Schwartz: Isles Legends John Tonelli and Butch Goring Will Finally Have Their Numbers Retired

Every time that my family and I are at an Islanders game at Nassau Coliseum, my kids are dumbfounded by something.  My 14-year-old son Bradley and 9-year-old son Jared are constantly curious as to why John Tonelli and Butch Goring are not on the Islanders Hall of Fame banner that hangs from the rafters.  They don’t ask that question at Barclays Center games because the banner isn’t in that building’s rafters.

But I digress.

The bottom line is that while neither of them saw Tonelli or Goring play, they are well versed enough in Islanders history to know what both of them means to the franchise, particularly their contributions to the Stanley Cup dynasty.  As I’m writing this story on Wednesday afternoon, I’m thinking about how to tell them, when they get home from school, that not only are both of those players soon going to be on that Hall of Fame banner, but they will also both have their own banners hanging from the rafters.

The Islanders announced on Wednesday that John Tonelli will have his number 27 retired before the game on Friday February 21st against the Detroit Red Wings and Butch Goring will have his number 91 retired before the Saturday February 29th game against the Boston Bruins.  They will join Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, Bobby Nystrom, Clark Gillies, Denis Potvin and Billy Smith as the only players to have their numbers retired by the Islanders.

Tonelli was a player that was beloved by Islanders fans for his tenacity and his ability to come through in the clutch, especially his pass to Bobby Nystrom for the game winning goal in overtime on May 24th, 1980 that gave the Islanders their first Stanley Cup.  But Tonelli also scored some big goals in Islanders history including the game winner on February 21st, 1982 with 47 seconds left that gave the Isles a 3-2 win over the Colorado Rockies for what was then an NHL record 15th straight win. 

And then in the 1982 playoffs, the Islanders were playing the Pittsburgh Penguins in the decisive game five of the opening round when Tonelli scored the game tying goal late in the third period and then the game winner in overtime.  He did so many great things for the Islanders, but those three goals and the assist on the cup winner always seem to stand out.

“You’re talking about some special times (when) I was able to contribute,” Tonelli told me on a conference call with reporters on Wednesday.  “But if I look back at that team, at any given time, any player on our team contributed to us winning and I played one part of it.  That’s what’s so special about our team and the five years that we went to the finals.  We were all there helping each other and trying to contributing.”

With regards to Goring, the raising of 91 to the Coliseum rafters will be special for fans young and old.  For the older fans like me, Butchie will always be remembered for being the “final piece to the puzzle”.  He was acquired from the Los Angeles Kings in March of 1980 and would be a part of the Islanders’ four Stanley Cup Championship teams and five straight trips to the finals.  He would later become the Islanders Head Coach and is now an Islanders broadcaster on MSG Plus.

And that’s how the younger fans know who he is.  In fact, since John Tavares left as a free agent on July 1st, 2018, many kids not only replaced “TAVARES” on their jerseys with some less than flattering names, but many of them have put “GORING” on the jerseys, mainly because their parents have told the stories about how much he meant to the Islanders when he was a player.    

“It’s really surprised me a little bit because I’ve been gone from the game for quite a while in relevance to my playing days,” Goring told me on the conference call.  “People that have been born over the last twenty years…they really don’t know who I am.  They certainly didn’t see me play in any way shape or form.  It’s been kind of an interesting walk down memory lane.”

In fact, not long-ago Goring was in Brooklyn to do a skate with fans when a man in his 50’s stopped Butchie while he was walking to the rink.  Goring was carrying his jersey and the man had a sense that Butch didn’t know here he was going which he admitted.  The man told Goring that the rink was just around the corner but also noticed what Goring was carrying in his hand.

“He said I see you have a Tavares jersey,” said Goring with a chuckle.  “But that’s what it has come down to.  He saw the 91 and everybody over the last while thinks of John Tavares and that’s not a bad thing…he was a great player for the Islanders.  It’s really surprised me how the fans, especially the younger fans have rotated to number 91.  It makes me very proud and I’m honored that so many people are wearing 91 for me in the stands.”

I have no problem admitting that I’m welling up a bit writing this story.  That Islanders team in the late 70’s and early 80’s was very special and meant so much to the community.  The entire team is honored with those Stanley Cup banners hanging from the rafters but the individual greatness of some of those players, along with greatness of General Manager Bill Torrey and Head Coach Al Arbour, are represented by the individual banners and the Hall of Fame banner. 

For so many years, many Islanders fans, even the younger ones, always felt that there should be more players honored and I can think of a couple of broadcasters that should be up there too.  Come February, two more Islanders legends, John Tonelli and Butch Goring, will join the other greats in the Nassau Coliseum rafters. 

Tonelli’s connection to the present is that current Captain Anders Lee wears 27 but JT wants him to continue wearing it.  Goring is now a beloved broadcaster among the younger Islanders fans who now also know what kind of a player he is.  As someone on the conference call suggested, Goring’s number is going to be raised “upstairs in the toy department”.

I can’t wait to tell my kids.  How should I do it?  Maybe I’ll just let them read this story!

About the Author

Peter Schwartz

Peter Schwartz is a contributor covering the Islanders for NY Sports Day while also writing about general sports in the New York/New Jersey area. In addition to his column, Peter also hosts his “Schwartz On Sports” podcast as he interviews players, coaches, and other sports personalities. He is also currently a sports anchor for WFAN Radio, CBS Sports Radio, and WCBS 880 radio while also serving as the public address announcer for the New York Cosmos soccer club.

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