Cindy loved hockey
from the start—"especially the goons"—and she and Stoughton began
dating regularly. She even introduced his linemates, Peter Marsh and Greg
Carroll, to two of her fellow bunnies. Naturally, the local media quickly
dubbed the three players The Bunny Line. "We went to a playoff game in
Indianapolis that year," says Cindy, "and we each wore a Stinger jersey
with the name of our boyfriend on the back. A lot of fans started yelling at
us, 'Aaah—the Stingers.' We turned around and said, 'We do, and it's great!'
Aided by the WHA's
wide-open style, Stoughton scored 52 goals in 81 games during his first WHA
season (1976-77), but the following year the Stingers had a new coach, Jacques
Demers, who stressed defensive hockey—dump the puck into the opponents' zone,
send one man after it and back-check. Stoughton tried to adapt, failed and was
traded to Indianapolis after 30 games. He was still struggling when the Racers
folded in December 1978. Within 48 hours Stoughton was in a Whaler uniform.
"The WHA was going under, we were going into the NHL the next year, and we
needed scoring," says Don Blackburn, the Whalers' head scout at the time
and later their coach. "I wasn't sure about Blaine until our last playoff
game that spring, when he scored a goal with two guys draped on him. Right
there, I was sold. But I didn't tell him that. I told him he would have to work
to make the team."
In the summer of
1979, Stoughton ran and lifted weights for the first time in his career, and he
and Cindy had their first child, a daughter named Chelsea. "I decided it
was time to settle down, take care of myself and play hockey," says
Stoughton. "I knew I was running out of chances and this might be the last
one. So, I decided I would play my way, look to score, and if it didn't work,
well, that was it. But I couldn't try to play someone else's way anymore.
Fortunately, that's just what Blackie wanted."
Stoughton had 100
points in 1979-80 and tied for the NHL lead in goals with 56. After the season,
Hartford forgot to send Stoughton a contract by the July 1 deadline, and he
tried to have himself declared a free agent with no compensation owed to any
team that might sign him on the grounds that his just-expired WHA contract
didn't include the NHL's compensation clause. However, a judge decided that NHL
President John Ziegler should make the final decision, and Ziegler predictably
ruled that the Whalers would have to be compensated, so Stoughton stayed put.
"Once it went to Ziegler I was dead," says Stoughton. "But I had to
try. You only get that kind of opportunity once."
Stoughton held out
for nine games at the start of 1980-81, finally signing when Blackburn
persuaded him to accept a three-year contract that includes a clause that
increases Stoughton's salary by $10,000 if he scores 40 goals in a season and
an additional $10,000 for every five goals thereafter up to 50. So far
Stoughton, who had 43 goals in 1980-81 and 52 last season, has added $40,000 to
his $160,000-per-annum base pay. During the holdout Cindy got pregnant, which,
says Stoughton, "shows you what happens when you have nothing to do."
Remembering that trying period, they named the boy Chance.
It's no secret
that the Chicago Black Hawks would like to obtain Stoughton. But, though the
Hawks are Stanley Cup contenders, he would just as soon remain with the Whale,
as the Hartford players affectionately call their team. "Maybe no one
notices me here," says Stoughton, "but that kind of thing works two
ways. If I went to a big city and didn't do well, everyone would be all over
me. If I could be part of a winner here, it would be something special. If we
aren't making progress in another year, I might ask to be moved. I don't want
to be part of a loser forever."
So, for the moment
at least, Hartford is home. Two years ago the Stoughtons bought a gorgeous,
hilltop, four-bedroom house in nearby Canton, and Blaine and Cindy like nothing
better during the off-season than driving down the hill to visit the local
pubs. Cindy has another diversion as well: A few days a week she tends bar in a
restaurant in downtown Hartford.
About the only
thing that could make life better would be if the Whale stopped floundering.
Poor trades have robbed Hartford of players like Mike Rogers, Mark Howe, Ray
Allison and Gordie Roberts. The defense lacks speed, and Stoughton, Larouche
and 19-year-old Center Ron Francis are the only consistent scoring threats.
With the Whalers apparently headed for another non-playoff year in a league in
which no one misses the playoffs, the soap opera the players call "As the
Whale Turns" doesn't have a happy ending in sight.
So Hartford fans
would do well to focus on Stoughton. He missed the first eight games this
season because of a suspension he received for an out-of-character
cross-checking incident during an exhibition game. Since then he has had 12
goals and 10 assists in 17 games through Sunday. Not long after his return,
Stoughton stunned everyone, including himself, with a rare two-assist game.
"You'd have to check the record books to find the last time I had two
assists," says Stoughton. "That's terrible. If a guy could score 50
goals and get five assists in this league, he'd be my idol. If I keep this up,
it'll ruin my reputation."
Or maybe get him