Oh, my goodness: Mike Bossy, after his magnificent hockey career was over, came to feel the New York Islanders were underappreciated. Who could tell?
Bossy, who died Friday at 65, was the indispensable artist – as they say in his native Quebec – of the greatest team I ever covered: so many superb players and mentalities who came through, game after game.
In one unforgettable Stanley Cup final round in 1982, I witnessed Bossy poaching a game-winning overtime goal in the first game, and in the third game, in Vancouver, he was sent flying by his antagonist, Tiger Williams, only to sling a goal while in midair. Unmatchable.
Yet Bossy once told Sports Illustrated that he felt the Islanders were not appreciated.
Just because the Islanders played in a drab barn in the flat Long Island suburbs?
Just because the Islanders were a frugal and low-key organization that treated the Stanley Cup finals much like just another home game?
Just because the rival and underproducing Rangers got more attention straggling out of Manhattan watering holes long after a game?
Just because the Edmonton Oilers had the mystique and – fair enough – a willowy scorer nicknamed “The Great Gretzky?”
Bossy was a pale, soft-spoken presence on the ice, and also in a steamy locker room, with his postgame cigarette. (I often referred to that noxious presence; I think of it now that he has died of lung cancer.)
Athletic geniuses are not necessarily the go-to guys for reporters seeking insight after a win or a loss. But Bossy was as decent as they come, willing to address the state of the club. And it was a great club for human beings – earnest Bob Nystrom, incisive Bob Bourne, jocular tough-guy Clark Gillies, standup Denis Potvin, and the bilingual Swedes, Anders Kallur and Stefan Persson. Unappreciated? Not by me.
I still think of them as The Boys of Winter, a paraphrase of Roger Kahn’s homage to the Brooklyn Dodgers – “The Boys of Summer.” Such memorable characters, including deadpan Al Arbor, glinting behind his spectacles, the bully behind the bench, picking on the players who could take it.
Bossy? Arbor told him to go out and score goals. That’s how you treat the resident artist.
Bossy had the touch. He developed it on the flooded rink in his family’s Montreal backyard. (Another favorite hockey artist of mine, Pierre Larouche of Quebec, talks about hearing – hearing – the velocity and direction of the puck skittering on a frozen pond long after sundown. Follow the sound.)
When Bossy came up with the Islanders in 1977-78, he was soon paired with two linemates who created a unit that would last a decade. Hockey lines – scuttling out for a fast minute or two, then ducking to the bench to restore energy – are unlike any other team-within-a-team in sports.
Bossy was paired with Gillies, who could score and defend and could also beat the poutine out of an annoying opponent, and Bryan Trottier, a two-way artist – scorer and passer, plus a coldblooded assassin. Trottier and his pal Bossy were friends, so different in style and temperament, complementing each other marvelously.
Sometimes artists just flat-out win games. It is now four decades since the Vancouver Canucks came to Long Island to open a Stanley Cup final series.
In the grubby confines of the Nassau Coliseum, the Canucks battled the home team into overtime in the first game, and a seasoned defenseman, Harold Snepsts, was controlling the puck. Snepsts saw a lane open, and flicked the puck sideways – the obstreperous Tiger Williams claimed he yelled for his teammate to hold on to the puck – but out of the shadows and the ice glare came Mike Bossy, on instinct and experience, intercepting the pass and one-timing it for the sudden-death goal.
The Islanders won the second game, and both teams flew across the continent. In the third game, Williams was throwing himself around in front of the home fans, muscling Bossy when he could. But Bossy managed to follow through a shot, while virtually horizontal above the ice, for a goal, and the Islanders won the third game, and the fourth – an artist at the peak of his skill.
Two years later, the Islanders had won four straight Stanley Cups, and ran into the maturing Oilers. The teams split the first two games on Long Island and then repaired to the province of Alberta for three straight games out there. The Islanders seemed to be skating on a surface of Slurpees, their core players having gone through the equivalent of one extra season of exhausting Stanley Cup hockey, and the Islanders did not win a game in Edmonton. The run was over.
Now the Islanders had to talk, or not talk, about the dethroning. The following paragraphs give an idea what kind of person Mike Bossy was:
“This is the most disappointed I have ever felt in my career,” Bossy said. “There’s always been a feeling we could overcome our setbacks. We were even at the brink earlier this year. But you never feel it will happen. It’s a crushing feeling. ”
Asked if he had noticed the young Oilers racing toward a mid-ice celebration as the seconds ticked away, Bossy showed the empathy we had come to expect: “It reminded me of when we first won the Cup. The feeling of, ‘At last, we won it.’ That’s what I could sense in them. ”
We tried to subtly suggest that the Islanders might have skated into hockey old age, after losing the Cup for the first time and confronting the changes that were probably inevitable.
“I love every guy on this team,” Bossy said. “To think some of them might not be here is depressing. You hate to see guys go who you’ve had emotional good times with. But that’s up to the organization. ”
Bossy was asked if it helped to realize that the Islanders had been dethroned by a good team, not by a lucky team. He said: “They’re a good team, no doubt about that, but that doesn’t help much.”
He wound up playing three more seasons, somewhat gingerly, on a wiry body that had been pummeled and knocked down far too often. He left behind grand statistics, and became a humorous commentator, in French and English, on hockey and life itself. When he came back to Long Island, he was as approachable as ever.
Were the Islanders – and Mike Bossy – underappreciated at the top level of their sport? Not here.