Center is the most important position on a hockey team, in the view of New York Islander General Manager Bill Torrey, and he operates accordingly. It was Torrey's late-season trade for Butch Goring that turned the Islanders around and sent them winging into the Stanley Cup finals against Philadelphia. The series moves here for Games 3 and 4 Saturday and Monday, after New York quickly took away the Flyers' home-ice advantage at the Spectrum.
Until this year, Islander center Bryan Trottier played sensationally during the regular season (averaging more than 40 goals and 100 points for his five years in the National hockey League), but was checked into submission in the playoffs (only five goals and 22 assists in 42 games). As he went, so went the team, and as he didn't go, so didn't New York.
But now he is the leading scorer in the 1980 playoffs, and the young Islanders appear to have matured into a team that could win the Stanley Cup.
The best explanation for Trottier's new-found playoff success is the addition of Goring. No longer is New York just a one-line team vulnerable to an opponent's checking line, because Goring is virtually as hard to stop as Trottier.
"We decided this year we had to have a second top center if we were going to get anywhere in the playoffs," Torrey says. "It's no secret our first choice was Darryl Sittler of Toronto. When I realized he was going to finish the season in Toronto at least, I figured Goring was the next best of the centers who might be available, so I began negotiating with Los Angeles.
"The Los Angeles people wanted a defenseman who was outstanding in his own zone. They liked Dave Lewis. But I didn't want to let Lewis go until I saw how well Ken Morrow played for the American team in the Olympics. That's why the trade went through so late in the year. Morrow was the key to it."
With Goring in the lineup the Islanders went unbeaten in their last 12 regular season games and came into the playoffs under a full head of momentum. There they eliminated Goring's old team, the Kings, in their first playoff series, then knocked out the tough Boston Bruins and Scotty Bowman's powerful Buffalo Sabres in the semifinals. Trottier and Goring were spectacular.
"We're in tremendous shape at that vital center spot," Torrey said. "We hae two first-class palyers in Trottier and Goring, plus two strong checkers in Wayne Merrick and Lorne Henning. Goring has a dimension. He's a terrifically intense competitor at all times, which our club might have lacked. He gives us drive."
Goring long has been known throughout the league for his casual dress -- actually it can be downright sloppy -- and an attitude that is anything but casual, both on the ice and in the locker room.
"I knew why they wanted me," he says. "I can't say I'm entirely responsible for the way the team has improved, but I hear that effort is better. I try hard all the time and I talk to the guys between periods. That's just my nature.
"I think my line has been albe to take pressure off the Trottier line. I felt before I came here that if you could keep the Trottier line off the score sheet you had a good chance to beat the Islanders.
"Now we have a good balance between offense and defense, and I'm just delighted to be part of what's happening. In Los Angeles I'd become almost an anonymous member of a supporting cast for Marcel Dionne. I was afraid when I turned 30 I'd finish my career and never have a chance at the Stanley Cup.
"Here i have a definite role to play and I can make a major contribution to the team. I have an identity -- I'm important. and now, at last, the big thing might happen to me in the playoffs -- I have a chance to be a winner. Thaths what hockey's all about, and I've never had this much fun in my life."
The 23-year old Trottier is a strong, silent type who does not give voice to his thoughts the way Goring does, but the spirit of renewal in his play is obvious. A sturdier, more physical player than Goring, he is rarely separated from the puck before he can make a play, and he is making one outstanding play after another in the playoffs. When the flyers overkeyed on him in the first game, other Islanders like Denis Potvin were left free to score.
"He's the best center in the game," says Potvin, the Islander defensive star. "He's always in good position, anywhere on the ice, and he's just as concerned with stopping the other team as he is with scoring. he's always good. Lately he's been great, and I'm sure the fact he doesn't have to carry such a big load has helped. The arrival of Butchy helped a lot of people on this club play better."
It is an engaging tale of two centers that could have a happy ending with the Stanley Cup.