Mike Bossy is having the best hockey season ever that nobody has noticed.
The crack marksman of the New York Islanders just completed the regular season with 64 goals, 83 assists, and 147 points--all National Hockey League records for a right wing--to finish a formidable second in the scoring race. A faraway first, however, was Wayne Gretzky, who decimated the record book and dominated media attention. It was a little like being runner-up to Henry Fonda for best actor.
In only one other year would Bossy's point total not have won the scoring championship: 1971, when Phil Esposito established the standard of 152 that stood until Gretzky buried it this winter.
Bossy, with his 1981-82 performance, and Espo are the only two men to score 60 goals in consecutive seasons and three times overall. Bossy has scored at least 50 for five straight years, a feat previously acccomplished only by Espo and Guy Lafleur of Montreal.
Still, nearly all the acclaim goes to Gretzky. Does that bother Bossy?
''Gretzky's having a season nobody could dream about,'' Bossy replied as the Islanders prepared to launch their bid for a third consecutive Stanley Cup in tonight's first round playoff opener against the Pittsburgh Penguins here. ''Then again, maybe he did dream about it.''
Bossy reflected briefly, then said, ''I'm very satisfied with my season, I couldn't ask to be on a better team. The idea is to satisfy your employers and your teammates, and get their respect. If I were to worry about what Gretzky is doing, or carry a grudge, that wouldn't be logical.''
In compiling the best scoring total of his five-year NHL career, Bossy for the first time registered more assists than goals, thus gaining added recognition among his teammates as a playmaker.
The angular young man once known strictly as a goal scorer is pleased when I remark on this surprising transformation.
''I've tried to broaden my game from the time I came here,'' he said. ''I'm striving to be aware of everyone on the ice. It really started two years ago in the playoff finals agaist Philadelphia. I made some plays then that convinced me I was capable of being a good playmaker if I worked at it.''
Bossy demonstrated his new affinity for concocting canny passes several times in a recent victory over Hartford, by which the Islanders clinched the league's overall regular season title. Coming up the ice on one rush with his center and best friend Bryan Trottier, he disdained an obvious shot and slid the puck over to a wide open Trottier. But he'll still take the shot, too, if it's the right one--as he did in scoring the winning goal in that same contest.
Against Montreal in a late-season showdown won by New York, Bossy outwrestled the great defensive forward Bob Gainey for the puck, backhanded it to teammate Stefan Persson in the high slot, and watched with delight as Persson shot and John Tonelli tipped it in for the decisive goal.
''Mike is much more of an all-round player than people give him credit for,'' says Trottier, who this season for the first time in his career scored 50 goals, many of them set up by Bossy. ''First he improved his defense and this year he really has improved his passing. He doesn't want to be labeled a guy who's just a goal scorer.''
It is this sort of selflessness that helps make the Islanders overwhelming favorites to win another Stanley Cup. Offered a night or two off with nothing at stake in the last few regular season games, Bossy declined.
''I feel good,''he said, ''and I get paid a lot of money to play. We start the season working to win the regular season, and winning it is very satisfying. Our next objective is another Stanley Cup. This is the second season.
''I'm confident we'll make a strong defense. Everyone's in good shape and we have a lot of momentum. When we won 15 straingt games to set a record, we could have let down, but we didn't.
''Al (Arbour, the coach) is always telling us that we can't just go out there and turn it on when we want to. He's right. It's too easy to grow careless and sloppy. We keep setting challenges for ourselves.''
How would Arbour, who is renowned for demanding complete play from Bossy and every other Islander, handle Gretzky, who enjoys rather favored treatment with Edmonton?
''Al would treat him the same as me or Bryan,'' Bossy replied. ''Gretzky plays half the game, and I don't know if he'd do that here. It's hard to compare situations. Playing junior hockey, I averaged 70 goals a game for a last-place team, and people wondered how many more I'd score with a good team. But maybe I got more chances the way it was.''
The way it is, Gretzky is getting most of the exposure, understandably enough. But Mike Bossy is quietly asserting himself as a brilliant all-round player on hockey's predominant team, and the playoffs will provide him the showcase he so clearly deserves.