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THE PHANTOM OF THE RINKS

Jan. 19, 1981
Jan. 19, 1981

Table of Contents
Jan. 19, 1981

AFC Championship
NFC Championship
Kelly Tripucka
Mike Bossy
Track & Field
Pro Basketball
College Hockey
Golf
Merlin Olsen
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

THE PHANTOM OF THE RINKS

Now you see him, now you don't, but when New York Islander sniper Mike Bossy shoots the puck, better have the red light ready

Mike Bossy's lipssay he's happy, his eyes say he's confused. His team, the New York Islanders,has just destroyed the Colorado Rockies 9-3, but Bossy—the NHL's incrediblescoring machine—didn't contribute a single goal or even a single assist.Nothing. He hit the goalpost three times, missed the net by a fraction a coupleof other times and was stopped several times in spectacular fashion by ColoradoGoalies Hardy Astrom and Jari Kaarela. "I'm happy for the team even whenthings go bad for me," Bossy is saying. But his eyes have it: nine goalsand none for me. How could this have happened?

This is an article from the Jan. 19, 1981 issue Original Layout

An excellentquestion. Islander Goal-tender Glenn Resch says Bossy "scores goals asnaturally as you and I wake up in the morning and brush our teeth." Indeed,in his 3½ seasons in the NHL, Bossy has scored like no other player in history.The 23-year-old right wing has gotten 214 goals in 272 games for a .787 scoringpercentage since the Islanders made him their No. 1 pick—and the 15thoverall—in the 1977 amateur draft. Cy Denneny, who played for the OttawaSenators and Boston Bruins from 1917 through 1929, is No. 2 behind Bossy in therecord book; he scored 250 goals in 326 games, a .767 percentage. For youcomparison shoppers, Guy Lafleur ranks fourth at .594, Bobby Hull fifth at.574, Phil Esposito, who retired last week after 17 NHL seasons, seventh at.560 and Maurice Richard ninth at .556. Recently fired Winnipeg Coach Tom McViesaid that what he wanted for Christmas was "a Mike Bossy doll. Wind it upand he scores 60 goals."

Bossy has 41goals in 45 games this season, and has trained his stick on the single-seasonrecord of 76 goals set by Esposito 10 years ago. (Los Angeles' Charlie Simmer,who's scored 42 goals in 43 games, may well beat Bossy to Esposito's record.)Esposito's record, says Bossy, an honest and forthright Quebecois, is—whatelse—"there to be broken." But he also says, "I haven't broken arecord yet that will thrill me once I've retired from hockey. And I don't wantto sound cocky, but scoring 50 goals is no big thrill." Not for Bossy,anyway.

He burst into theNHL in 1977-78 with 53 goals, still a rookie record, then had 69 in 1978-79 and51 last season. "In terms of plain numbers, dropping from 69 goals to 51meant that 1979-80 was a bad season," he says. Maybe for Bossy, but don'ttell that to Islander Coach Al Arbour. An NHL defenseman for 12 seasons, Arbourscored the grand total of 12 goals in 626 games.

Bossy is a sinewyman with an angular face and sunken eyes, and he is a no-frills trip on or offthe ice. He scores economically, beating goaltenders with what seems to bealmost casual disdain. He speaks softly, yet makes his points. He is one of themost outspoken opponents of violence in hockey and has publicly stated that hewill never drop his gloves to fight. He's a devoted family man who has said hewill retire at the age of 30 if he feels that hockey takes too much away fromlife with his wife, Lucie, and 16-month-old daughter, Josiane. And Bossy keepsa low profile away from the rink, avoiding crowds and publicity.

"He's reallyjust a straight guy who's among the best who ever lived at what he does,"says Resch.

Noble men wouldlie, cheat and plunder to gain the secret of Bossy's success, but he says thereis no secret to his goal-scoring; his is an innate ability, one he neitherdissects nor questions. "Scoring goals is just something I've always beenable to do," he says. "I've never tried to analyze what I do, why Imight make a certain play, how I shoot the puck. I've never studied tapes ofmyself. The puck seems to go in easier for me than for other players, and Imight be luckier scoring goals than other players, but I don't know why. Peoplethink it's amazing, but I've never thought of it that way."

It can't bedocumented, but it is said that Bossy once scored 100 goals in a pee-wee gamewhen he was seven or eight years old. It is documented that he scored 308 goalsduring his four seasons with the Laval Nationals of the Quebec Junior HockeyLeague. Still, Bossy was overlooked in the draft by 12 teams before theIslanders selected him. "I don't think there's ever been a player with theoutstanding statistics he had who wound up in such poor draft position,"says Islander General Manager Bill Torrey. Laval, a Montreal suburb, had a poorteam throughout Bossy's career, and Bossy did little but play Score-O. As such,he acquired a reputation as a lazy player who couldn't—or wouldn't—check, playdefense or take a hit. Worse, he was a total pacifist on the ice. The NHL'sCentral Scouting bureau wrote Bossy off as not a first-round pick. The MontrealCanadiens did more than that. They wrote Bossy off forever.

"Don't tellme about Bossy," says Scotty Bowman, the Canadiens' coach during Bossy'sjunior career and now the Buffalo general manager. "The coaches rarely didany scouting in Montreal, but a friend of mine, Roger Bolduc, owned a piece ofthe Laval team and he kept calling me about this kid Bossy, telling me I had tocome see him play. Well, one night I went out to see him and he scored fivegoals, back-checked, did everything. I went back and told our scouts. They toldme that Bossy must have known someone was there watching him.

"Then myassistant, Claude Ruel, went to see Bossy play, and that night Bossy got threeor four goals and played great. Claude rarely called me at home, but he phonedme from the rink. 'I just saw the only player since Lafleur who made me standup in my seat,' he told me. So we went back to the scouts, and one of themsaid, 'Go see him against Sherbrooke.' Sherbrooke was the most physical team inthe league; the scout was saying that Bossy couldn't play against a tough team.Montreal never even considered drafting Bossy. The scouts must have thought alittle bit of knowledge on our part was worse than none." The Canadiens hadthe 10th pick in the draft, but they ignored Bossy and selected another rightwing, Mark Napier; he has scored 43 goals in 170 games for Montreal.

Two NHL teams,the Rangers and the Maple Leafs, passed twice on Bossy before the Islanderspicked him, and the Rangers even drafted two other right wings—Ron (Ooh-la-la)Duguay and Lucien DeBlois. In all, six right wings—Napier, Mike Crombeen,Duguay, DeBlois, John Anderson and Ric Seiling—were chosen ahead of Bossy.

Although theIslanders desperately needed a Bossy-style gunner, they almost lost Bossy toQuebec of the World Hockey Association. "I didn't think Bill Torrey wasoffering me enough, and he reminded me that I was the 15th player drafted, notthe first," Bossy says. "But I told him I deserved more because I wasgoing to score goals for him. Bill asked me how many. 'Fifty goals,' I toldhim."

Bossy stands6'0" and weighs 185 pounds, and though he plays a finesse game, he also hasthe strength of a longshoreman. He's among the fastest skaters in the leagueand quite difficult to knock off his feet because his agility prevents anopponent from getting more than a glimpse of him head on; he skates at you in45° angles. But Bossy's greatest physical asset is his hand speed. His wristshot, off which he scores three quarters of his goals, is lethal, but it'sneither the velocity of the shot nor its accuracy that makes it so troublesomefor goaltenders.

"You can'tset up for Bossy's shot because he gets it off before the puck is on hisstick," says Ranger Goaltender John Davidson.

"Mike's gotthe fastest hands I've ever seen," says Arbour, once a teammate of GordieHowe and Bobby Hull.

"I know thehardest thing for a goalie is to stop something he can't watch coming,"Bossy says. "If you stop to set up with the puck on your stick, then thegoalie has time to get set. But if you can get it away fast, the goalie doesn'thave time to react."

Bossy might wellbe described as a sneak; now you see him, now you don't. He becomes visiblewhen he scores a goal—not before, not after. One night this season he got fourgoals against Minnesota, and after the game North Stars Coach Glen Sonmor said,"You know, I thought our guys did a pretty good job checking Bossy. He onlytouched the puck about half a dozen times all night."

Most of the othergreat goal scorers have done their work in the open and with pizzazz. There wasThe Rocket, who would bull his way past two and three checkers, often carryingthem along with him as he swept toward the net, eyes ablaze. There was Hull,the Golden Jet, flying down the left wing, puck in tow, then winding up for oneof his glamorous screaming slap shots. There was the young Esposito, who wouldstand anchored in the slot and take slashes, crosschecks and elbows beforereceiving the puck. And there still is the dashing Lafleur, who weaves magicfrom one end to the other, leaving defenders strewn all over the ice behindhim.

Bossy can carrythe puck, and he has scored dozens of goals that defy description in 100 wordsor less, but most of his work is done without the puck as he circles androtates from one side of the net to the other, much in the manner of acontrolled gyroscope, waiting for his line-mates, Bryan Trottier and ClarkGillies, to get the puck to him.

"Technically,the greatest things about Mike are his anticipation and his ability to get intoposition to score," says Esposito. Or as Bowman says, "Bossy seems todisappear through the ice and come up through the pipes. He comes out ofnowhere, like a phantom."

If Bossy has aninnate ability to put the puck in the nets, his sense of direction is acquired."In junior I pretty much carried the puck all the time except for one yearwhen I played with a center named Jean Trottier," he says. "But when Icame to the Islanders, Bryan had the puck most of the time, or Clarkie wasdigging for it in the corners, so I had to find a way to get into position totake a pass if I wanted it. If I stand in one place, the other team will hook,hold and clutch me, but by moving around the way I do, all they can do is whackat me, and that won't stop me. It's hard work, it's tiring and it's bruising,but I want to be in position where I can get the puck and shoot it."

And when he does,the red light goes on. "Mike may not even realize it," says Esposito,"but he's absolutely relentless in his pursuit of a goal." Sorry Phil,but Bossy does realize it. "Scoring goals is the thing I love most abouthockey," he says. "When I score a goal, the feeling I get is somethingI'd wish on people." Bossy's psyche almost demands that he score. That'swhy his eyes can betray his lips on nights his team wins 9-3 but he comes upempty.

"People maythink I'm not allowed to get angry in that kind of a situation, but that's abunch of baloney," Bossy says. "When I don't score, it's almost neverthe goalie who stops me. I stop myself. So why shouldn't I be mad? That hasnothing to do with the team; it doesn't take away my feeling for a victory. Butmaybe one of the reasons I do score so much is because I put so much pressureon myself every game, and getting angry when I don't is just part ofthat."

At the same time,Bossy becomes snappish if he's overlooked, or criticized because he hasn'tscored. "It's always been that if Mike Bossy didn't score, then he had abad game," he says. "That's not right." Bossy wants to berecognized as an all-round player: for his excellent playmaking ability (lastTuesday night he failed to score a goal in the Islanders' 6-3 win over Torontobut nevertheless set a club record by assisting on all six goals) and hisimproved checking and defense as well as his goal-scoring. It bothers him thathe has never been a first-team All-Star in the NHL, not even in 1978-79 when hehad those 69 goals; La-fleur has been the All-Star right wing the last sixseasons. Bossy believes he has the ability to dominate a game for shift aftershift after shift, like Lafleur, but is convinced that the Islanders' defensivestyle restricts him. He also believes that too many people consider him to bejust a lucky stiff, that anyone could score 50 or 60 goals playing alongsideTrottier, with whom Artoo Detoo could probably score 25. Esposito played withBobby Orr for eight seasons and many of his goals came on passes from Orr ordeflections of Orr shots, and he heard the same criticisms as Bossy."People say Michael can only score goals, and that's not true,"Esposito says. "But even if it were true, that's still what this game isabout. If he gets three and they get two, who wins?"

Resch offers adifferent view. "So much of the criticism of Mike is only a reflection ofhuman nature, of jealousy," he says. "Here's this kid who comes intothe league and rips it up like it's peewees. How do you rationalize that? Soyou get back at him with criticism. But now, anyone who doesn't respect Mikehas to have a chip on his shoulder."

The Islandershave always been a clannish team—too clannish, in fact—and they didn't hustleout the welcome wagon for Bossy in 1977. The rookie showed up with his biggoal-scoring numbers and was both sensitive and outspoken; he was, in fact, theperfect target for a needle. And when Arbour immediately placed Bossy on theteam's glamour line with Trottier and Gillies, a number of Islanders—notincluding Billy Harris, the right wing Bossy replaced—couldn't mask theirjealousy. Beyond that, Bossy made it clear that he preferred his own company tothat of most of his teammates. "They were wary of me and I was wary ofthem," he says.

Mike is the sixthof Dorothy and Borden Bossy's 10 children, the fifth of six sons; his fourolder brothers are his senior by four to nine years. "With the agedifference, my brothers were always big brothers, not playmates," Mikesays. "Coming from a large family, I've never needed a group scene awayfrom home. I've always got along on my own."

But life as asolitary man on a sports team can become unbearable, and not even Bossy couldbe an island. He quickly found a kindred soul in Trottier, who, like Bossy,prefers hot fudge sundaes to beer and Maxwell Smart reruns to late hours intaverns in Edmonton. "I call them 'Bread and Butter,' " says IslanderWing Garry Howatt.

"If I didn'thave Bryan as a friend, I don't think I would have been able to get through thelast three years," Bossy says. "With Bryan, I was accepted as myselffrom the first day. I don't have to worry about what I say or how Iact."

Trottier says,"Mike may be too thin-skinned or sensitive, but he's coming around. Youcan't needle him and get results as much anymore."

"I used tofly off the handle at everything," Bossy admits, "and I still will ifthere's something said about me that I feel is worth it. But now Idifferentiate much better between what's worth it and what isn't."

Still, Bossy andmany of his Islander teammates operate on different wave lengths. For instance,most people believe the Islanders depend far too much on the Trottier line;Bossy believes they don't rely enough on the line in important games. "It'sthat kind of ego that makes Mike the player he is," Torrey says. Also,until this season it always irked Bossy that he didn't receive more ice timefrom Arbour; in fact, his relationship with Arbour turned chilly the first timethe coach removed him from a game for defensive reasons in his rookie season.Bossy has had more playing time this season, and he is even the Islanders'fifth penalty-killer; he scored the first shorthand goal of his career fiveweeks ago and says, "That's my biggest thrill this year."

Bossy remainssensitive to imagined slights, however. When he scored his 200th career goalagainst Colorado last month, only two Islanders stopped by his locker after thegame to congratulate him—and Bossy took it as an insult. And he says there havebeen team parties to which he hasn't been invited.

"I think Mikereads a lot into things that aren't there," says Resch. "The thingabout Mike is that he wants an immediate and positive feedback from the team.O.K., but then he's got to work on his input."

Resch says thatall the Islanders have "a genuinely affectionate feeling for Mike. Theturning point was last year's playoffs. That's when acceptance turned intoaffection." Two years ago Bossy's 69 goals helped lead the Islanders totheir first NHL regular-season championship, and his five goals in the playoffquarterfinals helped them sweep Chicago. But Bossy was held to one goal as theIslanders were upset by the Rangers in the semifinals, and he didn't handle hisadversity very well around his teammates.

Bossy suffered ajammed right thumb in a preliminary playoff series last spring and missed thefirst three games of the Islander Bruin quarterfinals, three fight-filled gamesthe Islanders won. "I know there were guys on the team who didn't think Iwas injured badly enough to be out of the lineup," Bossy says, "andthere were even guys who thought the team was better off without me. When Icame back, I wanted to prove I was still a part of the team, a majorpart."

It's impossibleto find an Islander who will substantiate Bossy's suspicions, but when hereturned in the fourth Boston game, he scored twice. He was the second-leadingscorer in the playoffs with 10 goals and 13 assists in 16 games (Trottier set aStanley Cup record with 29 points, including 12 goals), and he scored fourgoals and seven assists in the six games the Islanders needed to beatPhiladelphia in the finals and win the cup for the first time.

Despite hissuccess, Bossy insists that hockey is strictly a job, not his life. His life ishis home and his family. "Anything that separates me from my wife and mydaughter makes me sad," he says. For the three Bossys, home is Montreal,not Long Island. When Mike was 14 he met Lucie Creamer, who was working at thesnack bar of the arena in which he played midget hockey. They began dating twomonths later. "It will be 10 years this March 1," he says. They weremarried July 23, 1977, the day after Bossy signed his first contract with theIslanders. In the off-season the Bossys stick close to Montreal. None of histeammates spends less time on Long Island. Bossy is one of only twoIslanders—second-year Center Steve Tambellini is the other—who do not own apiece of Long Island real estate; he has rented the same Northport duplex eversince he joined the team. "If I sign with the Islanders again," saysBossy, whose $250,000-per-season contract expires in 1982, "then I'll buy ahouse here."

But what languagewill be spoken in the house? Wherever Bossy, who was raised English inMontreal, and Lucie, who was raised French, are together, ils parlent françaissettlement. "It's really weird," one Islander says. "Lucie will behaving a perfectly fine conversation in English with one of the other wivesafter a game, but as soon as Mike comes out of the locker room and joins her,Lucie speaks French and Mike translates. And Lucie speaks Englishwell."

Bossy professesto see nothing odd in the arrangement. "That's just the way we do it,"he says. "At home, French, only; that's what we're teaching Josiane. Whenwe're out, I translate." Finally, Bossy laughs. "I guess it does soundlike a soap opera," he says.

For sure, as theysay in Quebec.

For sure, too, isMike Bossy with the puck.

PHOTOBossy exults after scoring a goal, the one thing he does better than any other player in NHL history.PHOTO Bossy'squick, slick moves to get into position in front of the net put goaltenders athis mercy. Chicago's Tony Esposito was the victim this time. PHOTOLucie and her favorite translator met in a rink.PHOTOOnce the game is over, the shy Bossy prefers to keep a low profile and lose himself in the crowd.