Mike Bossy, the Hockey Hall of Fame wing who played a key role in propelling the New York Islanders to four consecutive Stanley Cup championships in the early 1980s, died on Friday at his home in Montreal. He was 65.
Kimber Auerbach, director of communications for the Islanders, said the cause was lung cancer. Bossy announced he had the disease in October.
The Islanders, founded as a National Hockey League expansion team in 1972, won only 12 games in their first season at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island and weren’t much better the following season.
But they began reaching the playoffs under General Manager Bill Torrey and Coach Al Arbour, who assembled teams that featured Bossy at right wing and his linemates Bryan Trottier at center, Clark Gillies at left wing, Denis Potvin on defense and Billy Smith in goal. (Gillies died of cancer on Jan. 21 at 67.)
The Islanders defeated the Philadelphia Flyers, the Minnesota North Stars, the Vancouver Canucks and the Edmonton Oilers in their Stanley Cup championship run from 1980 to 1983, then lost to the Oilers in the 1984 cup final.
The Canadian-born Bossy was among the NHL’s fastest skaters, and he possessed an uncanny ability to get off wrist shots before opposing goalies had any notion that the puck was coming their way.
“Mike’s got the fastest hands I’ve ever seen,” Arbour, a former defenseman who had played alongside Gordie Howe with the Detroit Red Wings and Bobby Hull with the Chicago Black Hawks, once said.
Bossy twice led the NHL in goals, with 69 in the 1978-79 season and 68 in 1980-81. He scored at least 51 goals in each of his first nine seasons before a back injury limited him to 38 goals in his last season. His 85 goals in 129 playoff games were the most in NHL history at the time.
Bossy scored 573 goals and had 553 assists in 752 regular-season games over 10 NHL seasons, all with the Islanders.
He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1991.
A finesse player and slightly built, Bossy evaded hard checks and refused to get into melee.
“Guys knew he wouldn’t fight,” Trottier told Sports Illustrated in 1999. “They’d punch him, spear him, it didn’t matter. He didn’t need much room. The guy was so creative, he could make something special with just a half inch.”
“I probably developed what scouts called my quick hands and quick release more out of self-defense than anything else,” Bossy recalled in his memoir, “Boss: The Mike Bossy Story” (1988, with Barry Meisel). “The NHL was zoom, zoom, zoom compared to junior. I learned to make quick passes and take quick shots to avoid getting hammered every time I had the puck.”
Bossy won the Lady Byng Trophy for gentlemanly play in 1983, 1984 and 1986. He incurred only 210 penalty minutes.
He was selected by the Islanders as the No. 15 pick in the 1977 NHL amateur draft after being passed over by teams who, despite his remarkable goal-scoring in junior hockey, believed he didn’t have the checking skills to survive in the NHL
It didn’t take long for Bossy to prove otherwise. He won the Calder Memorial Trophy for 1977-78 as the NHL’s rookie of the year, scoring a rookie-record 53 goals that stood for 15 years. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the 1982 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Michael Bossy was born on Jan. 22, 1957, in Montreal, one of 10 children of Borden and Dorothy Bossy. His father was of Ukrainian descent, and his mother was English. Borden Bossy flooded the backyard of the family’s apartment building during winters to create an ice rink, and Mike learned to skate at 3.
He dropped out of Laval Catholic High School to join the Laval National team of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League near the end of its 1972-73 season and played in four full seasons for Laval, scoring 309 goals.
Then came his selection by the Islanders in the draft.
Bossy’s NHL career was cut short by a chronic injury. At the beginning of the Islanders’ 1986 training camp, he experienced back pains. He missed 17 games during the regular season and injured his left knee in the playoffs, when the Flyers eliminated the Islanders in a preliminary round. Doctors eventually found that he had two injured discs that couldn’t be repaired by surgery. He sat out the 1987-1988 season, then retired from hockey in October 1988.
The Islanders retired Bossy’s No. 22 in March 1992, making him their second player accorded the honor, after Potvin.
Bossy’s survivors include his wife, Lucie Creamer Bossy, and their daughters Josiane and Tanya.
Bossy, who was bilingual, pursued business ventures and broadcasting work in Canada after his playing career ended. When he was found to have cancer, he took a leave from his post as a hockey analyst for the Montreal-based French-language channel TVA Sports.
For all that Bossy and his Stanley Cup champion Islanders accomplished, they lacked the charisma of his contemporary, the Oilers’ Hall of Fame center Wayne Gretzky and Gretzky’s Edmonton teams that won four Stanley Cups in the 1980s.
“We never got one millionth of the recognition we should,” Bossy once told Sports Illustrated. “We had a very low-key organization. They didn’t want guys doing too much because they thought the hockey might suffer. People don’t talk about us in the first mention of great teams.”
He added: “I guess as I get older I get tired of telling people I scored more than 50 nine consecutive years. Everything I’m saying makes it sound like I’m bitter, but I’m not anything. It’s just that when you do something well, like our team did, you’d like to get recognized for it.”
As for comparisons with Gretzky, Bossy told The New York Times in January 1986, when he became the 11th player in NHL history to score 500 goals: “People call him the Great Gretzky. I can’t compete with that. I do feel comfortable with what I’ve helped my team achieve. Whether I think of Wayne Gretzky as the greatest thing since apple pie is another question.”
Maia Coleman contributed reporting.