Where He Stands
He may not have been Bobby Orr, but has anyone been a better all-around blueliner than Ray Bourque?
By Michael Farber
Issue date: June 20, 2001
Michel Bergeron has had more agreeable traveling companions than the 15-year-old in the passenger seat, leaking tears from his blue-gray eyes as the miles clicked by. This was a quarter century ago, and Bergeron, then the coach and general manager of Trois-Rivieres of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, had just acquired a winger from Sorel named Benoit Gosselin in exchange for this lachrymose defenseman riding next to him, a young man who couldn't stop weeping no matter how many times Bergeron would say, "No problem." This kid had such promise, and Bergeron loved that potential, but in junior hockey you play it one year at a time, and Trois-Rivieres was stacked on the blue line. He couldn't count on this fresh-faced defenseman to win him a league title; but out of respect for his talent, Bergeron was personally driving him to his new team.
When Bergeron returned home late, drained physically and emotionally, his wife asked, "Where were you?"
"Sorel," replied the Little Tiger, who would go on to coach the Quebec Nordiques and the New York Rangers. "I just traded Raymond Bourque there."
"Didn't you say he was going to be an All-Star?"
Indeed he had, and Bergeron would prove prescient. Foolish, but prescient. Bourque would not be traded again until 25 years later, when the Avalanche rescued him from the wreckage of the Boston Bruins on March 6, 2000. He would be a first- or second-team All-Star 17 times in his first 21 NHL seasons. He would win five Norris Trophies, finishing as runner-up four times. He would become the highest-scoring defenseman in league history. He would rank among the top 10 regular-season and playoff scorers and play in 1,826 NHL games, exactly 1,819 more than Gosselin, a Rangers draft pick who spent most of his career in the minors.
Out of respect for the man there will be no shrill arguments here about Bourque's place in history; he is simply not the argumentative type. He has always been quiet and steadfast, rarely given to oversized gestures and raised voices. Nor, until this year, was he given to raised Stanley Cup banners, a fact that should not, yet inevitably does, impact his place in the pantheon of NHL defensemen. There are numbers to crunch, memories to dredge, generations to compare, longevity to factor in, impressions to compute. It is less than meaningful to juxtapose Bourque's career and that of, say, the preternaturally mean Eddie Shore, whose last year in the NHL was 1940, or other stalwarts from the daguerreotype days of Ching Johnson, King Clancy and Babe Siebert and Earl Seibert, an era in which defensemen rarely joined the attack. For the purposes of this civil discussion (no arguments, remember?) the only defensemen under consideration come from the past half century.
Bobby Orr was the best. Although he played less than half as long as Bourque -- and even then on knees that limited him to merely nine sterling seasons -- Orr reinvented the game. The former Bruin nobly expanded on the work begun by Doug Harvey, the former Montreal Canadiens star who won seven of eight Norris Trophies between 1955 and '62 by rushing the puck and joining the attack at every opportune moment, adding the phrase "offensive defenseman" to the hockey lexicon. He belongs next to Orr on our alltime list.
Now the gentle debate gets interesting.
Bourque, a superb three-zone defenseman, was no pioneer. He merely took the assorted arts of the late 20th century defenseman -- the physical play, the first pass out of the defensive zone, the puck carrying, the blast from the blue line -- and performed them, in concert, as well as anyone. The 40-year-old Bourque has the perfect physique for a defenseman, a low center of gravity and a trademark thickness through the thighs and rump. (When asked during the Western Conference finals if he would get in the way of a 100-mile-per-hour shot by St. Louis Blues defenseman Al MacInnis, Bourque replied that he would, but only with his butt, the one place he couldn't get hurt.) Bourque's greatest contribution to the game might have been his stamina; not only did he fashion a career that touched four decades, but he also played almost 30 minutes a night, leaving every ounce of sweat on the ice.
"I used to have this argument about Gordie Howe," says Phil Esposito, the Hall of Fame center for whom Bourque gave up his number 7 -- Espo's old number -- and switched to number 77. "I mean, how can you go against [Wayne] Gretzky? You can't. But no forward played so well for so long as Howe. Bourque's like that. He's played 22 years and looks like he can play two more. In my second year [as Tampa Bay Lightning general manager] we were up 3-2 with four minutes left, and Ray stayed out there and scored in the last minute to send the game into overtime. In overtime he's out there for the first three minutes until he scores to win it. Never left the ice."
Says Bergeron, "To me the difference between Ray and Larry Robinson [a Hall of Fame defenseman with Montreal] is that in his prime, before Colorado, Ray never played for a really good team and never played with really good partners. Robinson had Guy Lapointe, another Hall of Fame guy. Ray had Gord Kluzak and Don Sweeney, good players but not star players. Even when he went to the finals [with the Bruins in 1988 and 1990], he wasn't playing for good teams, just hardworking ones. He'd still be the best defenseman on at least 16 of the teams right now. That's why I think that since the 1967 expansion, Ray is the best behind Orr."
There would be considerable harrumphing on Long Island, where New York Islanders fans, assuming there are any left, would stump for Denis Potvin, a seven-time All-Star and three-time Norris winner who was a more punishing hitter than Bourque and the cornerstone of four straight Cups in the early 1980s. In Montreal, Bourque's hometown, there would be some sentiment for Robinson, the Big Bird, who played on six Cup winners and made as many All-Star teams. There might be a coterie of supporters for Paul Coffey, Serge Savard and maybe even Brad Park, an Orr contemporary and the best defenseman not to win a Norris Trophy.
"Bourque got in during what was still the early days of the offensive defenseman," former NHL coach Harry Neale says. "He was better than Coffey defensively, not as good offensively, but he logged a lot of time. I'd say overall Ray would rank anywhere from fourth to eighth alltime, and that's including Shore. The last 50 years you take Orr, Harvey, Robinson, Potvin and Bourque, you'd be pretty happy with your defense."
Bourque's emotional Cup victory added one final line on his resume, something that meant more to him than it will to hockey historians. If the word carpetbagger crossed anyone's mind in 2000, when he reluctantly asked to be traded to a contender, it should have been erased forever by Boston's giddy response to Colorado's Cup win. Bourque might be second-team, alltime, on the ice, but given his popularity, he is a first-teamer in the heart.
Issue date: June 20, 2001