We are now far enough into the NHL’s post-lockout II (2004-05) “let’s actually enforce the rulebook” era that there is a generation of fans who may not realize just how savage the game used to be.
That means for young New York Islanders fans, they might know the legend of Mike Bossy but not quite the reason that legend of consecutive 50-goal (and sometimes 60-goal) seasons ended in retirement after an injury-shortened 10th season.
This isn’t a reference to the ‘70s Slap Shot-style, Broad Street Bullies regime of bench-clearing, goon-it-up thuggery (though Bossy experienced the tail end of that era, too).
Rather, it’s a reference to what was routinely allowed in front of the net, all the way up until 2004. There used to be an unwritten rule, for Bossy knows what reason other than tradition and machismo, that there were no rules about play in front of the net.
You used to be able to slash, crosscheck, maul, mug, slewfoot, facewash, spear, cup-check, elbow...seriously, you could do anything to an opposition forward who tried to park in front of the net and expect no penalty. Virtually everything that was illegal at every other spot on the ice — you know, the things outlined in the long-ignored rulebook — was totally legal there.
You know why old-school hockey men are so reluctant to accept players like P.K. Subban and Erik Karlsson as elite, effective defensemen and overvalue “tough, gritty” types like Brooks Orpik? Because the former group doesn’t practice the savagery that used to be an absolute necessity to the position.
If you think Anders Lee takes abuse in front of the net in 2016, that’s nothing. While it is tough to play there and stand your ground in nonstop physical positioning battles, realistically the biggest threat to your health is from shots by your own teammate at the point — a risk Lee knows all too painfully.
Whereas the physical danger in today’s game comes from high-speed collisions, with everyone being fast, everyone backchecking, everyone expected to give full-energy effort, back in Bossy’s time things were a bit slower, equipment was poorer, and the danger came at low speeds with arbitrary situational enforcement of the rulebook.
And that is why what Dale Hawerchuk said about that era, as he discussed the pain several retired players will push aside to participate in this weekend’s Heritage Classic Alumni Game, rings familiar when thinking of Mike Bossy:
“There's a lot of wear and tear over the years," Hawerchuk said. "Sometimes you think back how much you pushed through back then, then the next 20 and 30 years go by and the effect comes to the forefront with knees and hips and all those cross-checks in the back.
"In front of the net was Hudson Bay rules as far as crosschecking went back then. You could almost hear your back crack, and even then you'd think you might pay for that down the road. And now we're down the road.”
After nine seasons of at least 50 goals per season — every season of his career, until the aborted finale — and countless crosschecks and other forms of abuse in front of the net, Bossy retired after scoring “only” 38 goals in 63 games in 1986-87.
That issue of Islanders News from 1987 we referenced last month had quite a bit of detail on the pain and struggles Bossy went through at the end, particularly as they tried different ways to alleviate the chronic pain. At that point, he hadn’t announced retirement but expected to miss the whole 1987-88 season as they attempted different rehabilitation methods.
Alas, that point some players would feel “20 or 30 years down the road,” Bossy felt before he was ready to hang them up. It’s still surreal to think one of the most prolific goal scorers in NHL history was done at age 30.
Not all was violent in those days, and one timeless aspect -- the camaraderie of the locker room — holds true even in these alumni games. Quite the scene described with Mark Messier after Friday’s practice with the Oilers old-timers:
"Come on, we're going to have a party," he announced as he lumbered into the room, waving reporters in behind him.
There was cold beer in the fridge, a pail of bubble gum on a table, wet jerseys and stockings in piles, balled-up rolls of tape scattered on the floor -- and more than a few pairs of eyeglasses above stalls.
"There's a certain culture that you grow up with in a hockey locker room," Messier said. "Probably more importantly [now], because of the type of experiences that we had together, we cement some of those deep-seeded lessons in all of us. When we come back here years after, it seems to be very second nature to everybody."