Inside the NHL
My first time being upset with my hometown NHL team happened at age 9.
It was tough to find fault with the Montreal Canadiens in 1978, as they’d wrapped up a third consecutive Stanley Cup championship and would ultimately capture a fourth. But the heir apparent New York Islanders by then were nipping at their heels aided by young superstar winger Mike Bossy.
That’s when my misguided Toronto Maple Leafs-supporting father, who reveled in all things haunting the Canadiens, delivered stunning news: My team could have had Bossy but passed. Not only that, but turns out he’d even played junior hockey right in our suburban city of Laval just across the river from Montreal.
It was a rough childhood introduction to the concept of the NHL entry draft, which wasn’t a big deal for fans back then and certainly not nationally televised with surrounding fanfare like it is today. And what happened in the 1977 draft with Bossy, the most prolific goal-scorer in NHL history who died last week of lung cancer at age 65, is a lesson for Kraken fans: Having a top-10, top-five or even a No. 1 overall pick won’t always prevent critical mistakes.
There will be tremendous pressure on Kraken general manager Ron Francis and his staff to get this summer’s draft right as they chart a franchise course. It’s still possible they get the No. 1 overall pick. If so, do they take consensus choice Shane Wright? Or somebody who isn’t as “safe” but is better according to their gut?
There’s no such thing as a sure thing with drafting. Especially in hockey, with teenagers getting picked. Messing up — as the Canadiens did with Bossy and three years later in using a No. 1 overall pick on Doug Wickenheiser instead of homegrown Montreal Juniors center Denis Savard — can alter league history.
More on that in a moment.
But the Bossy tale was fascinating to this young hockey fan.
When you’re as young as I was, especially before NHL free agency and instant information “Googling,” you assumed all Canadiens players were from Montreal and all the Islanders from, well, someplace else.
I became obsessed with library research on how Bossy had, in fact, played for our Laval junior team. And that the Canadiens indeed could have had him. In ensuing years, as Bossy’s Islanders supplanted Montreal’s dynasty with four consecutive titles from 1980-83, I learned his family’s home in Laval’s Chomedey district was walking distance from ours. We’d shared the same orthodontist. And he’d attended Laval Catholic High School, archrivals of Chomedey High, from where I’d one day graduate. One of his high-school teachers became one of my earliest journalism mentors.
On the 1977 draft, I’d discovered that 13 teams besides the Canadiens passed on Bossy before his 15th overall selection, figuring he wasn’t tough enough despite his 309 goals in four junior seasons with the Laval National. The egregious part for the Canadiens was, in those pre-Internet and cable-TV days, they had the huge scouting advantage of Bossy playing right in their own backyard.
But iconic GM Sam Pollock made a rare mistake, overruling pleas by top assistant Claude Ruel and coach Scotty Bowman to use his No. 10 overall pick on Bossy. Instead, he sided with his scouting director and selected Mark Napier from the Birmingham Bulls of the now-defunct World Hockey Association.
Napier was a darned good forward. But he was no Bossy, who by January 1981 became the second player after Maurice “The Rocket” Richard to score 50 goals in a season’s first 50 games.
Bossy would record an unmatched nine consecutive 50-goal seasons before retiring at age 30 due to back issues. His 0.762 goals-per-game average is the highest ever.
Last week, when the Kraken visited Calgary, Alberta, I ventured to ice level at the Scotiabank Saddledome during the morning skate and stared at a part of the ice where Bossy scored arguably his biggest goal. He had notched consecutive Cup winners in 1982 and 1983, but none as decisive as his sudden-death overtime goal for Team Canada against the Soviet Union in the 1984 Canada Cup semifinal.
Before NHL players participated in the Winter Olympics, the Canada Cup was the planet’s top tournament. And I’ve always felt that 1984 matchup in Calgary deserves consideration as the greatest hockey game ever played. The sequence preceding Bossy’s goal saw Hall of Fame Edmonton Oilers defenseman Paul Coffey stop a 2-on-1 Soviet rush, then lead play back up the ice where Islanders great John Tonelli did some incredible forechecking behind the net before feeding the puck back to the point.
Coffey got off a shot that Bossy redirected for the winning goal. I was reminded of it again Monday night, when the Kraken’s No. 2 overall pick from last summer, Matty Beniers, redirected an Adam Larsson point shot against Ottawa for his second goal in as many games.
Bossy was much closer to the net for his goal. But like Bossy, Beniers seemed to have an instinctive ability to be in the right place and know what to do with his stick when the puck came. You can’t teach that. It’s what teams look for on draft day beyond statistics. Bossy had it. The Kraken hope Beniers does.
Coffey’s Oilers months before that 1984 goal had dethroned Bossy’s Islanders as Cup champions to start their own dynastic run. Thing is, had Montreal nailed the 1977 draft, the Islanders dynasty may never have happened.
Had the Canadiens listened to Ruel and Bowman and taken Bossy, they’d have had their top-line right wing in his prime just as Hall of Famer Guy Lafleur began declining in 1980-81.
And had new Montreal GM Irving Grundman in the 1980 draft listened to Ruel — by then the team’s coach — and taken future Chicago Blackhawks star Savard instead of Wickenheiser at No. 1, the Canadiens would have had the centerman replacement for Hall of Famer Jacques Lemaire, who’d retired the previous year.
In other words, the Canadiens dynasty might have continued beyond four consecutive Cups to perhaps six, or even eight. And the Islanders? They might not even have one. That’s how NHL history likely turned on two calls.
So, good luck to the Kraken getting this draft right. No pressure at all.
On a positive note, Beniers looks good with two goals and an assist three games in. He’ll never be Bossy as a goal-scorer. But then again, nobody ever really has been.
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