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Bossy, Michael Dean ("Mike")

BOSSY, Michael Dean ("Mike")

(b. 22 January 1957 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada), professional hockey player who played for the New York Islanders from 1977 to 1987, known for breaking the "fifty-in-fifty" record of Maurice Richard and scoring fifty or more goals in nine consecutive seasons.

Great hockey players come once in a decade; sometimes not even that often. They are so superior in their craftsmanship that it is not at all unreasonable to call them inimitable. In the 1930s it was Howie Morenz, "The Stratford Streak"; in the 1940s, Maurice Richard, "The Rocket"; in the 1950s, Gordie Howe, "Mister Hockey"; in the 1960s, Bobby Hull, "The Golden Jet". In 1977 another brilliant ray appeared on the hockey horizon—Mike Bossy, "The Goal Machine" and "The Boss."

Bossy's genius was evident from his rookie season, but it was not fully realized until he equaled "Rocket" Richard's accomplishment of scoring fifty goals in fifty games in the 1980–1981 season. Though tradition demanded that Bossy keep his intentions to break Rocket's record to himself, he was not a traditionalist, and he made it clear to all. "Nobody sets out to break records," said Bossy. "You just play, you score, and they happen. But the fifty-in-fifty, that's one I want. Having my name next to Richard would not be too shabby."

The Bossy-Richard connection was not a figment of his imagination. Often, without Bossy's knowledge, the legendary Richard watched young Bossy mature as a kid player on assorted Montreal rinks. In 1968 Bossy was the proud recipient of an award from the Rocket himself, so the Bossy-Richard link was forged early.

Early in the 1980–1981 season, it became apparent that Bossy was carrying an unusually hot stick. While this had happened to extraordinary athletes before, they would usually be struck down by injury or slump. When Bossy underlined the point by stating that obtaining fifty-in-fifty would be his deepest personal achievement, the media responded to his clarion call.

Occasionally, Bossy broke stride and fell behind the goal-a-game pace, but in mid-January he came on strong, scoring seven goals in two games. After his forty-seventh game, Bossy had forty-eight goals. The Calgary Flames, Detroit Red Wings, and Quebec Nordiques formed the final blockade in games forty-eight, forty-nine, and fifty. "It's a challenge," said Bossy before game forty-eight (against Calgary at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York). "I think I owe it to everybody to get the record now, because I sort of announced it—and I owe it to myself too."

The Flames blockade was flawless. They double-and sometimes triple-teamed the Islanders' gifted right wing. New York was able to score (the final was 5–0 for the Islanders), but Bossy was manacled at every turn, especially when the tenacious Eric Vail shadowed him.

Two nights later, Bossy took the ice at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit against the Red Wings. "We're going to do everything we can to see that Mike gets it," said teammate Denis Potvin. "And he's going to get it. I'll be surprised if he doesn't do it against Detroit. But I'll guarantee that he's going to get it." The captain's guarantee looked fragile after the Detroit match. Once again, Bossy was stymied. The final score of game forty-nine was 3–0, but Bossy had zip. "If I didn't get the record," Bossy allowed, "it would have been embarrassing because I had made it such a big thing."

Game fifty was at the Nassau Coliseum. Bossy needed not one, but two goals to tie the mark, yet he had been unable to scrape up even one goal in the past two games. Nordiques coach Michel Bergeron knew Bossy from junior hockey days, and he did not subdue his admiration for the Islanders' ace, saying straight out that he would not instruct his players to try any dirty tricks. "Calgary and Detroit both lost their games by zeroing in on Mike," said Bergeron. "I'd rather win our game and see him score a pair of goals. He'll get no special attention."

Bergeron's words had a hollow ring once the puck was dropped. Although the Nordiques did not assign one special shadow to follow Bossy, they were no less attentive than the Flames or Red Wings. For most of the game, Bossy was no more productive than he had been in the two previous games. After two periods of play in which Bossy seemed almost invisible, he had nothing to show for it but the look of an anxious young man. "I had never been so frustrated in all my hockey career," he admitted later. "I couldn't do anything right. I felt as if my hands were bound with tape and my stomach was tied in knots."

Still, with twenty minutes of hockey left in the game he took the ice and gave it a good Bossy try. At first he seemed to be on a treadmill to nowhere, but by mid-period some of Bossy's magic became evident, although he still had a goose egg for his efforts. More than anything Bossy needed a break, and then, almost miraculously, it happened. With little more than five minutes left in the game, Quebec was hit with a minor penalty. Bossy was dispatched to the scene for the Islanders' power play.

For forty seconds the pattern of futility continued. The clock relentlessly ticked away "4:15 … 4:14 … 4:13 …" Suddenly, the puck was cradled on Bossy's stick—"4:12… 4:11"—he released a backhander in the direction of crouched goalie Ron Grahame, and "4:10," the red light flashed behind the Nordiques' net. With a little more than four minutes remaining, Bossy was back in the chase. Could he translate forty-nine into fifty? If cheers could help, the 15,000 faithful spectators supported Bossy with lung power. But with three minutes remaining, and then two, he was stuck at forty-nine goals.

Early that afternoon, Charlie Simmer of the Los Angeles Kings also had taken aim at the fifty-in-fifty mark. Simmer came up short by one, although he had scored a hat trick against the Boston Bruins. Unlike Bossy, Simmer had a minimum of pressure. He never was as candid as Bossy about his desire to equal the Rocket's record. "The pressure Mike put on himself to score amazes me," Simmer had said.

That pressure had never been more intense than in the final minute-and-a-half of the Quebec game. Once again, coach Al Arbour signaled Bossy to the ice. Bossy-watchers wondered what he would do if he got the puck in scoring position. Some recalled what he had said about his shot: "About ninety percent of the time I don't aim: I just try to get my shot away as quick as possible as a surprise element. I just try to get the puck on the net."

Again the clock was working against him, "1:36 … 1:35 … 1:34 … 1:33 … 1:32 … 1:31." The puck came to Bossy, camped near the left face-off circle. Goalie Grahame prepared for the shot. Bossy cracked his wrist, and the puck arched goalward. Grahame never touched the rubber; it hit the twine with 1:29 remaining, and the Coliseum reverberated with a noise rarely heard in an arena. Bossy had challenged himself and triumphed.

Nobody summarized Bossy's accomplishment and his future better than New York Newsday 's Joe Gergen: "This particular challenge is ended. There will be others. For Mike Bossy, it is not enough to play the game; he must excel." Bossy's impressive career was recorded on the scoring lists. He scored fifty or more goals in no less than nine consecutive seasons, a record that even "The Great One," Wayne Gretzky, who dominated the 1980s and early 1990s, could not match.

Unfortunately, during the 1986–1987 campaign Bossy was so severely afflicted with back problems that he could only play sixty-three games, and his goal scoring tapered drastically to thirty-eight. Worse yet was his medical outlook. Bossy's chronic back problem became so debilitating that he finally admitted that he could no longer play. In a September 1987 press conference he announced that he would take a season off in the hope that a cure could be found. When none was forthcoming, Bossy called it a career. His name, however, became part of the hockey lexicon. Even today it is not unusual for a coach to tell a potential goal scorer to "shoot the puck like Mike Bossy."

The Bossy who will always be remembered by true fans of the game was the Bossy who reached his peak in the 1981–1982 season, when he led the champion Islanders in scoring with sixty-four goals, eighty-three assists, and 147 points. Despite a debilitating leg injury that clearly cramped his style, he led the Islanders to their third consecutive Stanley Cup victory in May 1982 and was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs, as well as right wing All-Star. He was no less effective in the 1982–1983 season, when the Islanders won their fourth consecutive Stanley Cup.

Throughout his career, Bossy, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1991, remained a champion of clean hockey and frequently went public with his feeling that the "goon" game belonged in the sewer. To his credit, Bossy always backed up his words with an admirably clean brand of play, augmented by his excellence.

For further information, see Mike Bossy and Barry Meisel, Boss: The Mike Bossy Story (1988). See also Stan Fischler, Golden Ice: The Greatest Teams in Hockey History (1990), Bad Boys: The Legends of Hockey's Toughest, Meanest, Most-Feared Players (1991), and Metro Ice: A Century of Hockey in Greater New York Starring Rangers, Islanders, Devils, Etc. (1999).

Stan Fischler

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