|ESPN Network: ESPN.com | NBA.com | NHL.com | WNBA.com | ABCSports | EXPN | INSIDER | FANTASY|
The clock chimes for Father Ice Time
By Nancy Marrapese-Burrell
Special to ESPN.com
The magic began on October 11, 1979 when defenseman Ray Bourque took the ice for his first game in the National Hockey League. After 22 seasons, spanning parts of four decades, his distinguished career is over.
He played 1,612 regular-season games, 214 postseason contests and retires as the top scoring defenseman in league history with 410 goals and 1,579 points.
He will be best remembered for his consistency, his remarkable strength, his work ethic and his quiet but effective leadership.
Off the ice, he is a devoted family man, a humble, though proud presence, and a person with a generous soul.
The enduring image of Bourque will be his raising the Stanley Cup as a champion with the Colorado Avalanche. However, there were many defining moments during his nearly 21 seasons in Boston that deserve mention.
One of the best was on December 3, 1987 when Bourque secretly wore two jerseys out on the ice. In a ceremony few knew about beforehand, Bourque took of the No. 7 sweater he wore on the outside and presented it to Phil Esposito so it could be retired. Under it, was the No. 77 he would wear until the end of his career.
Bourque is beloved in Boston, which he made his permanent home. However, when he played for the Bruins he didn't receive the type of recognition that went to some of the superstars in other sports. One of the reasons was because in the 1980s -- with Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale leading the charge -- the Celtics were a dominant force in the NBA. The other reason was the reverence for former Bruins defenseman Bobby Orr, who owned the town during his playing years. That passion for his legacy is still evident today.
When asked about the inevitable comparisons to Orr, which were natural although unfair, Bourque said he didn't put pressure on himself to be anyone other than who he was.
"Those questions were so easy for me to answer at that point," said Bourque, referring to the early part of his career. "There will never be another Bobby Orr. I always just went out there and tried to play my game, never tried to imitate anyone else. Fans or the reporters had a lot of fun with that the first year. There were some things that are alike -- we were young players, defensemen who could put up some offensive numbers. It was natural for them to think in that way, because of Bobby Orr, passing on the torch, Brad Park and myself. I did it a different way than Bobby Orr. I don't do it as flashy or as exciting."
But he did it well, well enough to earn five Norris Trophies as the NHL's best defenseman. He was also a finalist for the Hart Trophy as the league's MVP in 1990, but lost out to Mark Messier in what many believe was an unfair vote as some electors left Bourque off the ballot completely.
In 1996, Bourque was making one of his perennial All-Star Game appearances, except this one was special. It was being held at his rink -- the FleetCenter -- in front of a vocal and supportive crowd. The night before the game, Bourque participated in the skills competition and was expected to dominate the accuracy contest, which he'd pretty well owned since its inception. However, Bourque had a rough night and admitted he was pretty down about not doing well in front of the home crowd.
That was all forgotten the next day when Bourque scored the winning goal in the game, lifting the East to a 5-4 win over the West and taking home MVP honors.
As each new coach came into town -- there were 10 during his career -- the first discussion he had with the media invariably would revolve around Bourque. To cut or not cut his ice time, that was the question. Some said they would try to limit the wear and tear of the player so he would be fresh at the end of the year. Others, such as former Bruins' coach Pat Burns, said that was ludicrous.
"A lot of people have told me that it's better to play Ray less and save him," Burns said just prior to training camp in 1997. "I disagree with that. Sometimes a player is at his best when he plays a lot. I went through that with Doug Gilmour. People would say, 'You play this guy too much. You've got to ease up on him. If I did that, he wasn't the player he was and you saw that every time."
Bourque's commitment to fitness is one of the reasons he was able to carry such a herculean workload. In Game 7 of the 2001 Stanley Cup finals, Bourque played 29:35. Only Adam Foote played more (29:44). Bourque averaged 28:32 in the postseason (sixth highest) and was third in the final series against New Jersey (26:13) with Rob Blake playing just 14 seconds more and Foote playing just eight.
Still, for many back in Boston, it was strange seeing Bourque log any minutes in any colors other than black and gold.
The face of the Bruins changed dramatically on March 6, 2000 when Bourque was dealt to Colorado. Bourque's last game for Boston came had come two days earlier when he scooped up the puck at the end of the club's 3-0 loss on home ice to Philadelphia, a symbolic as well as literal closing of a chapter. The team was bad and was going to miss the playoffs and Bourque was drained of energy. Had he stayed with Boston, he would've retired at the end of the year and would've wondered "what if." Instead, he asked for a chance to go to a contender, not only because he wanted the opportunity to win a Cup, but because he wanted to see how well he could still play.
The minutes he logged in Boston at the end were long and difficult, with the team finding ways to lose games they should've won. After the nasty Marty McSorley incident in Vancouver when he struck Donald Brashear with his stick in the head, a game in which Byron Dafoe and Anson Carter both went down to injuries, Bourque was ground down to nothing.
Bourque wanted to go to Detroit or Philadelphia so he could remain on the East Coast near his family. But Bruins' president and then-general manager Harry Sinden felt the best offer came from the Avalanche, so he and Dave Andreychuk were shipped there.
The Avalanche came up short in their Cup bid in 2000, but the team was made better the following February, ironically with the Bruins in town, when the club announced after the game that it had acquired defenseman Rob Blake. Bourque admitted that he had been more excited than nervous to play in that contest, but said he knew there would be butterflies on March 24 when he would play his last game in Boston.
The Avs won Bourque's return to the FleetCenter, 4-2, and it was a love-fest from start to finish with the Bruins showing a video tribute to their former captain prior to dropping the puck.
"In a lot of ways, I'll always be a Bruin," said Bourque after the game in which he had two assists. "The fans, the city, everything about Boston. It's a great place to play and great people. It's a great place to raise a family. The memories will always be with me. It wasn't difficult until the end of the game. That was when I kind of let go. I was happy to have the opportunity to come back and thank the fans, and it was a very nice day and I had a lot of fun with it."
When Bourque was finally able to carry around the Cup, he thought about repaying those same fans for their support. So in his first official gesture as a champion, he brought the Cup back to Boston for a hastily arranged party at City Hall in Boston.
It was a gesture of good will with the best intentions, but it rankled Sinden to the point where he criticized Bourque's decision on the local sports radio station in Boston, saying the ceremony was "unnecessary" and thought something should have been done in what he termed "a different manner."
Ironically, Sinden is the one who called Bourque is among the five best players the Bruins have ever had with the others being Orr, Eddie Shore, Milt Schmidt and Phil Esposito.
"He has to go down in history as one of the top half-dozen defensemen to ever play and he is the best combination of person-player I've ever dealt with," said Sinden when Bourque was still playing for Boston.
Sinden's critical comments on the radio were an unfortunate turn of events to what was the happiest time in Bourque's professional life, but it won't quell the celebration of what has been an outstanding run.
So, now, the job he did so well for so long is finished.
His mission is done.
Nancy Marrapese-Burrell covers the Boston Bruins for the Boston Globe and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories