In the 1977 NHL Amateur Draft, he was passed over by twelve teams, with the New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs ignoring him twice. However, the New York Islanders made him their first choice, 15th overall. General manager Bill Torrey was torn at first between taking Bossy and Dwight Foster. Bossy was known as a scorer who could not check, while Foster could check but was inferior offensively. Coach Al Arbour persuaded Torrey to pick Bossy, figuring it was easier to teach a scorer how to check. Bossy was placed on a line with Bryan Trottier and Clark Gillies, a combination that would come to be known as The Trio Grande, replacing Billy Harris on a line that had been called the “LILCO line” (standing for “Long Island Lighting Company“, since their prolific scoring kept the goal lamp lit).
Bossy boldly predicted that he would score 50 goals in his rookie season. He made good on his promise, scoring a then-record 53 goals as a rookie in the 1977–78 season, won the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year, and was named a Second Team All-Star.
Many thought it would be impossible to duplicate Maurice Richard‘s 50 in 50, set thirty-six years earlier. Then, in the 1980–81 season, Bossy became only the second player to score 50 goals in 50 games. This was hyped by the hockey press as he was in an unofficial competition with Charlie Simmer of the Los Angeles Kings to see who could first accomplish the 50 in 50 milestone since Richard. Both players were involved in their 50th game, with Simmer at 46 and Bossy at 48, with Simmer getting a hat trick to bring his total to 49 goals in 50. Making it particularly dramatic, Bossy was scoreless for much of the game but found the net twice within the last five minutes of his 50th game. Richard was on hand to congratulate Bossy for this achievement. Bossy finished the season with 68 goals in 79 games.
Bossy was known for being able to score goals in remarkable fashion, the most incredible, perhaps, in the 1982 Stanley Cup Finals against the Vancouver Canucks when, up-ended by a check from Tiger Williams and flying several feet in the air, parallel to the ice, Bossy nonetheless managed to hook the puck with his stick and score. Bossy was also noted for his clean play, never resorting to fighting (and being one of the first players to speak out against violence on the ice), and winning the Lady Byng Trophy for gentlemanly play three times: 1983, 1984, and 1986.
Bossy has harbored some animosity towards Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers, stating that the Islanders got little recognition for their dynasty (1980–83) compared to the Canadiens (1976–79) or Oilers (1984–90). Bossy complained “I do a lot of promoting for how good [the Islanders] were…We never got one millionth of the recognition we should. 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.” During Gretzky’s interview with the New York Post in 1993, he praised Bossy as the best right-winger ever to play, saying that their scoring totals would have been even higher if the two had played together. (They nearly did; in the 1977 WHA Amateur Draft, Bossy was selected by the Indianapolis Racers, who one year later would become Gretzky’s first pro team.) Bossy’s response in the Post was not complimentary, as he pointed out that their playing styles were different, and also said that Trottier was the best center in hockey. Gretzky did not comment on that at the time; however, years later in his autobiography he reiterated that Bossy was a great player, but “I sure wouldn’t want to ride in a cab with that guy.”
In 1982, Bossy set a scoring record for right-wingers with 147 points while also winning the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy. However, far more attention was given to Gretzky who not only won the Hart Trophy and Art Ross Trophy, but also shattered scoring records with an unheard of 212 points and 92 goals. Bossy aspired to be the best player of his era but fell short, as the Hart and Art Ross Trophies were two of the awards that eluded Bossy during his career, going to Guy Lafleur, Trottier, and Gretzky. Although the Islanders swept the Oilers in the 1983 final to win a fourth consecutive championship, Gretzky and his Oilers still received the most attention.
The Islanders made a fifth straight Stanley Cup final in 1984 but they were outmatched by the Oilers who defeated them 4–1. Bossy, who had scored 8 goals after the first three rounds of the playoffs (and 17 goals in the past three consecutive post-seasons), was silenced completely in the finals series.
Afterwards, the Islanders slowly declined, while injuries took their toll on Bossy’s back. He was limited to 63 games in the 1986–87 season but still managed to score 38 goals. He decided to take the next season off to rest his back, but officially retired after the 1987-88 season. During his season off, Bill Torrey had offered Bossy to be traded to the Montreal Canadiens, so he could be closer to home, but Bossy declined. Having played his last game at the young age of 30, he scored 573 goals and 553 assists in 752 NHL games, all with the Islanders.
The Islanders retired Bossy’s #22 on March 3, 1992, the second Islander afforded that honor after longtime teammate Denis Potvin.
Smallthoughts: Old School Tuesday salutes …Mike Bossy.