Why Ray Bourque's steady greatness may have topped Bobby Orr's meteoric flash.
If you grow up in Boston, from your very first step into a rink you come by several pieces of knowledge: A goal for your side is good, and Bobby Orr was easily the greatest defenseman ever to play the game. Anyone who claims he was also not the greatest all-round player in NHL history is worthy of a cup of coffee being launched their way.
Forty-five years ago, Orr and his Bruins had a season that ought to have been one for the ages. A campaign that stamped this team as one of the all-time best, up there with the 1976-77 Canadiens and the ’83-84 Oilers. We think of that latter crew as just about the foremost offense that has ever been, with its ridiculous gaggle of Hall of Famers and mega-wattage star power. Prime Gretzky, Kurri, Messier, Anderson, Coffey. Wagon with a capital W.
But Orr’s 1970-71 Bruins squad lit up the league in a way even those Oilers, did not. Orr had arguably his best ever campaign, piling in 37 goals along with 102 assists (no one had ever hit the century mark for helpers), to take second place in the scoring race behind teammate Phil Esposito, who feasted off Orr passes and the rebounds of Orr slap shots to the extent of 152 points.
Espo and Orr had a knack for finishing 1-2 in the Art Ross standings. As the Geico commercials might say, it’s what you did if you were them. Which is mind-blowing. But that's not where things really get wacky with that Bruins team. It also had the third and fourth highest scorers in the league, in Johnny Bucyk (116 points) and Ken Hodge (105), respectively. Wayne Cashman (79) ranked seventh, John McKenzie (77) eighth, Fred Stanfield (76) tied for ninth. Seven of the top 10 scorers in the league were Bruins. One could argue that in the context of the NHL as it was at that time, no team was ever as dominant offensively as the '70-71 Bruins.
And yet, ah, and yet: They gagged it up come playoff time versus a Canadiens team that featured a disgruntled Jean Béliveau in his last go-round, and a rookie goalie named Ken Dryden who had gone a tidy 6-0 during the regular season and basically, during that playoff year, gave us the forever true trope, “Yeah, but a hot goalie can steal a series.”
The Orr Bruins had won the Stanley Cup the year before, and they’d do so again the year after Dryden and Co. dispatched them in seven first round games. They’d reach one more final, and lose to the Flyers in '74. Orr’s career, of course, was truncated by his knee issues, but it was all prime, with one Norris Trophy after another—a given, really—like he was Sandy Koufax without the apprentice years, and every season was like what the hurler achieved in, say, 1965, with the nearly 400 strikeouts and nearly 30 wins. Un-freaking-touchable.
GALLERY: Bobby Orr Through The Years
Right? Well, yes, in a way, but in another way, touchable, maybe even surpassable, depending on how you view careers. Orr’s teams underachieved, in the sense that they never became dynastic. Instead, they had a run of two Cups in three years. A run is different than a bona fide dynasty of the kind the Canadiens had, and the go-go-go pace of the regular season, with Orr’s headlong, driving rushes down the ice and his mad scurries back towards his own end, to dispossess a rusher of the puck, might have had something to do with it.
That aforementioned forward would be caught unawares, the biscuit would no longer be his, and Orr would be swiftly headed towards the attacking zone, seemingly all in one motion. Thrilling. And unlike anything you would ever see at the rink. But, so was, on its whole, Ray Bourque’s career.
Bourque was Boston’s other great defenseman, a magisterial, super smooth stalwart who nonetheless has always been cloaked in a touch of shadow. Everyone agrees that Gretzky, Orr, Lemieux, and Howe, in some order, are the four best players in league history. But even an Orr-lover could argue that Bourque’s career, on balance, as a guy you’d want to have around for 20 years as your team’s benchmark, puts him in a discussion for the fifth best player. And if you had a choice of Orr’s career, or Bourque’s, and you were a GM who was like the overlord on high, picking teams to do battle for all time from your misty mountain, you could well go with Bourque rather than the vaunted #4.
GALLERY: Classic SI Photos of Ray Bourque
Bourque boosters like to grumble about how he should have beaten out Messier for the MVP in 1989-90. You did have the sense that voters were fan boy struck by Messier, and he was the BMOC, all brawn, iron jaw, crushing hits, feathery passes, raw speed and power, that made him the mega-cool kid at the varsity table. And he led the Oilers to the Cup without Gretzky. But as great as Bourque was that season, he was even better in the next.
By the end of the '89-90 season, Bourque had produced 19 goals, 65 assists, 84 points, a +31, and appeared to never leave the ice. He remained on it just as much the next season, when he upped his totals to 21 goals, 73 assists, 94 points, and +33. In both seasons he won the Norris, and was in the top five for the Hart.
But Bourque’s primary, defining, separating brilliance isn’t the in-season breakdown. It is the run from season to season to season, even from one decade to another, of a career that lasted for 21 years and featured—and this may be the most underrated stat in league history—19 first or second team All-Star appearances.
This means that in every year, save two, of a 21-season career, Ray Bourque was viewed as one of the top four defenseman in the league. He controlled the game with more economy than Orr, albeit less flash, for his was a game of angles, sharp radial turns, half-slappers that always found their way on net. No one was ever better at getting a shot from the point through defensive waves.
And Bourque, even more than Coffey, was the grand vizier of the outlet pass, putting thousands and thousands of pucks on the black of stick tape after having flown out from behind his own net and spotted a forward breaking towards center ice. When we talk about the stretch pass today, we might as well call it the Bourque Pass, like something out of Bram Stoker’s heated imagination, were he a hockey fan.
Bourque only won the one Cup, and he needed a trade to Colorado before he could lift it, and his Calder Trophy only happened because Gretzky’s WHA service time made him ineligible for the award. But man, those postseason All-Star nods. The 1980s and '90s were a golden age for defenseman. We are talking serious studs. Coffey, Chris Chelios, Mark Howe, Al MacInnis, Brian Leetch, Rod Langway, Larry Murphy, Nicklas Lidstrom, Denis Potvin, Rob Blake, Larry Robinson, Chris Pronger, and still, there is Bourque, year in, year out. There may be no finer hockey ever played than the 1987 Canada Cup, and if you watch those games, Bourque is Team Canada’s lynchpin, and no worse than their third best player behind prime-era Gretzky and prime-entering Lemieux.
As a kid, you dreamed of being Orr, because who wouldn’t want a career that is that exciting, a career that is all peak? But what if you could have a peak that wasn’t quite as high, but which you sustained for a fifth of a century? Isn’t that a sort of peak of peaks in and of itself? That is some top-level mountaineering, though arguing that particular point may still may require you to duck as a coffee cup flies your way.