As the charter jet whisked him from the fetid atmosphere surrounding the Boston Bruins into the crisp, rarefied air of a Stanley Cup run with the Colorado Avalanche, the man whose principles had always been in the full upright-and-locked position listened hard. Raymond Bourque had lived through almost everything in more than two decades playing in the NHL, but not this, not a trade. Now Dave Andreychuk, heading west with Bourque to his fifth team, explained the facts of life of the athletically displaced, telling Bourque how his wife would feel, how important it is to stay in close touch with his three children, how unnerving a new locker room and new teammates would seem at first. Bourque nodded. He was exhausted yet exhilarated, anxious not about joining a new club but about getting on the ice with a team that had a chance to win. He was simmering with almost every emotion—except guilt.
Bourque had finally swallowed hard and suppressed that guilt, winning a monthlong battle with himself that culminated on Feb. 28 when he called Bruins president Harry Sinden and asked to be traded. Few men are more steadfast than Bourque. He met his wife, Christiane, when they were 11 and dated her from the time he was 16 until he married her five years later. He turned down several invitations to play for Canada in the 1996 World Cup because the tournament schedule interfered with family time in the summer. He had suffered the downturn in Boston's fortunes over the last 10 seasons stoically. He was true-blue; he was Bruins black-and-gold.
If any player could resist the siren call of the Cup, if anyone could spot the narcissism lurking behind the popular conceit that noble veterans—the Marinos, the Barkleys, the Bourques—deserve a championship, it was he. But he was 39 and human and playing for a team that had won only eight games since Thanksgiving. Bourque, who had played more games than any other player never to have won the Cup, finally succumbed to ego and decided to take one final stab at glory. He would be a late-season Rent-a-Ray. The third-best defenseman in NHL history (behind Bobby Orr and Doug Harvey), the man who ranks third in games played for a single team (box, page 77), elected to talk in the third person, saying at his first press conference as a member of the Avalanche, on March 6, that he'd requested a trade to find out "what's left in Ray Bourque."
"This was a selfish move in terms of my career," Bourque said three days later, as he twirled the ice in the bottom of his soda glass in Edmonton. "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."
With the NHL's absurdly late March 14 trading deadline approaching (about 85% of the regular season passes before that date), Colorado general manager Pierre Lacroix preempted Western Conference powers such as the Dallas Stars, the Detroit Red Wings and the St. Louis Blues by making a deal that was considerably more daring than the old Bourque. The risk wasn't so much in the talent Lacroix ceded—winger Brian Rolston, who couldn't play on the Avalanche's top two lines; 22-year-old prospect Sami Pahlsson, a projected third-line center from Sweden who offers hockey smarts but middling offense; 6'5" junior defenseman Martin Grenier, who needs to improve his skating; and a No. 1 draft pick—as in the contract status of his new stars. The 36-year-old Andreychuk, who at week's end had 551 NHL goals and more points as a left wing than Bobby Hull, and the redoubtable Bourque could walk away at the end of the season as unrestricted free agents. On the other hand Colorado, in seventh place in the conference and clinging to a playoff spot by two points on the day of the trade, looked like early-round fodder unless Lacroix made a big move. Now, riding a five-game winning streak through Sunday, Colorado had leaped to third in the conference and become a force to be reckoned with.
Lacroix is a man of bold schemes and grand gestures. He made a dramatic deal three weeks before the trading deadline a year ago, acquiring another big name, wing Theo Fleury, from the Calgary Flames. The gamble seemed to work well at first when Fleury scored 10 goals in 15 regular-season games and another five in his first nine playoff matches as the Avalanche stunned the Red Wings in the second round. Then Fleury inexplicably failed to score in his last nine postseason games; Colorado lost the conference finals in seven to the eventual Cup champion, Dallas. "Getting Theo was huge," defenseman Aaron Miller says, "but he gave us more of what we had, another guy who could carry the puck. We had four or five guys who could do that. Ray and Dave give us another dimension."
The 6'4", 220-pound Andreychuk, who has 19 goals this season, is the Denver Boot, a winger who can park himself in front of the net and bang in passes or rebounds, a dirty job only Adam Deadmarsh among the Avalanche had deigned to do. Bourque provides his new team with a calming presence on a defense corps that was led by the spectacular but skittish Sandis Ozolinsh, who often gives both teams a good chance to win. "Ozolinsh on the point of the power play had to do it all," Miller says. "What's he going to do now, not pass it to Ray Bourque?"
Bourque also provides, in the words of Colorado goalie Patrick Roy, "a spark" in the dressing room. The rich, musky smell of entitlement has hung over the Avalanche, not surprising given the extraordinary talent on hand—Roy, Ozolinsh and centers Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic, plus dandy young forwards such as Chris Drury and Milan Hejduk—but hardly justified given Colorado's spotty playoff performances since winning the Cup in 1996 and its uninspired effort this season until the big trade. The Avalanche has been dinged by injury (Sakic and Forsberg had played in the same game just 26 times this season), but some of the damage was self-inflicted. "In the past 4� years we've done pretty well, and we started to play easy," defenseman Adam Foote says. "We let our talent do the work. We've been known to coast. We needed a jolt. Why waste something good?"
Bourque wondered himself. Three years ago when Boston finished with 61 points and missed the playoffs for the first time in 30 seasons, he considered asking out but soldiered on. "My wife and I weren't ready," he says. "I didn't have it in me yet." He was a not-quite-so-hoary 36 then, but the Bruins offered not even a whiff of hope that they would be ready to challenge for a Cup before Bourque qualified for senior discounts at the drugstore. Perhaps the difference was that Bourque could stomach a team that lost games, not one that was losing its dignity and hope as the 1999-2000 team had.
There wasn't a single moment, defeat, blowup or controversy that drove Bourque from Boston. He had been made unhappy last month when absentee owner Jeremy Jacobs publicly assailed coach Pat Burns while giving his blessing to Sinden and assistant general manager Mike O'Connell. ( Bourque has always loathed finger-pointing.) There were many reasons for his gloom: the off-season loss of free agents Tim Taylor and Dmitri Khristich, the tardy re-signing of goalie Byron Dafoe, injuries to forwards Jason Allison and Anson Carter, and forward Joe Murphy's much-publicized insubordination toward Burns. Bourque connected the dots, which formed an outline of a team in turmoil. He had ennobled the Bruins since the Carter Administration, but now he was being dragged into the muck, playing well only three of every five games, by his own estimation. "The atmosphere wasn't good," he says. "I needed to get out for my own head. I wasn't as consistent, wasn't as sharp. That was mental. To get the best out of myself, I needed a different environment. If I had stayed in Boston, I wouldn't have played next year. I would've called it quits."