2001 Sportsman of the Year
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Man on a Mission

The distinguished defenseman from Boston arrived in Colorado with a heavy heart, a fresh spirit and a singular purpose: to hoist the Stanley Cup

By Mark Bechtel

Issue date: June 20, 2001

Sports Illustrated Flashback When it came to getting traded, the guy sitting next to Ray Bourque was an old hand. Dave Andreychuk, flying across North America in a chartered jet in March 2000, was on his way to his fifth team in an 18-year NHL career. Bourque, on the other hand, had been monogamous for 20 years, a Boston Bruin for better (two trips to the Stanley Cup finals) or worse (in '97 the Bruins missed the playoffs for the first time in 30 years); richer (he was the NHL's highest-paid defenseman at age 24) or poorer (as a homesick rookie he spent $185 a month talking to his dad on the phone); in sickness (Detroit's Denis Polonich broke his jaw with a punch in a 1980 fight) and in health (he regularly played more than 30 minutes a game). But as he and Andreychuk headed out to join their new team, the Avalanche, Bourque leaned heavily on his well-traveled teammate to sort out the emotions that being traded evoked.

Bourque had broken into the NHL with Boston in 1979 -- the same year Larry Bird debuted with the Celtics. In the Hub he had been an 18-time All-Star and won a Calder Trophy and five Norris Trophies. Yet for all those achievements, the city never conferred upon him the mythic status of Bird or another Bruins defenseman, Bobby Orr, who led Boston to its last two Stanley Cups, in '70 and '72. "Ray Bourque has never gotten his due in this town," said Bruins general manager Harry Sinden after Bourque became the team's alltime leading scorer in 1997. "And he probably never will."

The consummate team player, Bourque was far more interested in getting a Stanley Cup than in getting his due. But by late February 2000 it was clear that he wasn't going to get either. With the Bruins in disarray -- they had missed the playoffs for only the second time in 33 years the season before and were bickering more than Destiny's Child -- Bourque asked Sinden for a trade. The general manager obliged, shopping him to five teams with reasonable shots at the Cup. The best offer came from the Avalanche: Brian Rolston, two prospects and a first-round draft pick for Bourque and Andreychuk, a 36-year-old forward. "This was a selfish move in terms of my career," Bourque said. "I know it's a shocker that I made a move like this, because everything I've ever done in my life has been safe, safe, safe."

He gave two reasons for asking out: "To challenge for the Cup and to see what is left in Ray Bourque." Not that challenging for the Cup was a given with the underachieving Avs, who when the deal was made were just two points removed from ninth place in the Western Conference. There was going to have to be plenty left in Ray Bourque if Colorado was going to make a strong push for the Cup.

Bourque estimated that during his last days in Boston, he was playing well in three of every five games. "The atmosphere wasn't good," he said during the 1999-2000 season. "I wasn't as consistent, wasn't as sharp. That was mental. To get the best out of myself, I needed a different environment." Which isn't to say that leaving Boston, let alone asking to leave Boston, was easy. Bourque has a way of becoming attached to things -- like the beat-up yellow pillow he slept with as a kid, the one he made his dad bring to him in Trois-Rivieres during his Junior A days, the one he continued to sleep with as a Bruin. But just as he did when he was 15, he put his emotions aside, went out on the ice and excelled. The day after the trade he made his Colorado debut, in Calgary. Though he pulled a muscle in warmups, he didn't say anything until after the second period, when the game was in hand. Bourque was +4 and had an assist in the Avs' 8-3 win. He wasn't the only one on the ice to feel rejuvenated. "He gave us so much life," defenseman Aaron Miller said. "You see the energy in that game? It was almost like guys were trying to impress Ray. Like, Look at me! See what I can do!"

When the trade was made, Edmonton Oilers president Glen Sather said of the Avalanche, "There are so many stars there now, they'll be bumping into one another." If anything, though, the Avs' big shots fell over each other trying to appease the new guy. Fifteen minutes after the deal was consummated, Patrick Roy, Adam Foote and Dave Reid phoned Bourque from the team's Calgary hotel. Joe Sakic offered to give up his captain's C, and Adam Deadmarsh, whose pregame ritual required him to be the first player onto the ice after that night's starting goalie, offered to cede that honor to Bourque, who held the same superstition. Ever the team player, Bourque graciously declined both offers.

Colorado went 12-2-1 after the trade, won the Northwest Division and advanced to the conference finals, losing to Dallas in seven games. Though Bourque could have become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, he signed a one-year deal with the Avs. "I think people who know me well enough know that when I am happy and trustful, I will be there," he said. "We competed for the Stanley Cup, and it rejuvenated my game. I feel we've got some unfinished business."

This season proved to be the 40-year-old Bourque's best since '95-96, as he led the Avs in minutes played and went to his 19th straight All-Star Game. Meanwhile, back in Boston, little had changed in the wake of his departure. By unloading Bourque and Andreychuk, the Bruins had freed up millions, but they had squandered most of it on over-the-hill defenseman Paul Coffey. When Bourque and his teammates made their only trip of the season to Boston, on March 24, the B's were nearly as rudderless as when Bourque had left. "The players were so in awe of Ray, and so many of them would wait to see what he did or said before they did anything," said Sinden. "He had such an aura. It was a thing the players couldn't get over until he was gone."

The fans were still in awe too: 10,000 were in their seats for the pregame skate at the Fleet Center, and signs reading EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND were scattered throughout the rink. Bourque kept his emotions in check and assisted on two goals in a 4-2 win. "In a lot of ways I'll always be a Bruin," he said. Boston finished tied for the final playoff spot with Carolina but had fewer wins and thus missed the postseason. The Avs, meanwhile, finished with the league's best record, meaning they would have home ice advantage throughout their run at Bourque's elusive Cup.

Bourque was as solid in the playoffs as he had been in the regular season, winning Game 3 of the finals with a perfectly placed slap shot past New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur. After the Avs clinched Game 7, Sakic, in his role as captain, received the Stanley Cup from commissioner Gary Bettman. Without pausing, he handed it like a hot potato to Bourque, allowing him to be the first to hoist and kiss it. As the old man and the trophy made their way around the Pepsi Center ice, some 2,000 miles west of the city where he had toiled for 20 years, it was clear that Ray Bourque had finally found his due.

Issue date: June 20, 2001

 

   
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