Rubber chickens and tennis balls. And the kids of course. All those kids.
That is what Cassie Campbell-Pascall thinks of when she thinks of Mike Bossy: rubber chickens and tennis balls in small-town arenas and restaurants stretching from coast to coast. Not the nine straight 50-goal seasons or the Hall of Fame induction or the four Stanley Cups, the things that made Bossy almost otherworldly. She thinks of the things that made Bossy not just human, but a trusted friend and colleague for 16 years.
That’s what Campbell-Pascall remembers about her longtime friend and colleague.
Bossy, who passed away on the weekend after a long battle with lung cancer at 65, retired after the 1986-87 season.
A little more than a decade later, in 1999, Bossy joined fellow Hall of Famer Bobby Orr and two-time Olympic champion Campbell-Pascall – a Canada Sports Hall of Fame inductee, an Order of Hockey in Canada winner and current member of the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee – with General Motors’ Safe and Fun Hockey Program.
“We started it and it just kept going and going and going,” Campbell-Pascall said in a conversation Monday morning. “I often pinch myself. I’ve been with General Motors for almost 22 years, and that program ran for 16 years.”
Campbell-Pascall was still playing at the time and much younger than her two colleagues, but it was her father’s response to the program that helped speak to the kind of company Campbell-Pascall was about to keep.
“When we announced it, I brought my dad with me, and my dad I think was more excited than me – not that I wasn’t excited, but I was still playing, so my focus was sort of on myself as an athlete,” Campbell-Pascall recalled with a laugh. “But my dad was jacked. I mean, Bobby Orr and Mike Bossy and my daughter? How is this happening?”
What followed was a rather extraordinary relationship anchored in the six or eight events held every year on weekends in mostly in small towns across Canada over the course of 16 years.
After news of Bossy’s passing broke on the weekend, Campbell-Pascall tweeted a picture of the three icons at one of the Safe and Fun Hockey events.
In the replies are comments from people who attended the program as kids who are now grown up but who remember fondly their participation in the events.
“The program was about respect and responsibility and about having fun and having a safe environment in hockey,” Campbell-Pascall said. “I think at that time everyone thought their child was going to make the pros, and our thought process and our message was clear in the sense that it should be about fun. We had rubber chickens on the ice and we did really fun things like that. We tried to get away from the hockey culture (which) was that you need to push your kid 24/7 to make the pros at seven years old.”
The group, sometimes all three, sometimes two of them in a rotation, would usually arrive in the host town or city on a Friday night usually in the summer or fall when Campbell-Pascall wasn’t playing. Saturday was the big day of on-ice sessions with anywhere between 300 and 400 kids, and then there would be an off-ice session with kids and parents, question-and-answer sessions and autographs.
Over time, as stories of the darker side of the game began to reveal themselves, like Sheldon Kennedy’s revelation of his abuse as a junior hockey player in Western Canada, those topics were also discussed by the program’s stars.
“So then it was about safety and making sure there were avenues for parents and kids to be able to speak to if something was going on,” Campbell-Pascall said. “We kind of dealt with a lot of serious issues with parents but the essence was respect and responsibility and having fun and those types of things. Boy, it lasted for a long time.”
Obviously something like this doesn’t work if everyone isn’t fully engaged, and in spite of the revered stature of all three players, they believed strongly in the message and what they were doing and they stayed at it for the duration of the program. In fact, the entire staff remained pretty much constant for the whole time.
“I think that was the key for me. I got to see Mike as he would have been like with his kids as a father. I got to see him interact with kids,” Campbell-Pascall said. “And sometimes the kids, they didn’t know, to be honest with you. They knew me more than Mike and Bobby because they would see me at the Olympics but their parents had to tell them who Mike and Bobby were. They both just had a great way of being with kids.”
As much as Bossy, a father of two daughters, accomplished on the ice in a regretfully short career – back issues forced him to retire after just 752 NHL regular-season games – it is his grace and ability to connect with people of all ages and stripes that makes his passing so poignant for Campbell-Pascall.
“He could have gotten into so many things outside of hockey, or post-career, and I think he just wanted to be home with his family,” Campbell-Pascall said. “That’s where he felt the most comfortable and where he wanted to be. For that generation I think that speaks volumes. In a generation where do more, work more, that was just the mentality back then, he worked hard, don’t get me wrong, but I just think he had a different outlook than most men of his generation.
“To see Mike and who he is and what he’s accomplished, he’s just out there having fun with rubber chickens and tennis balls. There wasn’t a weekend that went by that he didn’t talk about his family and what they were doing and what he was missing.”
Often the group would go out to dinner on the Fridays before their sessions or on Saturdays after their work was done and rarely did the conversation turn to Bossy’s many accomplishments.
“He wasn’t like a typical hockey guy. He just really wasn’t,” Campbell-Pascall said. “That was the thing about him. He’d rather talk about you and what’s going on rather than just sit and talk about his life. I think that’s what both of them appreciated about me was that I didn’t ask them a thousand questions about their career. We just talked. You get to be close and just talk. And sometimes hockey didn’t even come up.”
One conversation Campbell-Pascall, a three-time Olympian and two-time gold medal winner with the Canadian women’s nation team, recalled because it was so rare came one night when they were talking about a veteran player who had reached the 50-goal mark once in his career.
“And I’ll always remember Mike was like, what happened to the other 15 years? What was he doing?” Campbell-Pascall recalled.
It was a kind of funny little quip from a guy who knew something about hitting milestones and knew his place in the game even though it wasn’t something that was important for him to dwell on.
“And that was the only time that I think he ever really talked about his career. He never really put any spotlight on himself. He always was talking to the kids about them and talking to me about me. And that was the thing that I remember most,” said Campbell-Pascall, who provides analysis for Sportsnet and ESPN’s NHL coverage. “I remember looking up Mike Bossy highlights and his career, and I’ll be honest with you, that’s the only way I would have really known a lot about it, because he wouldn’t have said anything about it.”
As Bossy’s fight with cancer became public and then, more recently, with the news that the fight was nearing its end, it brought to the surface many memories of those shared times. The three came from very different points on the hockey spectrum, but they found a way not just to make a partnership work on a program that had a positive impact on literally thousands of young people, but to have forged a strong friendship from their shared time together.
“Bobby was sort of bigger than life right? It’s Bobby Orr. And how Mike I think balanced him in that relationship I thought was just so unique in the sense he never overstepped or spoke out of turn,” Campbell-Pascall said. “He wasn’t there to tell his story ever. For a generation where every appearance you go to at that time people want to know, ‘Oh, tell me about every season that you scored 50,’ he found a way to answer questions, he answered them politely, and he answered them honestly, but he made it just not about him. I‘ve always had the sense he was uncomfortable talking about himself even though he had all these amazing seasons and was a terrific goal scorer.
“I think that’s what I remember most about him. It’s just allowing Bobby to tell his story and me to tell my story. He just didn’t need to be front and center. That’s what stands out for me.”