"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."