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The King of the Hill


Steve Bozek

By Michael Murray ’98 BS, ’10 MA

When Steve Bozek ’93 BS was finishing high school in the late 1970s, hockey players in British Columbia had limited opportunities to advance in their sport.

Many of the region’s promising young athletes opted for the Western Canada Hockey League, but Bozek was not interested. He knew he didn’t want to sit on a bus between Winnipeg and Victoria all winter, nor was he drawn to the aggressively physical style of play featured in the league.

So that left collegiate hockey. Bozek and Brian Verigin ’82 BS, ’87 MBA, a friend and teammate in the small town of Castlegar, B.C., sent letters to about five schools offering their services. Not a single coach contacted them.

Eventually, Bozek and Verigin’s own coach got in touch with Rick Comley ’73 MAE, who had launched the varsity hockey program at Northern Michigan University in 1976. His invitation to Comley: “There are some pretty good players up here that you might want to come and take a look at.”

Comley and his staff acted on that tip, opening a pipeline from British Columbia to Marquette that helped build the Northern Michigan program. Bozek and Verigin signed with the Wildcats in 1978, and three more Castlegar players joined them a year later: Bruce Martin ’83 BS, Dave Kanigan ’83 BS, and Gord Pace. They were followed through the years by, among others, eight B.C. natives on the 1990-91 team that won the national championship.

Bozek, a forward who says he landed at NMU by chance, defied the odds and became one of the best players in college hockey. After a freshman year in which he posted 12 goals and 12 assists, he erupted for 89 points (42 goals, 47 assists) in 1979-80 as the Wildcats won the CCHA regular-season and tournament titles and advanced to the NCAA championship game.

NMU’s opponent in the final was North Dakota, a team the ’Cats had defeated twice during the regular season. But in a one- game, do-or-die situation, previous results are not always relevant. UND’s Doug Smail, who went on to a successful career in the National Hockey League, scored four goals to lead his team to a 5-4 victory.

Yet Bozek’s elite skating and scoring skills caught the attention of the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings, who took him in the third round of the 1980 draft. Rather than turn pro, however, he returned for a third year at Northern. He scored 90 points as a junior, helped lead the Wildcats to the NCAA semifinals, became the first NMU player to earn All-America honors and be named a Hobey Baker Award finalist—and then signed with the Kings.

“When I went to Northern, I never thought I was going to be a professional hockey player,” Bozek says. “I was never even the best player in my little hometown. But things just clicked for me [at NMU]. I thought that if I signed a contract, I’d play in the NHL for one year—and that would be great—then I’d come back and finish my degree.”

Bozek’s prediction ended up being off by about a decade. He made the Kings’ roster out of training camp in 1981, and an injury to Charlie Simmer landed him on the famed Triple Crown Line with Hall of Fame center Marcel Dionne and Dave Taylor. He made the most of his opportunity, scoring 27 goals in his first 34 professional games.

The team, however, struggled, and management brought in a new defensive-minded coach, Don Perry. Bozek says, “He sat me down and said, ’I’m gonna fine you $100 every time you get a stick’s length away from the boards.’ It completely changed my game.”

The new coaching philosophy and a knee injury limited Bozek to six goals the rest of the season—but he still played a key role in one of the great moments in NHL playoff history: the Miracle on Manchester. On April 10, 1982, the Kings played host to the Edmonton Oilers in the third game of a best-of-five series. Through
the first two periods, the Oilers built a 5-0 lead, thanks in part to two goals and two assists from Wayne Gretzky. By this point, Kings owner Jerry Buss had left the game, rumored to be in his limo bound for Las Vegas.

But then, shift by shift, the game became more than a game. It transformed into one of those moments fans talk about decades later. L.A. scored its first goal two and a half minutes into the third period, then added another three and a half minutes later. “We could feel the momentum turning,” Bozek says. With less than six minutes remaining in the game, the Kings scored again. Less than two minutes later, on an assist by Bozek, they cut their deficit to one goal. “It was just one of those things,” he says. “The puck had eyes for us.”

In the final seconds, with L.A. on the power play, Edmonton goaltender Grant Fuhr blocked a Kings shot, but the puck slid out in front of the net. Bozek immediately secured the puck and fired a backhanded shot past Fuhr and into the net with just five seconds to play. “It was pandemonium,” says Bozek, who was mobbed by his teammates. Daryl Evans then scored in overtime to give Los Angeles the largest comeback victory in NHL playoff history.

Although Bozek had entered the league as a scorer, he was able to last for 11 years in the NHL because of his commitment to the defensive side of the game. He became known as a strong checker and penalty killer as he moved to Calgary, St. Louis, Vancouver, and San Jose. Among the 21 NMU alumni who have played in the NHL, his 641 games trail only Dallas Drake’s 1,009 and Tom Laidlaw’s 705. And his scoring totals of 164 goals and 167 assists rank second, behind Drake’s.

When Bozek retired from hockey in 1993 after a year in Italy, he jumped right into the next phase of his life, never looking back. He returned to NMU to finish his degree in accounting, taking three classes in the summer and six in the fall in order to graduate summa cum laude in December. He was then accepted into the MBA program at Harvard, which he describes as “a little more cutthroat” than some of the other schools he looked at. “I thought that program was geared more for what I needed to step into the business world.”

Nearly three decades into his business career, Bozek now serves as senior vice president of CMR Capital Group, which specializes in real- estate investment.

NMU hockey coach Grant Potulny says Bozek’s “is one of the most unique stories that we tell every athlete that comes through our locker room.” Potulny points to Bozek’s picture on the wall and talks about the player—the All- American, the Hobey Baker finalist, the 11-year NHL veteran. And then he adds, “And by the way, he got his MBA from Harvard. Here’s your roadmap if that’s something you want to do.”

Steve Bozek might have ended up at Northern by chance, but his success on and off the ice has made him a model for generations of Wildcats.

Watch the full video interview of Steve Bozek with NMU Hockey Coach Grant Potulny.