The supercut of Mike Bossy’s Hall of Fame life is one of spectacular moments, warm photos from a time before digital pixels, grainy videos and vivid memories of his singular on-ice brilliance.
But while it is simple to remember him on the day of his death as one of hockey’s most prolific goal-scorers, a star of the dynastic New York Islanders in the 1980s, he was more than that. Someone whose 65 years on this earth were never going to fit neatly into a single sentence.
He was a husband, a father, a friend. A man whose penchant for delivering theatrical feats with skates strapped to his feet was rivalled only by his thoughtfulness away from it, a thoughtfulness he shared willingly.
Among the most enduring examples came in 2017, when Bossy penned a letter to his younger self in the Players’ Tribune, detailing what he’d learned over his career and the intervening years since it ended. Here are the most timeless lessons from it.
Just because something looks easy doesn’t mean it is
Some players turn hockey into a kind of weightless magic. They glide down the ice, bending physics itself to their will as they move between those painted lines, forcing onlookers to, for a flash, reconsider their assumptions that humans definitely cannot fly.
Bossy was one of them. To watch him score, to know the sheer volume of times he did, it would be easy to think it came easy to him. But it didn’t — and perhaps that was the magic that belonged specifically to him; the illusion of making the absurd seem pedestrian.
“When you arrive, you’ll be known as a natural goal scorer. There’s nothing natural about it, actually. That’s something that will bother you for the rest of your life — whenever people ask you, ‘Why was scoring so easy for you, Mike?’
It was never easy. Your mother loves to tell people the story about how you scored 21 goals in your first mite hockey game.
But even if that story is true, the goals only tell part of the story. Because your mom always leaves out the part about how much time you spent all by yourself out in the backyard rink, shooting at a wooden board. You don’t have a real net, so you practice by aiming for the black puck-marks on the board over and over and over until your feet are frozen. (Remember how mom would make you thaw your feet in cold water because hot water would “make your toes fall off?’)”
The toll will wear on you — and you have to keep going
In the regular season, Bossy put up some of the most impressive numbers in the history of hockey. He was one of only five players to score 50 goals in 50 games. He scored 50 or more times in each of his first nine seasons, making him one of only two players to ever notch at least that many runs. The other? Wayne Gretzky.
With the on-ice excellence came attention — often in ways that extracted a physical price.
“For whatever reason, some people will resent you for being a goal scorer. Other teams are going to target you, big time. You’ll get jumped from behind. Sucker punched. Completely knocked out by blindside hits. (In the future, there’s a serious injury called a concussion. You don’t know what this is yet, but unfortunately you’re going to have quite a few.)
Some nights, you’ll be sitting on the bench just trying to catch your wind when you’ll look up and see the other team — literally the whole team — rushing your bench for a brawl. The slashing and cross-checking will be so common that it’s barely worth mentioning. This is just the reality of junior hockey in the 1970s.
The abuse will leave a mark on you forever. Your nose will be broken. Your ribs will be cracked. But it will leave a mark on your soul, too. Psychologically, just riding on the bus to games knowing the violence that awaits you is something that you’re going to have a hard time with. There are going to be so many long bus rides when you’ll think, Why am I even doing this? What’s the point?
But you have to keep going.“
Love can find you in unlikely places
The reason Bossy had to keep going — why we all need to keep going — no matter the pains that he faced was twofold:
If you stop, the future you’re heading toward will never come to pass. And you just never know who you’ll run into along the way.
“You have to keep going for two reasons.
1. If you don’t quit, you’ll set the record for goals in junior hockey and make it to the NHL.
2. The girl behind the counter at the snack bar.
Number 2 is the far more important reason. The girl working the snack bar every morning at the rink in Laval is pretty cute, right? I know all your tricks, kid. You’re too shy to actually talk to her, so you go and buy a chocolate bar from her every single day before practice.
Well, eventually, you’re going to need to work up the courage to have a real conversation with her. Maybe even ask her what her name is. (It’s Lucie, by the way.) Her brother is the coach of the midget team, and he’s a pretty tough guy, so you better make damn sure that you’re a gentleman.
This is the girl who’s going to be by your side for the rest of your life. She’s a huge hockey fan, and nobody — not even you — is going to be harder on your performances.“
Sometimes, standing up for yourself means having the courage not to fight
Faced with the physical and emotional strain of drawing the opposition’s fiercest attention, being hacked and slashed and hit on a nightly basis in one of the NHL’s most physical eras, the temptation to retaliate was often present for Bossy. He was human after all, despite all statistical evidence to the contrary.
So, when he announced publicly in 1979 that he was never going to fight again, it reverberated in the moment — and continues to as a philosophy for facing conflict decades later.
“You’ll score plenty of goals in the regular season, but you’ll struggle come playoff time, when the game gets tighter. There will be no time, no space. You’ll be hacked and slashed mercilessly. Guys will constantly be trying to get you to drop the gloves.
So you’re going to make a decision that, at the time, is going to be extremely controversial. In 1979, you’re going to announce to the press that you’re never going to fight again. That’s it. You’re done with it. No matter what anyone does to you, you’re not going to fight. You think it’s pointless and insane.
Oh, boy. That’s going to be an interesting time.
You need to be prepared for the names you’re going to get called. You need to be prepared for how people are going to look at you for making a statement like that in 1979. For a guy who is already unfairly labeled as “timid,” this is going to be a big deal. Some people in the hockey world will simply not accept that someone who doesn’t fight can ever be a winner.
Then, in Game 1 of the 1980 Stanley Cup finals against the Flyers, you’re going to have your moment of truth.“
Bossy’s memory of what happened wasn’t revisionist.
In that game, as he skated the puck up ice, he saw Mel Bridgman, the Philadelphia Flyers enforcer, headed straight at him. He had a choice. Bossy could get out of the way. He could simply take the hit. Instead, he stood his ground, refusing to back down from the intimidation while holding true to his beliefs that fighting wouldn’t solve his problems.
Remember more. Cherish more. Because, sooner than you think, it’ll end.
Hockey is no stranger to what-ifs, careers cut short by injury or circumstance. Bossy’s was one of them.
Though his NHL tenure was prolific, he suffered a debilitating back injury before he turned 30, forcing his early exit from hockey’s biggest stage.
“My biggest piece of advice for you is to try to remember more of it. As sad as it is to say, as I write this to you at 60 years old, I can barely remember anything about lifting those Stanley Cups. I don’t know if it’s all the hits I took, or just because of how overwhelmed I was at the time, but I really cannot remember much.
What I do remember is Bryan with the Cup. I have a vivid memory of him going completely apes***, 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.“
The first and last chapters of our lives aren’t ours to write. How we live the story in between them though is up to us.
When a shooting-star career that comes and goes in a stunning flash like Bossy’s ends, there’s a temptation to examine its arcs, to see where they started and where they ended, to figure out how they did it — to figure out if, just maybe, we can reach our own version of those heights.
Any honest examination of those arcs stumbles on the truth that every life is not just what we do, but what happens to us and how we respond to it. The chapters of the story are not only ours to write, but how we read them, what we take from them, is up to each of us.
Where did your path to four Stanley Cups begin? Did it begin with the collision with Mel? Did it begin with all the hard work you put in with Bryan Trottier? Did it begin with the phone call from Bill Torrey? Did it begin when you scored 260 goals in Laval, or 21 goals in your first mite hockey game?
No. None of that happens without the very first chapter of your story, which was written for you.
Remember when you were in the little apartment in Montreal, sleeping on the cot? Some winter mornings when you woke up for breakfast, your father would be coming in from the cold with icicles frozen to his eyebrows. He had been out there for hours, flooding the backyard with a hose and nailing a wooden board to a post.
Thousand of miles away in western Canada, Bryan’s father was flooding the pond behind his house by chopping up a beaver dam.
We don’t get to write the beginning and ending of our story.
But we can stay up late listening to the sounds of Hockey Night in Canada.
We can talk to the girl at the snack bar.
We can stop smoking cigarettes after our rookie year.
We can run over Mel Bridgman.
We can look back and say: Thank God I was an Islander, and I love you Bryan Trottier.