I know I’m a bit late on this but that’s how the deadlines work. I can’t let this go, though, without saying something on it.
We lost two of the greats in National Hockey League history last month: Mike Bossy and Guy Lafleur. Unlike other athletes I’ve written about from yesteryear, I can remember watching these two play. And they were two of the best at their craft.
Both were compared to each other constantly during their careers. Both played right wing, but the big difference was that Bossy was considered the more accurate shooter while Lafleur was more stylish. Didn’t matter, though — both were among the greatest at their position.
Bossy should have had a longer career. He played only 10 full seasons in the NHL, but he made every one of them count. The New York Islanders were hesitant to draft him simply because he was seen as timid and slow, but the Islanders drafted him 15th overall in 1977. Bossy came out of junior hockey having put up more than 500 points in five season with Laval of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
He could have gone to Toronto but the Maple Leafs were afraid he would want more money than they would have offered (totally not shocking, I know, considering Harold Ballard owned the team at the time). Bossy could have gone to Montreal but his perceived lack of toughness was the issue there, though Scotty Bowman later regretted not picking him when he had the chance.
As the popular story goes, it was then-head coach Al Arbour who convinced Islanders general manager Bill Torrey to draft him at no. 15 because it would be easier to teach a scorer how to check as opposed to the other way around. In any event, it was the right decision as Bossy would play on a line with Bryan Trottier and Clark Gillies, a line that would become known as The Trio Grande. They would be the catalyst that led the Islanders to four straight Stanley Cups from 1980 to 1983 and almost a fifth in 1984, had it not been for the Edmonton Oilers, who were on their way to their own dynasty.
Bossy was an offensive juggernaut for the Islanders, scoring 573 goals in his 10 regular seasons and another 85 in the playoffs. Perhaps his most impressive feat was nine consecutive 50-goal seasons, a record he still holds to this day. Yes, Wayne Gretzky and Alexander Ovechkin also have nine 50-goal campaigns but they didn’t do it in a row like Bossy did.
The reason for his shortened career? His back. Bossy was diagnosed with two damaged discs — he couldn’t even bend over to tie his own skates by that point. Surgery wasn’t the answer. He sat out the entire 1987-‘88 season to see if rest would cure what ailed him but it was no use. Torrey offered to trade Bossy to Montreal so he could be closer to home, but he refused. Bossy also turned down an offer to sign with the Los Angeles Kings, who had acquired Gretzky from Edmonton, because he felt he couldn’t live up to the expectations.
Lafleur, like Bossy, was also a 500-point scorer in the “Q” with the Quebec Remparts. He came before Bossy and was drafted first overall by the Montreal Canadiens in 1971, the result of one of the greatest strokes of genius pulled off by Sam Pollock, the longtime general manager of the Habs.
Lafleur and Marcel Dionne, a great player in his own right, were the top two players available in 1971, and Pollock wanted to get at least one of them. To do that, he convinced the California Golden Seals to trade their first-round pick in that year’s draft but that’s not all. The Los Angeles Kings were battling with the Golden Seals for the bottom and when Pollock saw that, and his dream of landing Lafleur fading, Pollock traded Ralph Backstrom to the Kings. Los Angeles ended up finishing ahead of the Golden Seals because of the trade that year and the rest was history.
Lafleur made the no. 10 jersey famous during his time with the Habs but he was supposed to wear no. 4, Jean Beliveau’s number. Beliveau wanted him to, but Lafleur didn’t want to be seen as a second coming of Beliveau. It took “the Flower” until his fourth season to become a big star in Montreal — he was, after all, playing on one of the most stacked teams ever put together. He would eventually string together six straight 50-goal seasons.
Like Bossy, Lafleur would end up winning multiple Stanley Cups — five in total as a player, along with three Art Ross Trophies as the NHL’s leading scorer and two Hart Trophies as the most valuable player (Bossy never won those).
His first departure from the NHL was vastly different from Bossy’s. Lafleur ended up butting heads with then-head coach Jacques Lemaire over playing styles. Lemaire was defence first while Lafleur was all about offence. Lafleur demanded a trade and when that was shot down, he decided to retire and the divorce was considered acrimonious. He would be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1988, which is when he made his comeback with the New York Rangers. He would play one season there before moving to play with the Quebec Nordiques for two more seasons and retiring for good in 1991.
Both iconic players received the send-off they deserved, Bossy from the Islanders and Lafleur from the Canadiens. The latter was perhaps the better of the two simply because no organization does tributes like the Montreal Canadiens. Because I’m an Oilers fan, I couldn’t stand watching either of them beat my Oilers but time is a funny thing.
You grow to respect what they did and what they brought to the table. Neither played dirty, neither had to fight in order to get ahead and they both changed the course of a game.
It was a different game back in the 1970s and 1980s but Mike Bossy and Guy Lafleur always stood the test of time. Two of the best there’s ever been.