Russian Rocket blazed a trail

Pavel Bure was one of the fastest and most skilled players of his era. Ian Tomlinson/Getty Images

Mike Penny was slightly surprised but not shocked that an 18-year-old Pavel Bure was still available in the sixth round of the
1989 NHL draft. Bure had an alluring reputation as one of the most dynamic rising stars in the Soviet Union, but the details and documentation of his status were murky. Had he played enough international games to be deemed draft-eligible? Was that what had deterred every other team from taking a gamble on him in the first five rounds?

But Penny, then the Vancouver Canucks' head scout, had done his research.

Penny had employed the help of a Soviet statistician who was able to drum up game logs to bolster Bure's case. Penny then cross-referenced those records with hockey's international governing body, the IIHF, to allay any doubts.

And he spent a solitary Christmas day in Finland, borrowing a scouting pal's shiny red Toyota to take the long, arduous trip to a nondescript rink in Vierumaki to see this kid play.

Penny was the only spectator at the game -- and the coaches did not appreciate his presence -- but it was worth it to investigate what he had heard about Bure.

"He was playing with men and he had just exceptional ability," Penny, now a scout with the Toronto Maple Leafs, told ESPNNewYork.com. "He was very quick, with a lot of explosiveness and a great feel for the game. He had great hands and no fear. The fact that he was playing against older guys, bigger guys? That didn't bother him. He played in all the tough corners and he was hard to hit."

He had seen enough to be convinced that this was a worthy investment, so when the Canucks general manager at the time, Pat Quinn, turned to him at the draft table and asked what he thought, Penny said the team had nothing to lose.

"I believe I'm right," he told Quinn about Bure's eligibility.

"I hope you are," Quinn shot back.

Once the pick was made, pandemonium ensued. Other teams argued that Bure had not met the threshold of draft eligibility and protested the selection as illegal. It took almost an entire year for the Canucks to prove their case, but in the end, Penny was right to trust his gut and his information.

In reflecting on the pick, which is generally regarded as one of the biggest steals in NHL draft history, Penny admits that the Canucks hit the "jackpot."

Almost 23 years later, Bure, nicknamed the Russian Rocket for his explosive speed, will enter the Hockey Hall of Fame as a member of the
2012 class after an illustrious, albeit injury-shortened, career. He amassed a whopping 779 points, including 437 goals, in 702 NHL games. He is third on the career list in goals per game (during the modern era) behind Mike Bossy and Mario Lemieux.

"I feel good that the Hall of Fame got it right," said friend and former teammate Gino Odjick, who was Bure's roommate for seven years in Vancouver. "He was a good player that turned into a superstar through hard work, dedication, focus and paying attention to details."

After the Canucks brought Bure to North America, they met a young man who had little command of the language -- Odjick said he knew only three lines when he first arrived, all courtesy of Elvis Presley: " I love you. I need you. I want you." But Bure far surpassed their lofty expectations on the ice.

His speed and skills were exceptional, and the Canucks were in dire need of such a player to spark interest amid a beleaguered fan base.

Quinn said that before Bure, the Canucks were "a team basically going out of business," drawing 7,000 every night while rebuilding.

Once Bure arrived, that changed.

"An attraction like that happens very seldom in the game -- athletes that bring people out of their seats," Quinn told ESPN.com. "There are a lot of great players, but not all players had that effect on the public.
This man did, and he not only made us a better team, but he made the people around him better as well."

In 1991-92, his first professional season, Bure managed almost a point per game, posting an impressive 60 points (34 goals, 26
assists) in 65 games to beat out Detroit defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom for the Calder Memorial Trophy as rookie of the year.

It was a sign of things to come.

Bure followed up his impressive rookie campaign with two straight 60-goal seasons, during which he racked up 217 points as the Canucks quickly became a contender under Quinn as head coach.

"I was just trying to play hockey and come up with new moves and do fun things," Bure told ESPNewYork.com when reached at home in his native Russia. "I'm really happy people felt that way, because that's what I was trying to do. I just loved to score goals."

After becoming the eighth player in NHL history to record back-to-back 60-goal seasons, Bure helped the seventh-seeded Canucks to an unexpected Stanley Cup finals appearance in 1994. Bure led his team with 31 points (16 goals, 15 assists) in the playoffs before the New York Rangers beat Vancouver in Game 7 to win the Cup.

"He made us be a much more complete team and helped us make the playoffs and Stanley Cup finals," Quinn said. "He was the impetus that pushed us to the top."

Following the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season, Bure suffered the first of several serious knee injuries that would ultimately spell his demise. He was limited to a mere 15 games in 1995-96 and suffered a torn ACL that required him to undergo season-ending surgery. He was hampered again the next season with head and neck injuries, although he still managed 55 points in 63 games.

His time with Vancouver ended after a nasty split in which he went public with his intention to leave the club despite having a year remaining on his contract. He held out until he was traded to Florida, where he suffered another debilitating knee injury before bouncing back in the 1999-2000 season.

Despite the setbacks, Bure captured the Rocket Richard trophy for the league's top goal-scorer in both 1999-2000 and 2000-01, finishing with 58 and 59 goals (94 and 92 points), respectively.

Mike Keenan, who coached Bure in Vancouver and was later reunited with him in Florida, said Bure had an uncanny ability to dazzle the crowd.

"He'd pick up the puck and then literally put the crowd on their feet because he was just such a great skater," Keenan told ESPNNewYork.com. "His acceleration was second to none. They don't call him the Rocket for nothing."

His stride was unorthodox, though. Not standard by any means. And Bure's superb conditioning -- a vestige of old-school training by his father, Vladimir -- only further honed his most dangerous and potent skill.

Odjick said Bure's "tortuous" six-day-a-week regimen started at 4 a.m. with a 5K run, followed by a slew of sprints and plyometrics. When Bure and his brother, fellow NHLer Valeri, would train with their dad, they'd sprinkle in a game of tennis and "Russian basketball," which is hockey played with a basketball, to end the day.

"It wasn't something that happened by fluke," Odjick said. "I think [Vlad] had a plan from the beginning to make them the best hockey players possible. Mission accomplished."

Bure's speed differentiated him from other stars in the game and allowed him to rack up points at a rapid clip.

"He had that top-end speed within a couple of seconds -- that's what separated him," Keenan said. "That's what gave him the distinct advantage at being a great goal scorer. He could be elusive because of his speed. That ability on its own, besides his stick skills, that ability to get out in the open and skate was just at times … it was breathtaking."

That magic was muddled, however, as his bad luck with injuries worsened after he arrived in New York. Acquired by the Rangers at the trade deadline in 2002, Bure struggled to remain healthy.

He was limited to 39 games in 2002-03, his first full season as a Ranger, and was declared medically unable to play the next season after failing a preseason physical.

Asked if he often thought about how his career would have turned out had he not been ravaged by knee injuries, Bure doesn't seem
melancholy. "Not really," he said.

But following his retirement announcement in 2005, not everyone in hockey was able to shake off the loss so nonchalantly.

"After he left Vancouver, I had already left too, but as a fan watching him, I was disappointed like everyone else," Quinn said. "We missed one of our best stars mature into an older player. Because of injuries, he had to quit at the height of his career and I'm disappointed that we missed that."

Both Quinn and Keenan likened Bure to Boston Bruins legend Bobby Orr in that sense -- a player in his prime felled by injuries.

"As hockey fans," Quinn said, "we feel shortchanged because he got hurt."

But Bure chooses not to dwell on what could have been. He prefers to think about the many memorable stops en route to an otherwise remarkable career.

"It's hard to pick one thing," Bure said of his proudest moment. "I have lots of memories. Playing in Vancouver; and I had a great time with Florida and with the Rangers. I met so many nice people, coaches and people all around hockey. There are so many things, I can't choose only one."

Bure's style of play was flashy, but when talking about being inducted into the Hall after his sixth year of eligibility, his demeanor is not.

He chuckled when asked about how he celebrated the news and instead recalled the phone call he received when the committee notified him of his selection.

"It's a huge honor to be named a Hall of Famer," said Bure, who will be joined at the ceremony in Toronto by his mother and other family members. "I'm just happy to join all the greatest hockey players in the game."

Odjick can tell some legendary stories about hanging out with Bure back in Moscow -- ask him about the time Bure had him detained by bodyguards at the airport when Odjick tried to leave the country after a three-day vodka-drinking binge. But Bure was a private, loyal guy whose inner circle changed about as little as his unwavering commitment to excel.

"I think what people never got to know is how badly he wanted to win,"
Odjick said.

Like Odjick, Keenan has kept in touch with Bure throughout the years and has an idea of what the Hall of Fame induction means to him.

"He wasn't very demonstrative in his feelings about it, but I know he's very pleased about it," he said. "It's a very big accomplishment."

Keenan had the chance to congratulate Bure in person while in Russia for an exhibition game commemorating previous Canada-Russia series.
Coaching against Bure just as he did in the 1994 Stanley Cup finals, Keenan was still awestruck by his ability.

"He was still spectacular," Keenan said.

Even in a game reserved for pageantry -- the game was held in honor of the victims and families of last year's Lokomotiv plane crash -- Keenan was irked that Bure managed four breakaways against his team and tweaked his strategy accordingly.

After the game, Bure seemed amused, noting Keenan's on-the-fly adjustments.

"That's good coaching," Bure told Keenan.

Keenan replied, "I know you too well."

A coach never forgets the indelible mark made by some of his favorite charges, and Bure definitely qualifies. To see him awarded with the game's highest individual honor, well, it's about time.

"You always hope they receive the recognition," Keenan said. "And he certainly deserves it."