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Bossy Gets a Hero’s Ovation : Hockey: The Islanders retire his number, and attendance swells for a night to tribute Hall of Famer.

NEWSDAY

From where Mike Bossy stood Tuesday evening, a goaltender would have been at his mercy. The swatch of carpet that served as the man’s platform was positioned in mid-slot, between the two faceoff circles. Fittingly, it was in the shape of a puck.

The temptation might have been irresistible had he been holding a hockey stick in his hands. But, on the night his number was raised to the rafters, the greatest goal-scorer in New York Islanders’ history was armed only with memories. He gave thanks in two languages.

As usual, it was the Islanders who owed him a debt of gratitude.

“What Mike Bossy has meant to our franchise ... well, there’s a good example here tonight,” said Bill Torrey, the team’s general manager through its 20 seasons in the NHL. “A full house.”

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Indeed, a late demand for tickets inflated the attendance to 14,085, some 2,000 below a sellout but the largest crowd of the season at Nassau Coliseum for a game that did not involve the New York Rangers. The fans accorded Bossy, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in the company of former teammate Denis Potvin a few months ago, a four-minute standing ovation and chanted his name with such gusto as to wake the echoes of the Islanders’ Stanley Cup championship era. Those were the days, my friend.

And they wouldn’t have been possible without the contributions of the stylish right wing from La Belle Provence. He had been a scoring machine in junior hockey at Laval but there were many who didn’t think he could stand up to the physical demands of the NHL, among them 14 general managers who passed him over in the first round of the 1977 draft. Ironically, it was the Islanders, built on strong defense and tough checking, that took the chance.

After watching sweater No. 22 lifted to a place of honor alongside Potvin’s No. 5, Bossy acknowledged the foresight of Torrey and Coach Al Arbour. He imagined them thinking “Should we draft a guy who can check or that skinny 20-year-old from Laval who can’t check a suitcase?” And he smiled. “Thank you, Al,” he said.

For the Islanders, he was the final piece in the puzzle, a diamond in a solid gold setting. With him, the team became not only a threat but an attraction. In a highlight film that was displayed on the scoreboard before the ceremony, Arbour conceded that others will score more goals in the future. "(But) no one will do it with the style and grace of Mike Bossy,” he said. “That was unique.”

Consider the evidence of the next image that appeared on the screen, Bossy scoring perhaps his most famous goal. It was the acrobatic, overtime winner against the Vancouver Canucks in Game 1 of the 1982 Cup final in which only his stick was touching the ice. As the fans oohed and aahed, the man of the moment strode across a runner placed on the ice.

There is gray in his hair now. And he was wearing a well-tailored suit instead of the uniform he removed in 1988 after his back could stand no more hockey. Bossy acknowledged the thundering cheers with waves all around and a buoyant smile that never left his face.

The Islanders chose a game against the Canadiens for the ceremony so that it would be televised back to his hometown, to family and friends. And it was these people he addressed first with a 30-second message in French. “Merci,” he concluded. Then he announced, “OK, I’m back.”

And he went on with what he said was not a speech but a list of people who had done so much for his career. He paused to remember his father, who died 10 years ago, and saluted his mother, Dorothy, who sat in a skybox alongside Bossy’s wife, Lucie, and daughters, Josiane and Tanya. “She’s a great woman,” the son said.

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He also thanked his agent, the scout (Henry Saraceno) who went to bat for him with the Islanders and his former teammates. He had special words for the man he called his best friend, Bryan Trottier, who had a game with the Pittsburgh Penguins in Calgary Tuesday night.

The man took a long look at the number hanging over the ice. “Now I know why I chose No. 22,” he said. “One of those 2’s is for me and the other is for my great wife, Lucie.”

Finally, he had a few words for the fans, those who had cheered the Islanders to those championships in 1980-81-82-83, those who had faded away along with the players who had created the dynasty and apparently had returned at least for one night.

“From the first time I stepped on the ice here,” he said, “I felt a ton of support from every one of you. I always felt you enjoyed watching me play hockey ... I loved making you get up from your seats and clap for me.”

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The boyish smile reappeared and he said, “I want to give you a hand. Thank you.” And Bossy began applauding. The crowd took the cue and clapped in return. Then they drowned out the applause with chants of “Bos-sy, Bos-sy.” All that was missing was one of those sombreros that a patron used to toss on the ice in commemoration of another Bossy hat trick.

Then again, the man had done more than just score. He had stood up to the likes of Tiger Williams and a generation of ruffians who tried to maul him and distract him. Bossy may have been the most courageous Islander of all, a man tough enough not to fight back.

It was the ultimate case of leading by example. He freed himself from the clutches of opponents, found an open space, took a pass and, with a hair-trigger release, confounded another goaltender. “You combined artistry with deadly accuracy,” Torrey said, “like no player in the history of the game.”

Merci, Mike.

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