Islander machine, Goring says, in his scratchy, excitable voice, ''I was fortunate to be traded here, because the Islanders probably are the team that suits me best.
''Al has us playing playoff-type hockey all season. This is a checking team that works hard, and that's my idea of how to play the game.
''We might not always be flashy, but we get the job done. People say we've been playing beneath our potential in the playoffs this year, but it's like the Kentucky Derby. The time doesn't matter -- whether you win does.''
Now the Islanders are in the finals again, heavy favorites to defeat Vancouver and become the first American team ever to win three straight Stanley Cups. They won Game 1 of the best-of-seven series 6-5 in overtime Saturday night and also play Game 2 here tonight before moving to Vancouver for Games 3 and 4 later this week. And as in this year's earlier playoff victories over the Pittsburgh Penguins, the New York Rangers, and the Quebec Nordiques, Goring's number 91 seems to be here, there, everywhere the team needs him -- non-stop throughout.
It is all the more satisfying to him this time, too, because he didn't have an outstanding regular season, and even was benched for awhile.
''I wanted to save the season by having a good playoff,'' he says. ''My age didn't dull my game this winter -- what did it was the emotional letdown after playing for Team Canada (against the United States, the Soviet Union, and other European teams in last fall's Canada Cup tournament).
''I haven't lost a step. When I need to, I still play with as much reckless abandon as I did 10 years ago.''
If you don't believe it, just ask any of the teams the Islanders have faced in the playoffs this spring.