Without realizing it, Mike Bossy made a deeper, broader point when he said, while standing among the NHL’s Greatest 100 Players Friday night, “When you’re surrounded by greatness, it always makes you feel a little taller, a little stronger.” That might as well have been the epigram for all of New York-area hockey from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s.
Seeing the intergenerational legends on stage here, in conjunction with the league’s 100th year, was a reminder that those years represented the Golden Age in New York hockey. It was an era like the 1940s and 1950s in New York baseball, but instead of losing teams, hockey gained one. Like any good history story, it is more of a seed than a statue. It helped something to grow.
Many people who hop on trains to Brooklyn for Islanders games did not see Bossy score his 50th goal in his 50th game in 1981, or go airborne to score against the Canucks, but they respect the heck out of it. Many fans at Rangers games don’t have firsthand recall of Stephane Matteau’s overtime goal, but they see it as part of their hockey DNA.
Mark Messier, who also was on the hallowed stage Friday night, cherishes the memory of the Rangers’ 1994 Stanley Cup as a beginning as well as an ending. “When I look back on it, that’s probably the thing I’m most proud of. It inspired a lot of kids in New York to go out and try the game of hockey,” he said.
Consider this: 1/25th of the 100 finest players in history all were on one team, winning four Stanley Cups and 19 consecutive playoff series together. Do that and you recognize how important hockey became to New York, and vice versa. This is why the league never let the Islanders slip away and never will. It definitely never should.
Bossy, who was joined among the honorees in the NHL’s Greatest 100 by teammates Denis Potvin, Bryan Trottier and Billy Smith, realized the significance of his epoch while it was happening. “When you know that it’s not only individually that you’ve done something fantastic but you are part of a team experience, part of a group that’s unbelievable, it’s thrilling, it’s humbling and it’s an honor,” he said, wearing his crisp new NHL 100 blazer.
With their exhilarating race to the Cup semifinals in 1975, their third year of existence, the Islanders proved forever that there are enough hockey fans for more than one team. Within a decade, the Devils moved in and gave the NHL the distinction of being the only major league with three teams in one market. The Devils carved their own indelible niche with three Cups, earning three spots of their own in the 100 Greatest: Martin Brodeur, Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer.
The Islanders’ success and the Devils’ arrival made the Rangers and their fans even hungrier for greatness. Enter Messier. “I’ve said it many times: ’94 was a special time for myself personally, it was a special time for New York, it was a special time for the organization,” the former captain said Friday night after being honored along with former Rangers teammate Brian Leetch. “You know, I think we transcended the game in certain respects for what was happening, that 54-year drought and the amount of attention it garnered around the country.”
We’re not going to say that New York is the capital of hockey, not with Toronto and Montreal within earshot. But it sure was, is and will be a hot spot. It has a place in its heart for its champions, and for those who helped carry the torch through some tough times.
Pat LaFontaine, a St. Louis native who grew up in Detroit and lives on Long Island, also was announced among the greatest 100. Looking at his Hall of Fame ring Friday night, he said, “I had to pinch myself when I got this, and I still do. But with this [new honor], there really aren’t any words, other than to say I’m extremely honored, extremely humbled.”
Because of the golden era in which he, Bossy, Messier and the others played, those of us in New York who love hockey can stand taller and feel stronger.[/DROPCAP]