On a team known for its blue-collar grit, Mike Bossy was the elegant, finely tailored deal-closer, as pure a goal-scorer as hockey has produced, with a prime that neatly aligned with the Islanders’ dynasty years.
He was but one of many essential elements that led to four Stanley Cups in four seasons in the early 1980s. But Bossy’s contributions were unique.
So when the Islanders announced on Friday morning that he had died at age 65, after he announced in October that he had lung cancer, the news hit hard in the Islanders community — and the broader hockey world beyond.
“The New York Islanders organization mourns the loss of Mike Bossy, an icon not only on Long Island but across the entire hockey world,” Islanders president and general manager Lou Lamoriello said in a statement. “His drive to be the best every time he stepped on the ice was second to none. Along with his teammates, he helped win four straight Stanley Cup championships, shaping the history of this franchise forever. On behalf of the entire organization, we send our deepest condolences to the entire Bossy family and all those who grieve this tragic loss.”
Widely considered among the top three Islanders of all time along with defenseman Denis Potvin and center Bryan Trottier, Bossy spent his entire 10-year career with the team before retiring because of chronic back problems.
Had he played into his mid-to-late 30s, it might be him, not Wayne Gretzky, whom Alex Ovechkin has chased for the NHL career goal-scoring record.
Gretzky finished with 894 regular-season goals, far ahead of Bossy’s 573. But Bossy’s 0.762 goals per game rank first in NHL history, well ahead of Gretzky’s 0.601.
He was that kind of talent, a sniper who did his work relatively quietly, thanks to the efficiency of his shot and his overall game.
His finest regular-season moment came on Jan. 24, 1981, when he joined Maurice Richard as the second player to score 50 goals in 50 games — needing two in the last five minutes against the Nordiques to reach the milestone.
Bryan Trottier assisted on No. 50, which came with 1:29 remaining. That was fitting, given the long first-line partnership between Bossy and Trottier, often with Clark Gillies as their left wing. (Gillies died on Jan. 21, 2022, the first of the Islanders’ 17 four-time Cup-winning players to pass away.)
In a 2017 essay in The Players’ Tribune — written as a letter to his 14-year-old self — Bossy closed with this: “Thank God I was an Islander, and I love you, Bryan Trottier.”
Bossy was born on Jan. 22, 1957, the fifth of 10 children, and grew up in Montreal in a 4 ½-bedroom apartment. He slept on a cot at the end of a hallway, according to the essay in The Players’ Tribune.
In it, he recalled moving to Laval, Quebec, as a 14-year-old, a move that came with a new home for his family and his first real bedroom, but also struggles with opponents who sought to rattle the hot-shot scorer.
Bossy always hated being considered an effortless scorer, as if he did not work hard at the craft.
The rough stuff left Bossy with a permanently misshapen nose, but it never changed his distaste for fighting, something he avoided in the NHL as teammates sought to protect him from trouble.
One benefit of life in Laval was meeting the girl who worked behind the snack bar at the rink, Lucie Creamer, who later became his wife.
As of 2021, his 309 goals (in 263 games) still were the all-time Quebec Major Junior Hockey League record.
By 1977, Bossy rated becoming a first-round draft pick, but 12 teams passed on him — the Rangers and Maple Leafs twice each — in part because of his reputation for finesse over toughness and defense.
After Islanders general manager Bill Torrey took him 15th overall, Bossy quickly bonded with Trottier as his center, and they scored 53 and 46 goals, respectively, in Bossy’s Calder Trophy-winning rookie season.
Bossy scored a career-high 69 goals in 1978-79, but it was in the following season that he and his teammates finally celebrated the biggest prize in the sport.
Bossy considered it a pivotal personal moment in Game 1 of the 1980 Cup Final when he ran over Flyers tough guy Mel Bridgman. That was his way of making a statement that he would not be bullied.
In the Islanders’ four playoff runs during their Cup-winning streak, Bossy scored 61 goals in 72 games.
He won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1982 — when the Islanders won their third Cup — after scoring seven goals in the Final, a four-game sweep of the Canucks.
In 1983, Bossy scored nine goals in six games against the Bruins in the conference finals.
By 1986-87, with one year left on his contract, his back problems were becoming untenable. He blamed them in part on overcompensating for a right knee injury he suffered while long-jumping as a 12-year-old.
In an interview for “Hockey Night in Canada” in February 1987, Bossy said he had missed practice time and was feeling the effects. “It’s really made me lose a lot of my timing and a lot of my conditioning also,” he said.
He scored a career-low 38 goals in a career-low 63 games in the 1986-87 season and retired after sitting out the entire 1987-88 season, having played his final game at age 30.
Bossy finished with 573 goals and 553 assists in 752 career regular-season games. He totaled 210 penalty minutes in his 10 seasons and was a three-time winner of the Lady Byng Trophy for gentlemanly play.
He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1991 — in the same class as Potvin — and the Islanders retired his No. 22 in 1992.
On the night of his number retirement, Potvin imagined the conversation between Torrey and coach Al Arbour on draft day in 1977: “Should we draft a guy who can check, or that skinny 20-year-old from Laval who can’t check a suitcase?”
Then Potvin added, “Thank you, Al!”
Newsday’s Joe Gergen took the occasion to recall the impact of Bossy’s arrival on what already was a good team, writing, “For the Islanders, he was the final piece in the puzzle, a diamond in a solid gold setting. With him in the lineup, the team became not only a threat but an attraction.”
In a 2020 interview for Newsday’s “Island Ice” podcast, Bossy urged fans to avoid comparisons with him and other historic goal-scorers such as Ovechkin.
“You can’t compare Maurice Richard and Mike Bossy and Alex Ovechkin and Connor McDavid,” he said. “You just can’t compare those guys. Why don’t we say that we’ll put players in their own categories?”
In 2020, NHL.com named Bossy the second-best right wing of the expansion era, behind only Jaromir Jagr and one spot ahead of Guy Lafleur, the Canadiens great with whom Bossy often was compared.
Bossy held a variety of jobs in business and media after retiring, including as a radio personality on a French-language station in Montreal.
In 2006, the Islanders hired him for their front office as executive director of corporate relations, charged with helping in sponsor and fan development.
He worked for MSG Networks as an analyst in 2014-15, then joined TVA Sports, a French channel in Canada.
On Oct. 16, 2021, he announced he was taking a leave from TVA because of treatment for lung cancer.
Bossy wrote in French, as translated by Google, “Today, it is with great sorrow that I must retire from your screens for an obligatory break, a necessary stop during which I will have to receive treatment for lung cancer.
“I can assure you that I intend to fight with all the determination and all the ardor that you have seen me display on the ice and in my game.”
In his Players’ Tribune essay, Bossy wrote that he regretted how little he recalled about the Cup run, describing it as an overwhelming blur.
“What I do remember is Bryan with the Cup,” he wrote. “I have a vivid memory of him going completely ape- [expletive] racing around the ice with the Cup above his head at Nassau Coliseum. I can see him standing on the bench with it, egging on the crowd. I can see him jumping on Billy Smith after we won our fourth Cup in a row.
“My advice to you, kid, is to remember more. And to cherish your time more, because your time is going to be shorter than you think.”