An Ageless Wonder
The absolute model of consistency on the ice, Ray Bourque gave the Bruins everything he had; he just couldn't give them a Cup
By Leigh Montville
Issue date: February 17, 1997
He comes into the locker room every night to talk to the reporters. No matter what. The other players on the Boston Bruins mostly avoid that scene these days, dressing in a hurry in another room at the FleetCenter, leaving with their hair still wet from the shower, gone before the embarrassing questions can be asked about another loss. Raymond Bourque always appears. He is the constant.
"Raymond, what happened on that third goal? Was it deflected?"
"Raymond, the team seemed a little flat tonight. How could it be flat?"
He stands in front of his locker with a towel wrapped around his waist. The reporters surround him, completing a familiar picture filled with microphones and nodding heads. In his early years in pro hockey, he was almost overwhelmingly shy, fearing these moments far more than a three-on-two rush by the Montreal Canadiens, but he has beaten that back, overcome it with time. He speaks easily now, in a soft, unemotional voice. There simply is not much to say.
"You keep telling the same stories, saying the same things," Bourque says as the elevator keeps going down, as the young Bruins, their roster filled with obscure names, fall closer and closer to missing the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in 30 years. "I'd rather not come out and talk. I'd rather just play, have fun, go home and be with my family. But I do what I have to." No complaints. No whining.
He could be excused from this nightly ritual of self-flagellation--excused because he is 36 years old, excused because he has been named either a first- or second-team All-Star in his 17 full seasons with the Bruins, excused because he recently became the team's alltime leading scorer (a remarkable feat for a defenseman), excused because he is playing as well as ever--but excuses are not part of his package. If this is where he is supposed to be, answering the difficult questions, then this is where he is.
Good times or bad, he is the same. He is always the same. That is his strength.
"Guys come up to me, and they say, 'Raymond's playing as well now as he ever did,'" Bruins president and general manager Harry Sinden says. "I say, 'You told me the same thing last year. You've been telling me the same thing every year now for 18 years.'"
Eighteen years? Can it be that long?
"I came down to Boston with Brad McCrimmon for a press conference in 1979, after we'd both been drafted in the first round," Bourque says. "After the press conference [veteran winger] Wayne Cashman took us across the street to the Fours restaurant for lunch. I'm 18 years old. McCrimmon's 19. Cashman starts buying us beers and telling terrific stories about Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito and the rest. More terrific stories. More beers. We're supposed to be flying home at four o'clock, but Cashman says, 'Forget that. We're playing softball tonight.' Sure enough, McCrimmon and I wind up someplace in the suburbs, our heads just buzzing, at some celebrity softball game. First day as a Bruin."
He skated into the substantial shadow left behind by Orr and simply stayed. John Wensink, the resident tough guy at the time, told Bourque at his first training camp to "just play your game and don't worry about the rest of the stuff. We'll take care of that." O.K., he has played his game. He has been, for lack of a better analogy, the Bruins' version of Carl Yastrzemski, replacing Ted Williams in leftfield at Fenway Park. Bourque is not as flashy or as dynamic as Orr, but he has played his position with a workman's honesty, a consistency best appreciated over weeks and months and years.
He has played on the power play, has killed penalties, has been put on the ice against the flashiest first-line forwards. Maybe no one in NHL history has played more minutes. On the easy nights he averages 30 minutes, half the game. On the difficult nights, the close games, he plays 38, 39, 40 minutes. In the plus-minus ratings, through Sunday, Bourque was +523 for his career. The same. Always the same.
"We'd be ahead by a goal, and I'd put him out there, and I wouldn't look at him," says former Bruins coach Gerry Cheevers, who guided the team from 1980 to '85. "His face would be turning colors, and I wouldn't look, in case he signaled that he wanted to come out. I'd just want him out there."
"His mouth opens when he finally starts to get tired," former teammate Gord Kluzak says. "I think coaches wait until his chin drops all the way to his chest before they call him to the bench."
There has been no special move that defined him, no "Bourque 360," no grand signature. Instead there have been all the moves, pared down to their essence, distilled. Bourque is the superstar as craftsman, not entertainer. His shot consistently has won the accuracy contest at the All-Star skills competition. His size--he's 5'11" and 214 pounds--has allowed him to ride approaching skaters away from the action. His head, always thinking defense first, has kept him in position.
"Here's what he does better than anyone in the NHL ever did," Kluzak says. "He can slam a guy with the puck into the boards, take the puck away and start skating up the ice. Most defensemen are going to take either the man or the puck. Ray does both."
His life has been as tidy as his performance on the ice. The same maturity has been at work. His father, Raymond Sr., thinks the fact that Ray's mother, Anita, died of cancer when the boy was 12 made him grow up fast. Ray was the fourth of five kids, then ages 10 to 16, in a Montreal household. Raymond Sr. adds that other factors probably contributed to Ray's maturity. He was a listener, taking advice easily. He was a worker. He also was away from home by 14, playing Junior A hockey in Three Rivers, Quebec. Away from home? He was traded 10 days after his 15th birthday. That will make you grow up in a hurry.
"The day was January 8th," Bourque says. "Ten o'clock at night, I get a call to see our coach, Michel Bergeron, who later coached the [Quebec] Nordiques. I was playing pool with some other guys from the team. We were in first place. He tells me I had been traded to Sorel, which was just about last. I couldn't believe it. I started crying. The next night I played for Sorel."
"Bergeron was looking for 19-year-olds to win the Memorial Cup," Raymond Sr. says. "Didn't do it either. I see him sometimes, and he still says that was the worst trade he ever made."
By the time Ray was 20 he owned his first house, in Danvers. He wanted to rent from Wensink, who had been traded, but Wensink wanted to sell. Bourque bought, living for a year with teammate Steve Kasper, who is now the Bruins' coach. By the time Bourque was 21, he was married. He had known his wife, Christiane, since they were 11 years old, skating at the same neighborhood rink in Montreal. ["It's great when you marry someone you have known that long," Bourque says. "We go back to Montreal, and we don't have to visit her friends and then my friends, because they're all our friends, the same friends."]
The years and seasons simply followed, piling up, with a curious lack of fanfare for such a public person. Bourque's Bruins teams mostly have been middle-of-the-pack outfits, low on scoring, low on something, but never really bad. There were two runs to the Stanley Cup finals, in 1988 and 1990, but both ended with blowouts by the Edmonton Oilers, who were almost invincible. Bourque simply has kept going, doing the same good things.
He and Christiane, who didn't know a word of English when she arrived in Boston, lived in the Wensink house for 11 years. They had a daughter, Melissa, and then a son, Christopher, and built an addition to the house. Then their second son, Ryan, arrived. Ray decided to have a new house built. He bought a lot in the Boston suburb of Boxford. The lot was across the street from the house of former Bruins great Johnny Bucyk. Bourque now lives across the street from Bucyk. Bourque broke the Bruins scoring record of 1,339 points on Feb. 1 with a goal in a 3-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. The record had belonged to Bucyk. Tidy. Everything tidy.
"I've seen every one of those points, every game Raymond has played," Bucyk, a commentator on Bruins radio broadcasts, says. "Great player. Great neighbor."
"It's all been amazing to me," Bourque says. "I was just trying to play in this league. That's all I ever wanted. I've sort of seen the end of one era in this sport, the beginning of another. I came in, and I was making $100,000, and that was great. Then salaries went up, and guys were making $500,000, and that was great. Now they're making millions, and it's great. It's all so much more than I ever expected." [Bourque is in the fourth year of a five-year, $12.5 million contract.]
He finally is getting the same kind of acclaim that Yastrzemski got, his career numbers having grown so large that they cannot be ignored. He plans to play at least two more seasons, during which he will hit an assortment of milestones. The scoring record will be only one of a list of Bruins career marks he will hold.
"The most remarkable thing is how long he has been this good," Sinden says. "He came to Boston the same year Larry Bird came, and Bird is long gone. To think of the things that can happen with injury, age, whatever, and to see zero slippage, zero, it's a remarkable story. Who's been like Ray? Gordie Howe. Maybe the shortstop in Baltimore. And his demeanor, his manner, have been beyond reproach. You see what's happening in sports and then to see him--it's corny, but he's a credit to this profession, this professional athlete profession."
The one record Bourque has but would like to change is Most seasons, one team, never won Stanley Cup--Raymond Bourque, Boston, 17. That does not appear likely to change. The Bruins, who at week's end were 20-27-7 and tied for last place with the Ottawa Senators in the Northeast Division, are doomed to play 19 of their final 28 games on the road. The team probably will finish lower than any of Bourque's previous teams. The future does not look much brighter.
If he were a different sort of superstar, he would be dropping sly little requests to be traded, using the old "I want a ring before I retire" strategy, but that is not the craftsman's style. Move? He did that when he was 15 and didn't like it. His home is here. His life is here. Is a ring more important than a home and a life?
"My wife and the kids and I always would go back to Montreal for the summer," he says. "We had a house up there too. About four years ago, though, when we built the house in Boxford, we sold the house in Montreal. We realized this is where our kids go to school, where their friends are. This is their home. We've stayed here year-round ever since."
What other decision could he make? He is Raymond Bourque. He has played with 244 Bruins teammates and for nine Bruins coaches. He has missed only 122 games out of 1,394 because of injury. He is here for the long ride. This is where he is supposed to be. This is where he is.
Issue date: February 17, 1997