Tuesday, November 2, 2004
Updated: November 4, 9:32 PM ET
Bourque's one regret: No Cup in Boston
By Scott Burnside
Special to ESPN.com
It is among the most poignant moments in NHL playoff history, Colorado Avalanche captain Joe Sakic allowing teammate Ray Bourque to take the ceremonial first spin around the ice with the Stanley Cup following their Game 7 victory against the New Jersey Devils in the 2001 finals.
It was a moment that resonated not only in Denver, where Avalanche fans had embraced the veteran defenseman as their own, but also across the continent in Bourque's adopted home of Boston. It was a cherished moment that didn't define Bourque's career but merely completed it.
It's been more than a quarter of a century since Bourque walked saucer-eyed into the Boston Garden for the first time.
Twenty-five years since veteran Bruin Wayne Cashman took Bourque and fellow rookie Brad McCrimmon across the street for dinner and then, instead of putting them on a plane back to Canada, took them to a team softball game and night of socializing so they could meet the guys.
"He just started in on the stories," said Bourque. "We were just drooling, listening to Cash."
It is a measure of the man -- and his loyalty to a team and a city itself -- that even on the eve of his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame, it still rankles Bourque that he couldn't do for the Boston Bruins what they ultimately did for him -- deliver a Stanley Cup championship.
"The perfect thing would have been winning five Cups in Boston," Bourque said. "That's probably my biggest regret, not winning a Cup in Boston. That, for me, was tough."
For 20 seasons, Bourque quietly shared the agony of playoff disappointment with Bruins fans as teammates and coaches -- 15 in all if you count Harry Sinden twice -- came and went. Bourque started his career with 17 straight trips to the postseason, but he reached the Stanley Cup finals just twice, in 1988 and 1990, crossing paths with the powerful Edmonton Oilers both times. Still, Bourque's 21 career postseason appearances is an NHL record. Among defensemen, only fellow Hall of Fame inductee Paul Coffey recorded more playoff points than Bourque's 180.
And while his individual accomplishments were many -- all-time leader among defensemen in goals (410), assists (1,169) and points (1,579); five Norris Trophies as the league's best defenseman; a Calder Trophy as rookie of the year; 13 first-team All-Star selections -- Bourque shunned the acclaim in favor of the anonymity of the team.
"For me it was easier to be that way. I had a hard time when people gave me credit or attention for things. I just felt I was doing my job," Bourque said. "I think the more people you get thinking that way, the better off you're going to be."
His demeanor endeared him to his teammates.
"He was a great teammate," said McCrimmon. "He never put himself above the team. He never became above people. He'd be one of the first guys at the rink. He just loved everything about the game."
A Bruin to the core from the moment he walked through the doors, it appeared the relationship would end bitterly, with Bourque never drinking from the game's holy grail. But as the 1999-2000 season continued to unravel and it became apparent that the Bruins would finish last in their division and miss the playoffs, the 39-year-old defenseman was traded to the Avalanche before the deadline and then won his only championship the following spring.
"That was all done for him. It was a thank you," said Bruins president Sinden, who drafted Bourque with the eighth pick in 1979 and then helped broker the deal that sent him to Colorado.
"He was too good to be true," said Sinden. "His hockey speaks for itself. I don't think that anybody would argue he's in the top half-dozen defensemen ever to have played and in the top three in terms of defensive ability. He had the whole package."
|Ray Bourque left Boston after 20 years to play for a Cup contender.|
At 5-11, 219 pounds, Bourque wasn't the biggest defenseman in the league, but he was smart, strong and skilled and could skate. A defensive stalwart with offensive gifts, he could bring the Bruins faithful to their feet by lining up an unsuspecting opponent for one of his patented hip-checks. While he was the epitome of class on the ice and off, when necessary, he'd stand up to those who took liberties with his teammates.
Yet Bourque was more valuable to the Bruins in less tangible terms.
He didn't make mistakes off the ice that embarrassed the team or himself. Teammates, both young and old, learned simply from watching him prepare, day in, day out, Sinden said.
"He was 100 percent, 100 percent, hockey," Sinden said. "He had one of those careers that was just a wonderful guide for how a professional athlete should appear and how he should behave and how he should play. He had a career like very few."
When people would ask Sinden about Bourque and another Bruins Hall of Fame defenseman, Bobby Orr, he would tell them that if he was down a goal with five minutes to go, he'd take Orr.
"But if I was up a goal with five minutes to go, I'd want Ray," he added.
"It would be easy for me to say I saw something special when I drafted Ray," Sinden said. "But yes, I did, more so when he arrived for his first practice at his first training camp. There was absolutely no question about Orr from the first time he put on a Bruins uniform and Bourque was very much the same."
It is said that consistency is the hallmark of greatness. If that is so, then Bourque is truly among the great ones. He used the same style of glove, stick and skate right to the end. He had the same unerring accuracy with his shot from the point, the same sound and deliberate positional play, the same uncompromising love of the game.
As Bourque and the Avalanche were marching toward the Cup, Colorado coach Bob Hartley would sometimes take the veteran's skates from his locker on off days to keep him off the ice.
"He would come to my office and say, 'OK, where are my skates,'" said Hartley, now head coach of the Atlanta Thrashers. "I coached a 40-year-old kid. After my coaching days are done, I will be able to say I had the privilege of coaching Ray Bourque. That's what I think of him."
During that playoff run, Bourque's last hurrah became the dominant storyline. The attention made the soft-spoken Bourque uncomfortable, even as it became a rallying cry in the Avalanche dressing room.
"We all found a little extra energy to make a final push for Ray," Hartley said.
One of the few times Bourque addressed the issue was after the Avalanche lost Game 5 at home and were traveling to New Jersey, where the Devils had a chance to win the Cup on home ice. Bourque told his teammates he had, at most, two games left in his career and he wanted to win them both.
"And that was it," Hartley said. "It lasted about 10 seconds. You could hear a fly buzzing in the locker room."
The Avalanche, of course, won the next two games to complete Bourque's remarkable 22-year career.
He retired 17 days later, and he hasn't looked back since.
When he retired he settled back in the Boston area and spent much of his time assisting his oldest son Chris's team at Cushing Academy. At least three times a week Bourque made the 1 hour, 45-minute trip from his home to campus to help with practice, attend games and load equipment onto buses for road trips. When practices were over it was Bourque who would often be down on the ice, picking up the pucks.
"Holidays, Christmas, Thanksgiving, he was here. He put a lot of time into it," said Wayne Sanborn, director of athletics at Cushing. "It's like having Jim Brown out there telling you how to run with the ball. He's just one of the finest people I've ever worked with."
Bourque said he misses the fellowship of the dressing room, the chance to act like a kid and play a game for a living. But as for regrets about retiring when he did, how he did, he has none.
"It was easier for me, just knowing that was going to be it for me," said Bourque. "It was a tougher adjustment for my wife than for me."
Now that Chris is a freshman at Boston University, Bourque assists with his son Ryan's practices (the third Bourque sibling, Melissa, is a collegiate lacrosse player), setting an example for a new generation of players while working alongside former teammate and coach Steve Kasper.
"It's not so much what I accomplished personally," Bourque said. "It's just some of the special guys that you played with over the course of your career. Playing in Boston. Just learning what it was to be a Bruin from guys like Terry O'Reilly and Rick Middleton. The whole history of the players and the team. It was a phenomenal experience for me."
||He was too good to be true. His hockey speaks for itself. I don't think that anybody would argue he's in the top half dozen defensemen ever to have played, and in the top three in terms of defensive ability. He had the whole package. ”
||— Harry Sinden
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.