Just the one name evokes immediate flashbacks. To games watched, or to video highlights seen years later, or to stories told by those who were there to witness him in action. There are very few athletes that get the one-name treatment and fewer still in hockey. And of those, how many immediately call to mind a single moment, like Bossy’s 50-in-50 “running man” celebration or his horizontal “Superman” goal in the 1982 Stanley Cup Final against Vancouver?
Bossy’s legacy had been cemented even before his rookie season. His 308 goals in the QMJHL (some reports say 309) were just five shy of Guy LaFleur’s, the man to whom he would be compared to for most of his early career. His deficiencies on defense and his reluctance to fight or to hack and whack opponents the way they hacked and whacked him relentlessly throughout his junior career was part of the then-and-now ludicrous rationale that caused every other NHL team, including the Leafs and Rangers twice each, to pass on his and let him fall to the Islanders in the draft.
Then it was on to NHL immortality. He set the rookie goal scoring record and followed it up with 69 scores as a sophomore. His quick release is still talked about as his greatest superpower. We all know about the dynasty and the 19 straight playoff series wins. When he retired at just 30-years-old due to persistent back problems, his nine straight 50-goal seasons and five career 60-goal seasons seemed like unbreakable (or at least extremely difficult to match) marks.
But you knew all this already. Even if you’re not an Islanders fan, you’ve probably heard about these names and numbers and events even before the many lovely remembrances were published to memorialize Bossy, who passed away on Friday at 65 after a battle with lung cancer.
Like a band whose greatest hits you can guess before you even turn the CD over, or an actor whose biggest movies you can list before even looking at their IMDB page, Bossy - the man and the legend - have been cemented into the public consciousness of hockey fans for a very long time. So long, in fact, that it’s hard to believe there was a time before they existed. And it’s almost mindboggling to think that there are still more legendary moments and stats that have slipped between those indelible, incredible things we can all name by heart.
The tales of his metahuman moves as a pro probably started when he scored 15 goals in his first 25 NHL games and made his line with Bryan Trottier and Clark Gillies the most explosive and dangerous offensive trio in the entire league.
But at first, the Islanders barely even knew what they had. Starting with the poor kid’s first name.
It would speak even more eloquently for the Islanders’ scouting acumen if they had found out Bossy’s correct first name. Though he is bilingual and recently married a French Canadian girl, Michael Bossy is part Ukrainian, part British. Quebec newspapers nevertheless always have called him Michel, and the Islanders drafted him under that name and refer to him that way in their press guide. The team brass somehow got the idea that the name was merely pronounced “Michael.” Bossy has a somewhat passive personality, and it was only last week, on the team bus, that he finally clued in Hawley T. Chester III, the club’s publicity man.
“It’s spelled Michael, too,” Bossy said. “That’s M-I-C-H-A-E-L.”
“I’ll fix it tomorrow,” Chester promised Bossy.
By 1982, after 305 goals and two Stanley Cups, everyone knew his name. Bossy felt he should have won the Conn Smythe Trophy for the 1981 playoffs after racking up 17 goals and 35 points in 18 postseason games (winner Butch Goring had 10 goals and 20 points). A year later, Bossy wouldn’t be denied and took home the Smythe after getting 17 goals and 27 points in 19 playoff games, including seven goals against Vancouver in a four-game sweep.
The flying goal linked above happened in Game 3, and was Bossy’s only point of the game, something the Canucks probably saw as a small victory. Over the years, it’s become a signature moment from that series, and Bossy told Larry Brooks recently that it was his “most pleasing” goal of all time.
All of which obscures Bossy’s even more insane performance in Game 1 of that series at Nassau Coliseum. With the Canucks up 5-4 with about six minutes left and looking for a big upset to start the series, Bossy made his mark. He scored the tying goal, his second of the game, with less than five minutes left and then scored the winner with two seconds left in the first overtime, with a huge assist from Vancouver defenseman Harold Snepsts.
Maybe you do remember both of those Bossy moments. A goal or performance in a Stanley Cup final will always be a big deal, even if it gets overshadowed over time. But how about a goal in a conference final game? How about four goals?
That’s what Bossy did against the Boston Bruins in 1983. The Cup Final against the Oilers is what got all the ink that season, but to punch their ticket to big showdown, the Islanders had to get past an aging, aggressive Bruins team. And in Game 6, Bossy choked the life out of Boston by scoring four times halfway through the game. The Islanders won 8-4 and swept Edmonton for their fourth straight Cup a week or so later.
That fourth tally brought about another Bossy-only phenomenon, a rain of sombreros onto the Nassau Coliseum ice.
When you treat your fans to 44 career hat tricks (39 in the regular season plus five more in the playoffs), they have to find creative ways to celebrate them. Bossy’s 39 three-or-more goal regular season games are just 11 less than Wayne Gretzky’s NHL record of 50... in half the amount of games. Even Mario Lemieux, who had 40 hat tricks, needed almost 200 more games to best Bossy by just one.
How did Bossy feel about scoring four goals in an elimination game for a fourth straight trip to the Cup finals?
Sombreros littered the ice after Bossy’s third and fourth goals. “I would have liked a fifth,” he said afterward. “I’ve never had five goals in an NHL game.” - Sports Illustrated, May 16, 1983.
If big playoff goals can be forgotten, what chance does a goal in a meaningless game from March, 1982 against the Hartford Whalers have?
For some NHL players, a goal like this would be their career highlight. For Mike Bossy, it’s a clip buried so far down a YouTube rabbit hole that if you didn’t search specifically for it or spend an hour on the site (like I did), you’d never know it ever happened because its significance is infinitely lesser than dozens of other goals he scored.
Bossy was a different type of pro athlete and a complex individual. During his playing days, he stayed either to himself or with Trottier. The two spent countless hours together, watching TV in hotel rooms, travelling on planes and buses, or going out on double dates with their wives. Bossy wasn’t a partier (although his 1988 memoir, Boss: The Mike Bossy Story, co-written with Barry Meisel of the New York Daily News, has a few choice stories about a couple of nights out on the town), and he was prone to turning inwards during trying times. His family was always his highest priority, and with them was the only place he would have rather been than scoring goals for the Islanders.
He wanted desperately to be thought of as a complete hockey player and not just a pure goal scorer. He wrote in Boss, “I never won a scoring title, something I wanted badly. I’m recognized as a great goal scorer, but I never felt I was recognized as a great player. That’s bothered me a long time. Maybe it’s my fault, because I put so much emphasis on goals. But from the day I was drafted in 1977, 15th overall because the word from the scouts was that I wasn’t tough enough and I couldn’t play defense, I vowed to prove that I was a complete player. I’m satisfied that I did.”
It wasn’t long before those scouting reports seemed ridiculous. Perhaps Bossy’s second biggest impact on hockey was his advocating against violence. He was vocal about his feelings at all times, even in the face of unending abuse. Not only from the goons, thugs, bruisers and mutants that were chasing him around the ice, but from fans and others that would hurl insults and epithets at him in an effort to throw him off his game and make him a pariah, even has he piled the goals against their teams.
To Bossy, “being tough” didn’t mean punching or crosschecking guys in the back of the head. It meant taking those blows and keeping on going. This wasn’t a philosophy that came together over time. Bossy knew his feelings very early in his career. How early?
Here he is at 17 after his first year in junior, writing an editorial in Montreal’s Le Journal about violence in hockey:
Hockey has become much too rough. It’s obvious that the game isn’t a game that you play in your living room. But there has to be a difference between rough play and sadistic attacks trying to decapitate your adversary. This side of hockey confuses me enormously.
Times have changed in the early 70’s and that’s good for hockey. But how many 17-year-olds would have the strength to say this now, let alone 50 years ago, when the sport - at every level - could resemble the wild west on ice? How many 30-year-olds would say it at all? Bossy knew the kind of assaults he suffered through were wrong, and he spoke up. For a short time, it cost him in the eyes of scouts and hockey executives.
Now, his precocious and mature intelligence at such an early stage in a career that would see spectacular heights should elevate him to an even more lofty and legendary status than he already has.