Fast hands always claim their share of victims. In subway cars, from which a rider departs light his billfold; on city street corners, where a passerby is flimflammed by the three-card-monte man; in junior high schools, where a girl recalls Friday night's date with a mixture of horror and delight. It is one of life's rules of thumb, so to speak: never trust a fellow with fast hands.
Hockey is also part of life—albeit a small one—so the axiom holds true there, too. When Mike Bossy, the New York Islanders' sad-eyed, fast-handed right wing, pops up in front of the net with the puck, someone is going to be victimized—namely the opposing goaltender. It happened 53 times last season, when Bossy was the National Hockey League's Rookie of the Year. And sophomore slump be damned, at the midpoint of the 1978-79 season it has already happened a league-high 35 times again. Like the pickpocket, Bossy isn't overpowering, and you seldom realize he is even there. But then Bossy darts in from the deep slot, or cuts in from the wing, takes a pass and snaps a shot goalward with a handball player's reflexes and a putter's touch.
"I hardly ever look when I take a shot," he says. "I don't look for a goalie's weakness. If I shoot it quickly enough, it doesn't matter where he's strong or weak, it will end up in the net."
All told, in 114 professional games, Bossy's shots have ended up in the net 88 times, a .772 goal-scoring percentage. Bossy's rate is higher than Bobby Hull's, Phil Esposito's and Guy Lafleur's. It is higher even than that of Cy Denneny, who leads the NHL in that somewhat obscure department with a .767 percentage, which he achieved in the '20s with the Ottawa Senators and Boston Bruins.
True, the 21-year-old Bossy hasn't yet withstood the test of time. But then, no one has ever had such a jump on it. If he continues at his current pace, Bossy will score 70 goals this season, and if he has a hot streak he could challenge the single-season record of 76 goals set by Esposito in 1970-71. That year Esposito scored his 35th goal in his 39th game; Bossy scored his 35th in game No. 40 last Wednesday night in Detroit.
Thanks in part to Bossy's torrid start and that of his linemates—Center Bryan Trottier, who leads the NHL in points with 73 and has scored 32 goals himself despite a professed aversion to shooting the puck; and Left Wing Clark Gillies, who has 16 goals and 41 assists—the 7-year-old Islanders have the best record in the NHL. They beat Los Angeles and Atlanta last week, and tied Detroit and Philadelphia, and at week's end had lost only five times in 42 games. Montreal has lost nine games. Boston eight. The Islanders are leading the NHL in scoring, averaging nearly five goals a game—a pace that will bring them close to the record 399 goals scored by the Esposito-Orr Big Bad Bruins of 1970-71—and are second in fewest goals allowed, 109 to Montreal's 107.
The Islanders have the most productive power play in the league, scoring on nearly one of every three chances (Bossy alone has 14 power-play goals), and they have the second-best penalty-killing record, stopping better than four of five power plays.
They haven't lost a game at home all season (17 wins, four ties), and one of their goalies, Glenn (Chico) Resch, currently has a 23-game unbeaten streak. They are closely knit, from the general manager (Bill Torrey) to the coach (Al Arbour) to the fourth-line center (New York-born Richie Hansen). The Islanders are young but experienced, the only rookie regular being Left Wing John Tonelli, who played for two seasons in the World Hockey Association. And in 25-year-old Denis Potvin, the Islanders have a defenseman capable of controlling the entire flow of a game.
For New York, it has been the sort of year in which Potvin could bellow to a stunned and glum dressing room last week after the Islanders had blown a 5-2 lead over Detroit with less than four minutes to play, "Hey, you win some, you tie some!" But you do not lose. In short, the Islanders believe they will end Montreal's lordly three-year reign as the Stanley Cup champion. Lofty hopes, indeed, for a team that was humiliated in last spring's playoff quarterfinals by Toronto. "We're a better team because of it," says Torrey, the man of a thousand bow ties. "We've matured. We were due for a bad playoff after four good ones."
In that series, the Maple Leafs disrupted the Islander attack—especially the big Bossy-Trottier-Gillies line—with hard-hitting, rough, often dirty hockey. The feeling was, and in some minds still is, that the Islanders lacked not only enough muscle up front, but they also needed more aggressiveness from their players with muscle, particularly the 6'3", 220-pound Gillies. The acquisition of an enforcer was anticipated, but no such move was made.
"We weren't even tempted," says Torrey, the architect of the Islander franchise. "We think we can win with the personnel right here." The result has been added stability and an almost grim sense of purpose. "We're settled now," says Potvin. "This is a serious team. We're not necessarily worried about finishing in first place. That was our goal last year, and we accomplished it, but then we faced a team that worked its butt off in the playoffs. We weren't prepared to do that. This year we will be."
The myth of the muscle-less Islanders may have been put to rest after a game with the Flyers two weeks ago. His team was trailing 5-1 with 12 minutes to play when Philadelphia's Dave Hoyda, a player with no apparent hockey skills, went on a Kamikaze mission, running at Potvin, then bouncing off and taking dead aim at Bossy from somewhere near the tip of Long Island. He skated three-quarters the length of the ice and charged Bossy into the boards, rubbing his elbows into Bossy's face for added effect. Gillies decided that enough was enough and took matters—and Hoyda—into his own hands, beating him up.
Enough wasn't enough, however. Gillies skated directly to the penalty box as ordered, but Hoyda refused to go. While Hoyda occupied the attention of the two linesmen, Flyer Defenseman Behn Wilson, who is 6'3" and 200 pounds, zeroed in on the six-foot, 180-pound Bossy and started punching. This was Bossy's first fight in the NHL, and he did not acquit himself well. To the rescue came the mighty mite himself, 5'9", 163-pound Resch. "It's not like Boss is a 160-pound weakling or anything," says Resch, "but when I see 6'3" Behn Wilson start pummeling him with no provocation, that's too much. I was trying to break it up, so I grabbed him around the neck. I just can't sucker-punch a guy."
One thing led to another, and with Islander Wing Bob Nystrom leading the charge in defense of teammate Bossy, both benches emptied. The only thing remotely amusing about the whole unsavory brawl came when Resch found himself paired with Bernie Parent, the Flyers' goalie. Resch pointed to his hairpiece. "Bernie, if I take my helmet off, you won't pull my rug, will you?" Resch asked.
Torrey was clearly pleased with the moxie his team showed in standing up to the Flyers' thuggery. He wisely has tried to mold the Islanders after the Canadiens, one of whose trademarks is that if you want to play rough, they will play rough, too. "I like it when they run at us," Torrey says. "It gets the blood boiling in some of our guys, and they need that. We don't want to, but we can play rough with anybody."
Bossy had no illusions about going through his entire career without a fight, or, more accurately, an attack. And he came away from his fisticuffs with the Flyers relatively unruffled. "I knew it would come sometime," he said. "I may have the fastest hands for shooting, but not for boxing."
It is his shooting, however, that is winning games for the Islanders, who drafted him for just that reason. Despite his prolific scoring during his junior career in Quebec (he had 309 goals in 240 games in four seasons), 14 players were selected ahead of him in 1977—incredibly, five of them right wings—mainly because it was thought he was weak on defense. Montreal Coach Scotty Bowman, whose Canadiens passed up a chance to draft the Montreal-born Bossy, says, "There's no way he should have escaped us, especially when he was picked so low. You can't teach a kid—any kid—how to score goals, but you can teach him how to cover his wing on defense."
A Bossy-style scorer was the one element the Islanders lacked. "We thought we had a good enough defense that Bossy could help us by developing as a pure offensive player," Torrey says. Arbour promptly put Bossy on a line with Gillies, a good cornerman, and Trottier, who can do everything and may well be the most complete player in the NHL. The result has been the most productive and most feared line in hockey. "They're so good," says Bowman, "it's almost like they're toying with you."
There are three basic requirements for a goal scorer. He must get open. He must shoot quickly. And he must shoot accurately. Conspicuously absent is the ability to shoot hard. "Boss is not overpowering," says Arbour, a bespectacled defenseman during his 12 seasons in the NHL and an expert on the subject of not-overpowering shots, having scored only 12 goals in his career. "Boss'll get the odd goal from far out. but his main strength is that he's exceptionally quick and accurate. He's the quickest I've ever seen at getting a shot off."
Thus the legend of Bossy as "the fastest hands in the East," with its implication of pickpocket moves from the cradle on. But Bossy has a different notion. "That's a lot of bull," he says. "I get the shot away fast because it's something I've always tried to work on. It's something I was taught to do. People ask if I was surprised to score 53 goals my first year. Yes and no. I was surprised at the time, but after the season was over, and I looked back on it, I wasn't surprised at all, remembering all the chances I had. I usually have five or six shots a game, and if I don't score, it's my fault."
It may seem remarkable that a player with Bossy's goal-scoring reputation gets so many chances, but there is nothing mysterious about it. It is a matter of smarts and hard work. "Boss gets himself in the open," says Arbour, "and he's got players who can get the puck to him."
Resch calls Bossy a phantom. "I don't remember how Phil Esposito used to do it, either," the goaltender says. "One thing that's helped Bossy is that the refs don't automatically blow the whistle when two men are going for a puck in the corner anymore. Trots is like Earl Campbell in the corners—you just can't get a good enough piece of him to knock him off the puck. As a result, the other club often has to send a second man into the corners to work against Trots, too, and that leaves a man open around the net."
The open man will invariably be Bossy. Gillies commands one defense-man's attention while Bossy constantly moves to stay free. "He has enough sense to keep from getting clogged up in the middle," says Resch. "He'll hang back on the perimeter of the slot and dart in and out. Gee, he gets on a loose puck fast. He'll slap at them blindly, but a lot of those go in. His success is based on the theory that the man without the puck is the most dangerous man in the play. Freddie Shero is always telling his teams that. Then when Boss does get it, he doesn't keep it very long."
Bossy doesn't keep it very long because he knows exactly what he will do with the puck before he gets it, if he is within a certain range. He will shoot—and shoot quickly. "I will fan on some shots and miss the net on many more," he says, "but I know that to have success in this league I will have to shoot quickly."
That is the advantage a natural goal scorer like Bossy has: he doesn't have to think and then react, he has only to react. There are many other facets to his game—he is a deceptively quick skater, a competent passer and checker, a somewhat elusive stickhandler—but the bottom line on Bossy is that he is a goal scorer.
"People try to compare me to Guy La-fleur," Bossy says. "I'll never try to do that. He's a spectacular player, and I'm not." It seems to be a contradiction but scoring goals Bossy's way is not spectacular. Don't expect any rink-long dashes from him, à la Hull or Lafleur. That's not his game. His game is to get open and to shoot the puck when it hits his stick. The pure scorer is a breed apart, and Bossy is the best of that breed.
"I'm always disappointed when I don't score, whether we win or lose, whether I have 10 shots on goal or none," Bossy says. "I like to score goals. The team comes first, and if the team wins, I'm happy. But I'm still disappointed if I don't score a goal. There's just something in me that's that way."
No need to apologize, Boss. Say...you haven't seen a billfold lying around here, have you? It was right here a second ago.... Boss...? Boss...!
You just can't trust a fast-handed son of a gun. Never could.