As the New York Islanders ended five days of R & R in Colorado last week, their 20-year-old rookie goal-scoring sensation was limping in pain. Mike Bossy had pulled a groin muscle during practice Friday morning in Colorado Springs. Even as he lay crumpled on the ice, though, Bossy received no sympathy from 21-year-old Bryan Trottier, the other half of the NHL's hottest scoring combination. Trottier skated over to Bossy and asked, "What'd you do, Mike, trip over the blue line?"
That may seem a cavalier way to treat a stricken buddy, but neither Trottier nor Bossy is about to let minor ailments seriously impair their harassment of rival goaltenders. The hobbled Bossy, whose 20 goals are tops in the NHL, wound up missing Saturday night's 7-2 Islander romp over the St. Louis Blues. But Trottier, the do-everything center who in his third season has emerged as the league's best, kept busy during Bossy's absence by scoring one goal and assisting on another to fatten his league-leading point total to 44 on 18 goals and 26 assists. Meanwhile, the left wing on the Trottier-Bossy line, rugged Clark Gillies, scored a goal and an assist against the Blues himself. And Bossy's stand-in, Jude Drouin, had a goal and two assists.
The Trio Grande, as Long Island addicts call the Trottier-Bossy-Gillies line, now has scored the staggering total of 48 goals in 25 games, 11 more than the NHL's next most productive lines—Montreal's Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt and Jacques Lemaire, and Colorado's Wilf Paiement, Paul Gardner and Gary Croteau.
Better still, the kids—Gillies, at 23, is the senior citizen—have kept the sputtering Islanders within four points of the first-place Philadelphia Flyers in the Patrick Division.
It is startling to see these prolific, and ridiculously young, scorers so quickly changing the look of the Islanders, who in their five-year history have relied on tight checking and strong goal-tending to grind out their victories. Oddly, as the offense has perked up, the Islanders have suddenly begun to commit defensive lapses of the worst kind.
They blew a 3-2 lead over Colorado and had to accept a 3-3 tie last Wednesday night when Goaltender Billy Smith inexplicably tried to score a goal himself into the open net at the other end of the ice, only to have Colorado Forward Paul Gardner intercept his shot and fire it into the suddenly unguarded New York net. But Coach Al Arbour shrugs off the occasional lapses. "I'm encouraged that we're scoring more goals than we ever have," Arbour says. "If we can get our defense back where it should be, we'll be in good shape."
To achieve the new offensive punch, Arbour broke up his old No. 1 line of Trottier, Gillies and Right Wing Billy Harris in training camp, inserting Bossy, a prolific goal scorer during his amateur career, in Harris' old spot.
Growing up in a family of 10 children on Montreal's north end. Bossy developed his shooting touch on the backyard rink that his dad flooded and froze every winter. He amassed 309 goals for Laval during his four seasons in the Quebec Junior League, just five under the junior career record set by Lafleur. But Bossy seldom bothered to check, a deficiency that prompted 14 NHL teams to ignore him in last June's amateur draft before the Islanders, choosing 15th, grabbed him. They had scouted Bossy thoroughly—in fact, one of their talent hunters, Henry Saraceno, had coached Bossy in the juveniles—and believed he had enough basic hockey sense to develop into a two-way player.
It would speak even more eloquently for the Islanders' scouting acumen if they had found out Bossy's correct first name. Though he is bilingual and recently married a French Canadian girl, Michael Bossy is part Ukrainian, part British. Quebec newspapers nevertheless always have called him Michel, and the Islanders drafted him under that name and refer to him that way in their press guide. The team brass somehow got the idea that the name was merely pronounced "Michael." Bossy has a somewhat passive personality, and it was only last week, on the team bus, that he finally clued in Hawley T. Chester III, the club's publicity man.
"It's spelled Michael, too," Bossy said. "That's M-I-C-H-A-E-L."
"I'll fix it tomorrow," Chester promised Bossy.
Vindicating the Islanders' judgment, Bossy not only has been scoring goals at a remarkable pace, he also has played well defensively. "I was lazy on defense in the juniors," Bossy concedes. "It hurt my pride to go only 15th in the draft, and I've been working on my checking." He hasn't had to work on scoring. Bossy has the knack for getting open, and his wrist shot, while not particularly hard, is quick, well disguised and accurate. "It's a godsent power," he says. "Three-fourths of the time I don't even see where I'm shooting."
Bossy started the season well enough, scoring six goals in his first 11 games. Then he really got hot, reeling off 14 goals in the next 11. Inevitably, he became a marked man, and a seven-game goal-scoring streak finally ended a week ago in a 4-1 Islander win over Detroit, a game in which he was pounded by Red Wing tough guy Dan Maloney right after the opening face-off. Still, Bossy remains well ahead of the pace required to break Rick Martin's NHL rookie record of 44 goals. And Bossy's fast start makes him the leading candidate for the NHL Rookie of the Year award, which Trottier won in 1976 and Islander Defenseman Denis Potvin won in 1974.
Trottier has helped grease the way for Bossy's spectacular debut. A guitar-strumming native of the prairie town of Val Marie, Saskatchewan, Trottier is a neighborly sort, which is why he and his wife Nickie invited Bossy and his wife of three months, Lucy, to stay at their Long Island home at the start of training camp. The newcomers moved in for two weeks, and Trottier and Bossy hit it off so well that they became not only linemates but road-trip roommates, too. "Mike is conservative and easygoing and I'm the same way," says Trottier.
The budding friendship has not been hurt any by Trottier's considerable play-making skills. Quick and clever, the Islander star is often referred to as "little Bryan Trottier." In fact, Trottier is 5'11" and a solid 195-pounder who hits hard and is difficult to knock off his feet, which gives him an extra split second to whisk the puck to open teammates. And Bossy, of course, is the chief beneficiary of Trottier's crisp passes.
But Trottier insists, "Mike helps me as much as I help him. Because the other team has to concentrate on him, I've had more room to roam this season." Trottier, who scored 32 goals and 63 assists for a rookie-record 95 points in 1975-76 and followed that with 30 goals and 42 assists last season, has been moving at a fast clip, too. His biggest splurge came last month when he scored four times in a 9-0 rout of Atlanta. Like Bossy, Trottier is also pursuing a record—Phil Esposito's single-season total of 152 points.
The exploits of Trottier and Bossy might lead one to overlook Gillies, except that he is both the Islander captain and, at 6'3" and 220 pounds, a very visible and bruising performer. His commanding presence discourages the league tough guys from taking too many liberties with his linemates. He has a wicked slap shot and and holds the Islander single-season record of 34 goals—a record that Bossy or Trottier, or both, may well break by midseason.
Records aside, Gillies, Bossy and Trottier seem to be having as much fun off the ice as on it. This was raucously apparent when, after the tie with the Rockies in Denver, the three linemates returned to Colorado Springs in the back seat of a limousine—with Trottier in the center, of course. The three of them swapped jokes for a while and then began singing. They ran through some Johnny Cash favorites, did a Kenny Rogers number or two, and then moved on to other selections. Near the end of the 80-minute drive, Gillies chortled, "Hey, we're quite a truet, you know?"
The truet is quite a line, too.
Captain Gillies, all 6'3" and 220 pounds of him, is available to fight his linemates' battles.
Rookie Bossy has 20 goals in his first 24 pro games and his checking has exceeded expectations.