Guy Lafleur, Mike Bossy and Falling Out of Love With Hockey
Two pieces of terrible news just reminded me how I used to really like professional hockey.
Guy Lafleur, who played for the Montreal Canadiens in the 1970s and into the 1980s, died Friday, one week after the death of Mike Bossy, who played a couple of years later for the New York Islanders.
Lafleur and Bossy were top scorers on teams that won four consecutive Stanley Cups (Canadiens, 1976–1979, Islanders, 1980–1983). They were also two of my favorite players, and not just because they scored a lot of goals for teams I liked. It was how they scored them. The whole poetry on ice thing.
Lafleur was a ballet dancer in hockey skates. He dipped, he glided, he sailed. I’m pretty sure he could pirouette. One time after he skated around all five players on the other side, his teammate Steve Shutt was said to have turned to the guy next to him on the bench and said, “Did you see that? No one can do that.”
Bossy had considerable skating skills as well, but his superpower was shooting. Give him the puck anywhere in the offensive zone and he could put it in. In the 1983 conference finals, he scored the winning goal in four games.
Lafleur’s and Bossy’s skills were magnified and showcased because they played on great teams. But their skills were part of what made the teams great, and the epitome of those skills was controlling a small elusive object with a thin stick while traveling on ice skates. For some of us, the highest aspiration in ice skating is not to fall down.
Most if not all pro hockey players can skate adeptly. But at least for forwards, the point of skating is to put oneself in a position to shoot the puck into the net, and that’s where a handful stand above the pack. From Bobby Hull, Rocket Richard and Gordie Howe through Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, a handful of players show how the game at its peak can be played.
Lafleur and Bossy weren’t the only players of their generation in that league. Bossy’s teammates Denis Potvin and Bryan Trottier had elite skills and were equally exhilarating to watch. Lafleur for a couple of years was surrounded by a whole teamful of artful skaters and shooters, from Jacques Lemaire and Yvan Cournoyer to Larry Robinson.
But Bossy (22) and Lafleur (10) were the numbers you wanted to see jumping over the boards and onto the ice, because any shift, in the middle of the most routine or the most critical game, could produce a moment that left you gasping. Bossy scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal two seasons in a row. When the Canadiens were a minute and 14 seconds from losing the 1979 semifinals to Boston, Lafleur drilled a pretty-much-impossible slap shot that kept Montreal alive to win its fourth straight Cup.
While Bossy and Lafleur were often mentioned in the same sentence around the hockey world, they were regarded differently in the sports world at large.
Lafleur was a glamor name, the best player on the best team in a town where hockey was the only game that mattered. And he looked the part. He played in the last years before helmets became mandatory, so as he accelerated, his hair would blow back and turn him into a wild stallion. For selling hockey as moments of pure joy, Guy Lafleur soaring down the right wing was the money shot.
It didn’t hurt, either, that Lafleur and many of his teammates seemed to relish everything about the game. When he and Shutt were the wings on a line with Pete Mahovlich, they would joke about being on a “doughnut line” — no center — to which Mahovlich would respond that he was stuck on a “helicopter line” — no wings.
Bossy’s Islanders were in the same league as Lafleur’s Canadiens. They just got less recognition for it. The Islanders played in the forgettable Nassau Coliseum, on the margins of the radar for the sports media in New York, a town that cared more about three other sports.
Bossy talked in later years about how the Islanders never got credit for being as good as they were. By extension, he was talking about himself. No player in the history of the National Hockey League has scored as many goals per game as Mike Bossy, yet when people talk about the great goal-scorers of the 1980s, they often tend to open and close the conversation with Gretzky.
By the late 1980s Bossy and Lafleur had both retired, Bossy because of injuries, and I was heading toward hockey retirement myself.
I became less of a hockey fan for the same reason some folks become bigger fans: the fighting, which felt like too big a part of what the NHL was selling and too big a part of what some fans were buying. Not everyone. But if a hundred fans watch hockey videos, you can bet 85 of them are watching “hockey’s greatest fights,” not “hockey’s most exquisite goals.”
I still have a vivid image from an Islanders match against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Broad Street Bullies, whose game plan was rooted in physical intimidation.
Dave Schultz, one of the Flyers’s “enforcers,” came into the game and didn’t even pretend to join the play or seek out the puck. He took a straight run at Bossy, who was minding his own business, and started punching him.
The referee penalized them both for fighting, which said it all. Bossy was at most defending himself from a thug, but the NHL knew fighting sold enough tickets and induced enough fan adrenalin that the referees were clearly under orders not to hand out penalties that would make a team like the Flyers pay too high a price for practicing it.
For some fans, fighting is an important and enticing element of the game. Okay. Their call. Me, I kind of drifted away, with fond and untarnished memories of watching Guy Lafleur deke a defenseman and slap a shot into the lower left corner of the net, or Mike Bossy one-time a pass from Trottier before the goalie could move.
My only sad footnote to their stories comes from off the ice. They both smoked and they both died too young — Lafleur at 70, Bossy at 65 — of lung cancer.
I remember being startled when a sportswriter would casually describe them lighting up after a game. I wasn’t sure why someone with those skills, which relied on a superbly conditioned body, would do something that could only work against it. You can only hope that maybe for someone it’s a cautionary tale.
But what they did off the ice diminishes not at all what they did on it, what put them in the hockey Hall of Fame and got them listed among the 100 greatest players of all time. They took a game and showed us its highest possibilities.