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If fame in the NHL is wearing No. 99 and playing in Edmonton, then obscurity most certainly is wearing No. 21 and playing in Hartford. Over the past three seasons only four players have averaged 50 goals a year. They are Wayne Gretzky, ol' No. 99 of the Oilers, Mike Bossy of the Islanders, Marcel Dionne of the Kings and...Blaine Stoughton, who has trouble getting noticed even in Hartford, a town that's not exactly awash in sports celebrities. Moreover, the NHL hasn't helped matters much by omitting Stoughton's name from the Hartford Whaler roster in the league's 1982-83 Official Guide. No wonder his wife, Cindy, is fond of calling him "the unknown hockey player."
"When people in this league talk about scorers, they go down the list and then they say, 'Oh yeah, and there's that guy in Hartford,' " says Whaler Coach Larry Kish. "Put Blaine on a winner, though, and people would notice him in a hurry."
Since Hartford joined the NHL from the WHA at the start of the 1979-80 season, the Whalers have never finished higher than 14th in the point standings. This year has been typical: At week's end they had a 6-16-3 record and were a distant last in the Adams Division. Compounding Stoughton's recognition problem is the fact that Hartford, the smallest city in the league, is sandwiched between Boston and New York City. "More people in this town know Cindy than Blaine," says Gordie Howe, who retired as a Whaler player two years ago at age 87. "People don't give him credit because he sometimes doesn't look as if he's working hard. But that's because he doesn't waste energy. He knows how to get himself clear."
Stoughton, a right wing, laughs about his anonymity. "It bothers Cindy more than it does me," he says. "A lot of people think I should get upset, but, look, I'm no Gretzky, I'm no Bossy and I'm no Dionne. I need help to be successful. They don't. I'm not an exciting player. I don't bring the crowd to its feet when I get the puck. They do."
In fact, going unnoticed is part of Stoughton's secret. Neither his shot nor his skating ability is exceptional, and his teammates kid him about his feeble back-checking, his passing and his work in the corners. But just when you think it's safe to ignore Stoughton, he pops up near the net with the puck. "The best thing about Blaine is that he knows what he can't do," says Hartford Forward Pierre Larouche. "A lot of guys fool themselves into believing they can skate, pass or shoot. Blaine only does what he knows he can do." Or, as Stoughton puts it, "I know what I get paid for: goals."
Stoughton is hockey's version of a basket hanger. Often he lingers near the blue line when the puck is in the Whaler zone, waiting for a pass that will send him in on a break or semibreak. Once he's within range of the goal, he can get his shot off in a twinkling—only Bossy's release is quicker. "He plays on instinct," says one of Stoughton's former linemates, Pat Boutette, who's now with Pittsburgh. "He has a knack for going to the right places. It's not anything you can coach. You either have it or you don't. All great scorers have it."
Stoughton, 29, has always been able to score. After getting 58 and 60 goals, respectively, in his last two seasons of junior hockey, he was the seventh player chosen, by Pittsburgh, in the first round of the 1973 draft. Stoughton scored only five goals in 34 games as a rookie before the Penguins sent him to the minors. One reason he got off to a slow start was that he did more partying than practicing in Pittsburgh. "Some guys can go out, have a couple and go home," says Stoughton. "Not me. I stayed around until they turned up the lights. I couldn't handle the whole thing."
After being traded to Toronto in September 1974, Stoughton scored 23 goals in 1974-75. The following year he reported to the Maple Leafs' camp out of shape, stayed that way and was back in the minors by Christmas. He finished the season in Oklahoma City and might have languished in the minors forever had not the WHA's Cincinnati Stingers come to his rescue.
"My first three games in the WHA we tied 7-7, won 8-7 and tied 6-6," says Stoughton. "I thought, 'Wow, is this the place for me.' " In more ways than one. One night at a boxing match, Stoughton was smitten by the ring-card girl, a tall, striking blonde who, as it turned out, also worked as a bunny at the Cincinnati Playboy Club. When she sat down at the start of one of the rounds, Stoughton combed his wavy brown hair, smoothed his mustache, approached her, opened his blue-green eyes wide and asked if she'd like to go to a hockey game the next night. Cindy Lou Roberts was taken aback but intrigued.
"I said, 'Hockey, what's hockey?' " says Cindy. "To me athletes were the Bengals or the Reds. But he seemed shy, and I liked that. He didn't seem like the kind who would try to make a move on the first date like a lot of the guys I went out with did. So I said O.K."