On January 24, 1981 I was sitting in the Nassau Coliseum - section 315 - watching history unfold. The New York Islanders were playing their 50th game of the season and right winger Mike Bossy had 48 goals coming into the game. He needed two goals that night to become only the second player in NHL history to score 50 goals in 50 games. I was there to watch one of my favorite hockey players enter the record books alongside Maurice Richard, one of the greatest hockey players ever.
Bossy didn’t even get a shot on goal the first two periods. Almost sixteen minutes into the third period, he scored his 49th. He had four minutes left to achieve the 50 in 50. With a minute and a half left in the game, he took a perfect pass from Bryan Trottier and shot the puck past Quebec Nordiques goalie Ron Grahame. 15,000 fans went crazy. The team greeted Bossy out on the ice. It was pandemonium for a few minutes while we all celebrated Bossy’s feat together.
Oh, yea. The Islanders won 7-4. In all the excitement over Bossy’s goal, we nearly forgot a game was played and won. For a moment, those two points in the standing didn’t mean as much as Mike Bossy’s name in the record books.
Later that night I had a lengthy discussion with some sports fans about the glorifying of individual achievements over team achievements in sports. 30 years later (my god, I just dated myself) I had nearly the same conversation with different sports fans after Derek Jeter got his 3,000th hit.
Some of those fans think because the four major league sports - baseball, football, basketball and yes, hockey (and notice the absence of the belated Oxford comma there) - are team sports the team achievements should be given more attention than the personal ones.
But let’s face it. Besides winning the league’s championship, other team achievements -winning streaks, points scored in a game, wins in a season - are a cumulative thing that aren’t nearly as climatic as individual goals. I’m thinking it was more exciting to watch Bossy get that 50th goal than it would have been to be there when the team broke the record for longest playoff series winning streak. We cheer the teams, but we love the individuals. We don’t just wear a Boston Bruins jersey. We wear one with a name and number on the back. We don’t collect team baseball cards. We treasure the cards of our favorite players.
The fact that we identify with individual players is why Derek Jeter’s accomplishment is so fascinating to us. It’s why Wilt Chamberlin’s 100 points is still talked about. Identifying with or cheering on specific players personalizes a sport for fans.
One of the things I was asked about both 30 years ago and last night was if it is detrimental to sports to put so much emphasis on personal achievement. Glorifying players, putting them on pedestals, honoring their success as individuals rather than as part of team can certainly backfire when the players we honor or call heroes end up letting us down. But overall, I think it’s a good thing. It adds excitement to a long season. It gives us something to root for when our teams aren’t doing that well. It makes us feel a connection with the players whose jerseys we wear. You can be a fan of the sport, a fan of a team and a fan of a particular player all at once. Cheering on Jeter or anyone else going for a record is also, by extension, cheering for the sport.
That night in the Coliseum remains one of my favorite sports memories. Even though I later attended a game where the Islanders won the Stanley Cup, watching Bossy achieve that 50 goals in 50 games landmark felt like a more personal moment, like I was cheering on a friend.