Sunday, January 24, 2021

1980-81 NHL Scoring: What Was in the Water? (Part II)

Part one of this two-part post featured a small subset of record breaker cards at the end of the 1981-82 O-Pee-Chee hockey set. See if you can find the theme:

#390: Hat tricks (Mike Bossy, 9)
#391: 100+ points by each member of a forward line (Dave Taylor, Marcel Dionne, Charlie Simmer)
#392: Points (Wayne Gretzky, 164)
#393: Points by a rookie defenseman (Larry Murphy, 76)
#394: Assists by a goalie (Mike Palmateer, 8)
#395: Points by a rookie (Peter Stastny, 109)

Yep, you've got it. Forwards, defensemen . . . even the goalies were putting up points!

However, before any of those records fell that season, there was something else going on. Something big. And that's where part II comes in.

Way back in the 1944-45 season, the legendary Maurice Richard scored 50 goals within his team's first 50 games. He was the first ever to do it. And so incredible was the accomplishment that as time went oneven after 35 seasons of tryingstill no one else had reached the mark.

But in 1980-81? 

Suddenly there wasn't just one man racing to the feat. There were two.

Throughout the first few months of the season, Charlie Simmer and Mike Bossy would score goals left and right trying to reach that rarefied air; Bossy with the Islanders on the East coast, Simmer with the Kings on the West coast. 

Here's a look back at the thrill show that started in October and didn't finish until the end of January.

For Simmer, goals came in bunches right from the start. He scored 13 in his first 10 games. I'm sure a few people tossed around the 50-in-50 idea even at that early point, but who'd take them seriously? Not many. "It's just a hot streak to start the season", they'd say.

Mike Bossy, on the other hand, only scored 5 goals in his first 10 games. Nothing to talk about there. But in the next 10 games he'd add a preposterous 17 more. Check out this run of four consecutive games:

Nov. 4 vs. Detroit: 1 goal
Nov. 6 vs. Boston: 2 goals
Nov. 8 vs. Chicago: 3 goals
Nov. 11 vs. Minnesota: 4 goals


Simmer wasn't a slouch in his next 10 games either, putting home 8 more goals of his own. The count now?

Mike Bossy: 22 goals in 20 games
Charlie Simmer: 21 goals in 20 games

And maybe, maybe a few more folks in the hockey world began to think about 50-in-50. After all, both players were about halfway there, and keeping pace.

Bossy would add 16 more goals in his next 20 games, which gave him 38 in 40.

As for Simmer? He'd do even better, adding 18 more to his totals in the same 20-game stretch. That gave him 39 in 40, including these four consecutive games:

Dec. 20 vs. Buffalo: 2 goals
Dec. 23 vs. Edmonton: 2 goals
Dec. 26 vs. Vancouver: 2 goals
Dec. 27 vs. St. Louis: 2 goals

Yikes again.

Now at this point, 40 games into the season, the NHL world, its media, the regional news, even the guys playing pick-up hockey at the local rinkthey must have all been talking about the chance of both players hitting the magical mark of 50 goals in 50 games.

What would happen next?

Well, in Bossy's next five games he'd add just three goals. That made it 41 in 45.

And Simmer? He'd do only a little better, adding four more and giving him 43 in 45.

"They're starting to feel the pressure", you can hear the reporters say.

Oh, those reporters of little faith. 

What did Mike Bossy do in his next two games?

Game 46, Jan. 13 vs. Pittsburgh: 4 goals
Game 47, Jan. 17 vs. Washington: 3 goals

Even though he wouldn't score any goals in game #48, Mr. Bossy now found himself at 48 goals in 48 games.

And Mr. Simmer?

Game 46, Jan. 17 vs. Pittsburgh: 1 goal
Game 47, Jan 18 vs. Philadelphia: 0 goals
Game 48, Jan. 20 vs. Detroit: 2 goals

Simmer now had 46 goals in 48 games.

"They've both still got a chance!" You can hear those fickle reporters say.

However, the roller coaster ride wasn't over.

Mike Bossy's game 49?
Jan. 22 vs. Detroit: 0 goals

Charlie Simmer's game 49?
Jan. 22 vs. Toronto: 0 goals

Their totals remained the same. Mike Bossy: 48 goals in 49 games. Charlie Simmer: 46 goals in 49 games.

"Bossy can still do it, but it looks like the mark is out of reach for Simmer", most would say.

So it would come down to the 50th game for both men. And of course, as if it were scripted, both games took place on the same night: Wednesday, January 24th, 1981. (Exactly 40 years to the day.)

Bossy's Islanders hosted the Québec Nordiques, while Simmer's Kings were in Boston, facing the Bruins. And that made the script even better: two East-coast starting times.

Who'd score first? Would either man hit the mark? Would the Nordiques and Bruins do even more than usual to try and stop them? 

Sheesh, what a lead-up there must have been in the papers and on the news.

"We'll be periodically interrupting your regularly scheduled programming to bring you updates on the chase for 50 goals in 50 games", the station announcer would say.

Without internet and live updates, you'd have to tune in. And stay tuned.

And wouldn't you know it, both Simmer and Bossy forced everyone to do just that—stay tuned all night

In Boston, the puck dropped and the Bruins scored two goals by the halfway point of the first period (both from Rick Middleton). Despite two power plays for the Kings in the second half of the period, neither Simmer nor the Kings managed to score.

End of first period in Boston: Bruins 2, Kings 0.

Over on Long Island, it looked to be more of the same. The Nordiques got on the board first, but about three minutes later the Islanders tied it up. Was it Bossy? 

No. Clark Gillies.

End of first period on Long Island: Islanders 1, Nordiques 1.

Back to Boston now, where the Bruins added another goal about two minutes into the second period. They'd continue to frustrate the Kings until the 12:18 mark, when the shutout was broken. Was it Simmer?

No. Marcel Dionne.

But then, about five minutes later, on the power play, a news update:

"Charlie Simmer has scored a power-play goal at the 17:40 mark of the second period in Boston. He's now got 47 goals on the season, only one behind Mike Bossy for the league lead, and three short of 50 goals in 50 games."

That second period would end with a score of Boston 3, Los Angeles 2. The Kings were back in it, and so was Simmer.

And Mike Bossy on the Island? The second period did yield a broadcast announcement.  

"After the Nordiques scored a goal to take the lead 2-1, the Islanders replied with two power-play goals in less than a minute . . ."

Surely this must be it!

". . . both coming from the stick of Anders Kallur. The Islanders have taken the lead, 3-2, but Mike Bossy is still not on the score sheet."

The Nordiques added a late goal from Michel Goulet, and the score was tied after two periods of play, 3-3.

And while Islanders fans may have started to feel their first bit of deflation (could our guy score two goals in the third period alone?), Kings fans were on the edges of their seats:

"Back to your scheduled program in a moment, but first an update: Just 1 minute and 23 seconds into the third period, Charlie Simmer has scored another power-play goal. He's now tied for the league lead with Mike Bossy at 48."

Think about the difference in time zones for a moment. When the game started, the 9-to-5 Los Angeles crowd would have still been on the clock at work. But at this point in the game, they surely would have been out of the office for an hour or so, and stationed next to any TV or radio they could find. Could their guy catch—and even surpassMike Bossy before the night was over? Incredible! 

Islanders fans were concerned in an equal but opposite way. About five minutes into the third period, the Nordiques pulled ahead 4-3 on a goal by Anton Stastny. At the halfway point, the home team did tie it up again . . .


. . . but the goal was from Steve Tambellini (who was traded to the Rockies later in the season). Only 10 minutes to go, and Mike Bossy hadn't even gotten to 49.

Things were moving along in Boston, though. Less than a minute after Charlie Simmer had scored that 48th goal, Billy Harris scored, giving the Kings a 4-3 lead. A couple of minutes later, Boston tied the score on a goal from Brad Park. 

But then a few minutes later, the Kings went ahead yet again on a goal from . . .

. . . Jim Fox—assisted by Charlie Simmer. Would that assist mojo at the halfway point of the third period get Simmer going? He'd only had two shots on goal in the game, but scored on both of them. He needed another two.

Minutes ticked by, and although the Kings were ahead by a goal, Simmer was running out of time. I can only imagine he was double-shifting for the rest of the game (staying on the ice for another consecutive shift while his linemates went off for some rest). And you'd better believe his teammates were trying their hardest to set him up.

But the minutes continued to tick by. With just a little bit of time left, Boston, still down by one goal, pulled their goalie Jim Craig for an extra attacker. Simmer was on the ice. Could he get to 49 with an empty-netter, and somehow put in another quick goal after that with Craig back in the crease? Another interruption hit the airwaves:

"This just in from Boston: Charlie Simmer has scored into an empty net, giving him three goals for the game and 49 for the season . . . 

. . . The goal was scored with one second remaining in the game, and Simmer, although giving it everything he had, has simply run out of time in his quest for 50 goals in 50 games."

On Long Island things weren't looking too cheery, either. Those 10 minutes Bossy had to work with had quickly dwindled to 5 without a change to the score sheet. But then:

"Folks, we'll get you back to your program in a moment, but we have an update from Nassau Coliseum: At the 15:50 mark of the third period, Mike Bossy has scored a power-play goal, with assists from Stefan Persson and Bryan Trottier. The goal gives Bossy 49 on the season, and he's got just a few minutes left to net his 50th. If he can do it, he'd tie the record of 50 goals in a team's first 50 games set by Maurice Richard 36 years ago."

I wonder if at this point any television channels went to the live game broadcast and stayed there (similar to when Pete Rose set the all-time hit record, and they went live to the game for the entirety of each of his at-bats). 

It would have been wise if they did, because:

"Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt your regularly scheduled program once again, because with less than two minutes remaining in this evening's game against the Québec Nordiques, Mike Bossy has scored his 50th goal of the season, giving him 50 goals in his team's first 50 games!"

A near-miss in Boston, but elation on Long Island. 

Looking back, I wonder if that race to 50-in-50 was anything like the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998. I was a college student then, working at a sports memorabilia store. It's all anyone wanted to talk about through the summer and into the fall. We pleaded with our boss to have cable TV installed so all of us, customers and employees alike, could tune in whenever a Cardinals or Cubs game was on.

Do you think hockey fans have specific memories from that 1980-81 season? Can they tell you where they were when Bossy scored his 50th? And when Simmer came ever-so-close? I don't think there's much doubt about that. 

What a season. And remember, on top of the race between Simmer and Bossy, you had all those other players scoring points at record-setting paces. Forwards, defensemen, rookies, goalies. Not to mention a young Wayne Gretzky who was starting to blossom (he'd score 55 goals and add 109 assists that year, and then the following year . . . watch out). There was so much for hockey fans to be excited about.

But let's get back to Simmer and Bossy for a moment. After the mad rush to game #50, how did the season shake out for both of these phenomenal players?


Charlie Simmer reached 56 goals by his 65th game, and then unfortunately suffered an injury that ended his season. But what a remarkable season it was. He and his two linemates, Marcel Dionne and Dave Taylor, all reached the 100-point mark, setting a record. And keep in mind Simmer's absurd shooting percentage of 32.7, which was another record. (Mike Bossy finished at 21.6, which is also tremendous.)


As for Bossy, his goal production slowed down a little bit, as to be expected. But he still finished with a league-leading 68 goals in 79 games. Of those 68 goals, 10 were game winners, which also led the league. And 28 of them came on the power play, which not only led the league, but set another record. 

All the more meaningful, he and the Islanders would lift the Stanley Cup at season's end—their second of what would turn out to be four straight championships. Bossy led the league in playoff scoring that year as well, with a staggering 17 goals and 18 assists in 18 games. What an incredible time it must have been for him.

So that's part II of the series, with help again provided by the 1981-82 O-Pee-Chee hockey set. I hope you enjoyed the walk-through and the "broadcast" bit.

Thanks very much for reading.


  1. Fantastic post! I wasn't watching or following hockey in 1980-81... but it was nice to experience that race as if I had.

    1. Thanks Fuji! It must have been exciting, especially in Canada. Bossy was from Quebec, and Simmer was from Ontario.

  2. This was a fantastic read, I enjoyed every second of this "broadcast" since I was less than a year old during the '80-81 season and hadn't realized just how many records were broken in that crazy year until your 2-part post. I thought I knew how it turned out in the end, but your narration made me second-guess myself lol.

    1. Much appreciated, Chris! Seems like we're about the same age. I missed the Islanders' halcyon days, but knew all about Bossy's 50-in-50, especially having grown up in New York. It's only within the last couple of years, however, that I learned about how close Charlie Simmer came to the accomplishment that very same season.

  3. That must have been an incredibly fun thing to experience!

    1. Agreed, Billy. To put a modern spin on it, can you imagine a young Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin in a goal-scoring race like that? Wow.

  4. I enjoy watching hockey, but games are few and far between for me. 8 assists by a goalie seems pretty good. 40 years later are “modern” goalies putting up those kind of stats?

    1. Good question. I'd guess the season high these days is usually around two or three assists. And plenty of goalies with zero or one.