For the briefest of moments last Saturday night, Mike Bossy was tempted to pull a Quebecois version of Roberto Duran. Ne plus, tant pis! Bossy's Islanders and the Nordiques still had one period to play, 20 minutes, but Bossy, the NHL's incredible goal-scoring machine, thought the chase was over. "I'd never been as frustrated as I was after the first two periods," he said later. "I didn't know what to do anymore. My stomach was twisted in knots. I was hurting. For a second I thought, 'Maybe I should just stay in the locker room and forget about it.' "
Bossy had come into the game at Nassau Coliseum needing two goals to become the second player in league history to score 50 in 50 games. Only Maurice Richard, the Montreal Canadiens' Rocket, had done that—in 1944-45, when an NHL schedule consisted of only 50 games. Since then the season has gradually been extended to its present 80 games, and since then no fewer than 23 other players have scored 50 or more goals. The NHL record book includes no Roger Maris-style asterisks—a season is a season is a season—so discussion of Richard's feat receded as year after year went by.
But Bossy, a Montrealer who grew up reading about the Richard legend, changed all that. Before this season, Bossy confided to friends that the 50-50 double was the feat he most wanted to accomplish. And as he drew near—34 goals in 35 games, 40 in 41—he went public. "Rocket's record is what I'm aiming for," Bossy said, almost matter-of-fact in his declaration. Two weeks ago Bossy scored seven goals in two games—four against Pittsburgh, three against Washington—and suddenly he had 48 goals in 47 games. And he had the spotlight.
More than 20 reporters flew into New York early last week to begin the Bossy Watch. The Islanders offered to pay all of Richard's expenses if the Rocket would join the vigil. He declined, but he did wish Bossy luck. "I told the Canadiens to draft Bossy four years ago, when he was finishing his junior career with Laval," said Richard, now 59, who had regularly watched Bossy play in various amateur programs around Montreal.
In Game 48 Tuesday night, the Islanders whipped Calgary 5-0, but Bossy failed to get a goal. The Flames, in fact, seemed more obsessed with keeping Bossy off the score sheet than winning the game. Left Wing Eric Vail, who stands 6'2" and weighs 210 pounds, shadowed the 6-foot, 186-pound Bossy for most of the 24 minutes he was on the ice; Vail showed no interest in the puck, possessing it, shooting it. He only had eyes for Bossy. Even when the Islanders piled it on during the third period, the Flames remained preoccupied with shutting out Bossy.
After the game, the other Islanders sneered at Calgary's tactics. "I hope I'm wrong," said Denis Potvin, "but it looked like stopping Mike was more important to them than a win. They were like a team that's losing 7-0 and pulls its goalie to try and spoil the other team's shutout, just for spite."
So it was on to Detroit for Game 49 on Thursday night, Bossy's 24th birthday. The Red Wings, who played things a little straighter than the Flames had, assigned speedy Forward Paul Woods, their best checker, to follow Bossy around the ice. The Islanders led 2-0 late in the third period when Bossy and linemate Clark Gillies broke down-ice two-on-one against Defenseman John Barrett. Instead of playing to break up a cross-ice pass to Bossy, the normal procedure, Barrett simply followed Bossy and ignored Gillies, who took the shot but failed to put the puck into the net. "I think Barrett would have followed me to the bench if I'd gone there," Bossy said, shaking his head.
Later, Bossy proved that even the best of shooters can miss an empty net. Twice. With Detroit Goaltender Larry Lozinski on the bench for an extra skater, Bossy on two occasions found himself in center ice with the puck on his stick. The first time he took aim from 70 feet but faded his shot to the right of the empty net. The second time he wound up from 80 feet but hooked the puck to the left. "I should have given Mike my glasses," said Islander Coach Al Arbour.
Bossy wasn't all that discouraged, however. "There's still one game left," he said. "If I don't break the Rocket's record, I'm not going to jump off the George Washington Bridge. The sun will still come up the next morning."
On Saturday, a sunny day on Long Island, Bossy got up and made hot cereal for his 16-month-old daughter, Josiane, went back to sleep and then got up in time to watch a cable telecast of that afternoon's Kings-Bruins game in Boston. His eyes were trained on Charlie Simmer, the L.A. left wing who had scored 46 goals in 49 games and could beat Bossy to the Rocket's record. Unlike Bossy, Simmer rarely talked of the 50-50 double. "I'd love to do it, sure," he said, "but I'm not obsessed by it. It's amazing to me the way Mike puts pressure on himself. I don't enjoy that."