On the death of two right wingers linked for all-time.
Even though I grew up in Boston, and was loyal to my hometown Bruins, there was no hockey team that stirred me with excitement like the dynastic New York Islanders of the early 1980s. The recently passed Mike Bossy was my hero, because he was one of the first people in this life who made me think that you could be created to be the best there ever was at one thing, allowing that you worked hard enough to master your talent.
For Bossy, that was goal-scoring. He could pick the corner on God, with a release faster than a cobra’s bite. His death—at the young age of sixty-five—rocked a part of my childhood that has continued to live within me: that portion that never loses sight of the value of wonder.
Now word has come out that another right winger for the Valhalla shortlist has died in Guy Lafleur, perhaps the closest a hockey player has ever come to looking like a poem on skates.
I used to boil with anxiety over Lafleur, as both a Bruins guy and a Mike Bossy fan. Recently I was talking to someone on the radio about the hockey team that would be the hardest to beat in a seven game series. We’re talking throughout the ages, a mega-best on best tournament. I went with the 1981-82 Islanders, but even as I said the words, the specter of Lafleur made me nervous.
I was not an official Islanders fan, but I had an idea of how Islanders fans felt back then, and how they’ve always respected Lafleur. For a time, he was not only the best player on earth—and Bobby Orr was still in the league—but he was the man, more than any other, who kept the Islanders dynasty from starting earlier than it did.
You can still encounter plenty of people on Long Island who will vouch for what an absolute wagon the Islanders of the late 1970s were. You had a healthy Bossy, Bryan Trottier, Clark Gillies, Billy Smith, and Denis Potvin in their primes. You also had a squad in the 1976-77 Canadiens, who lost a mere eight games in a season. That’s normal.
The Islanders somehow took two contests from them in that season’s playoffs, but realistically, what were you going to do against those Montreal teams? They were stuffed with future Hall of Famers, but I’m not sure they win a single one of what became four straight Cups without Lafleur. Everything flowed through his game, which, if you’ve ever seen it—and if you haven’t, I suggest hauling on over to YouTube—was pure flow.
Bossy was the machine in the slot. He didn’t score like Lafleur did, flying down the wing. Bossy, having scored a goal once after his legs had been taken out from him, casually mentioned to a reporter that he believed if his hands were free, there was no excuse not to score. It was the coolest thing I had ever heard.
I used to ask my dad when Lafleur would retire, because he seemed to be an impediment to both our Bruins and Bossy. There was a symbolic grace in the Montreal dynasty itself then flowing into the Islanders’ reign. You have to love a hockey player—or anyone in anything—who’s so good that they keep you from what you can achieve, until you yourself hit that level, and take your place. So it goes with right wingers, and so it goes in life. Any good Canadiens or Islanders fan can tell you that.