Glen Ringdal's job suddenly got much easier on Oct. 31, 1991. That was the day the Vancouver Canucks signed Pavel Bure. At long last Ringdal, the Canucks' marketing director, had someone to market.
Asked to name the players who preceded Bure (rhymes with HOO-ray) on Vancouver's list of stars, Ringdal answers tactfully. "Harold Snepsts was very popular," he says, referring to the glowering, unibrowed defenseman who played 12 years for the Canucks. "The fans went crazy when he scored a goal."
And? "Stan Smyl was a crowd favorite." Smyl, a Canuck from 1978-79 to '90-91, was a bent-nosed forward from northern Alberta beloved for his work ethic and grit. "And of course Trevor is very popular." Trevor Linden, a more skilled version of Smyl, is Vancouver's current captain.
Finally, the tact gives way to candor. "I guess there were no real stars before Pavel, who holds the audience captive every time the puck is on his stick," says Ringdal. "The fans liked Harold. What you have with Pavel is more of an idolization, like you get with certain musical artists. Like you got with Elvis."
Hyperbole? Two thousand people attended Bure's first practice in Vancouver, on Nov. 3, 1991. The freebie 8-by 10-inch glossies of Bure that the Canucks once distributed before home games now sell for up to $25 on the memorabilia market. There was such a crush for the pictures, says Ringdal, that "the people handing them out were getting mauled."
Vancouverites could hardly be blamed for overreacting. They were superstar virgins. Citizens of this coniferous jewel of a city, which has a major league team only in hockey, had never seen Bure's like in a Canuck uniform: a game breaker, a dangerous, attacking player capable of scoring from anywhere without help from anyone. "He can take the puck from behind our net, carry it down the ice and score," says Linden. "That's rare."
That's Bure. With 24 goals at the end of last week, he was on a pace to score 81 this season. In their 22-year, Stanley Cup-less history, the Canucks have never had a 50-goal scorer. Until Bure won last year's Calder Trophy as the league's best rookie, no Vancouver player had ever won an NHL postseason award. Linden, the Canucks' former glamour-puss, now gets letters like this one:
You've always been my favorite Canuck, so could you get me Pavel's autograph?
"Humbling," says Linden. Overwhelming, admits Bure, who has hired someone to deal with the sacks of fan mail. The Russian Rocket, as Bure has been christened locally, is seen all over town. There he is, decked out to resemble James Dean, in a fashion spread in Western Living magazine, which gushed, "We think [Dean's] Little Boy Lost good looks have been reincarnated in Pavel Bure." And there he is in Canuck ads in bus shelters and on billboards: Where Linden's photo once appeared, there is now a picture of Bure, a rocket on his back, with a caption reading, WE HAVE LIFTOFF.
But Bure has a confession to make in his fast improving English: "In Russia, I was not Rocket. I was just regular guy."
Back then he lived at home in a Moscow suburb with his brother and parents, drove a Lada and played for the Central Red Army team. His future was bright: Along with Alexander Mogilny and Sergei Fedorov, Bure was being groomed by Red Army coach Viktor Tikhonov to replace the legendary K-L-M line of Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov. Glasnost, however, laid waste to Tikhonov's plans. Mogilny defected to play for the Buffalo Sabres in 1989; Fedorov signed with the Detroit Red Wings the next year. In August 1991, on the eve of the Canada Cup tournament, Bure was told to sign a document that would have bound him to the Red Army club for another three years. He refused, and the team left for Canada without him.
One month later Bure, his father, Vladimir, and his hockey-playing brother, Valeri (box, page 57), were on a flight to Los Angeles. Pavel's mother, Tanya, followed them to North America two months later.
Perhaps the only people more surprised than the Red Army brass by the dramatic flight of the Bures were the Canucks, who had selected Pavel in the sixth round of the 1989 NHL draft. They hadn't expected to see him for another year or two, and his arrival in the U.S. caught them off-guard.
Ron Salcer, a Los Angeles-based sports agent who had been matched up with the Bures by Serge Levin, a Russian èmigrè living in L.A., took over. He put the Bures up in an apartment and began the tortuous process of getting Pavel signed with the Canucks. To sign Bure the Canucks had to grapple with both the NHL (the league wouldn't allow Vancouver to negotiate with Bure until the Canucks got permission to do so from the Red Army team) and the Soviet Ice Hockey Federation. It took two months.
It would have been easy during this time for the Bures to sit around all day watching television or ogling bikinis at the beach. (Possibly the first English slang word to enter Valeri's vocabulary was chick.) As in his homeland, Vladimir couldn't control the bureaucrats. What he could control was his sons' physical condition. He worked their butts off.
He always has. Vladimir, 41, commands his sons' respect. At meals, before helping themselves, the Bure boys pass food to their father. Vladimir was a superb athlete in his own right. As a free-styler on the Soviet swim team, he won four Olympic medals, twice finishing behind Mark Spitz in the 1972 Games. After retiring from swimming in 1979, Vladimir became a coach for the Red Army club team and later for the national swim team. In 1977 he took six-year-old Pavel to tryouts for the Red Army hockey club. He had high hopes. "Every father think his son the best," says Vladimir. "At his first practice, Pavel was the worst." For Vladimir this was unacceptable. He had a talk with his son. If Pavel did not show marked improvement in two months, he would withdraw him from the program.
"You do something—bus driver, journalist—you try to be best," says Vladimir. Pavel began to go to bed early on nights before practices. Then, unlike that first workout when Pavel sat during drills that didn't interest him, he skated the entire practice. "I didn't make him run and lift weights three hours a day," says Vladimir. "But I make sure he had focus." After a year Pavel was the best.
"He is coach," says Pavel. "He understand training very well." In Los Angeles the Bures were on the beach every morning for a run. The rest of the day consisted of weight training, more running and then skating drills whenever they could secure ice time at the Culver City Ice Arena. Vladimir skated his sons hard. Their practice goalie was Shawn Barfield (the brothers quickly nicknamed her Scan Burke after the NHL goalie with a similar moniker) who for a while was a practice goalie for the coed club team at Cal State-North-ridge. Was she any good? "Better than shooting at empty net," says Valeri. There's gratitude for you. In the evening they played tennis or soccer.
Salcer, who is chummy with actor Tony Danza, took the Bures to a taping of Who's the Boss? Says Valeri, "Was great—some great chicks." For the most part, however, it was a tense time for the Bures. Mike Beamish, a columnist for the Vancouver Sun, visited them in Los Angeles in their third week there. He arrived on the same day a photographer from Upper Deck trading cards showed up. Pavel was cranky and uncooperative, and Vladimir slapped his face. "Vladimir looked like he regretted it immediately," says Beamish. "Pavel was humiliated. For a minute he was near tears."
In some matters Vladimir was not so hands-on. Pavel had been in the country only three weeks when he was married in a civil ceremony to a mysterious American fashion model—in newspaper accounts her first name has been variously spelled Jimy, Jamie, Jimmy; no last name was ever given—whom he had met in Seattle during the 1990 Goodwill Games. "I tell him, 'It's your deal,' " says Vladimir. "I coach sport, not love."
Pavel and what's-her-name were divorced over the summer. Pavel has denied that the marriage was one of convenience, but it had all the earmarks of a green-card special, a life preserver that would let Bure stay in the U.S. even if he didn't sign with the Canucks. His wife never lived with Pavel in Vancouver, and he will not discuss his nine-month marriage. "I do not like to talk about," he says. "Personal life personal."
He found it more difficult to wed himself to the Canucks. While the Vancouver front office dickered with the Soviet Ice Hockey Federation, the 1991-92 season started. Finally, in desperation, Pavel ponied up $50,000, from the signing bonus he was to receive, to help the Canucks buy out his contract. His deal with Vancouver was worth $2.7 million over four years.
Though he would go on to score 34 goals in 65 games last season, he did not score in his first game, a 2-2 tic with the Winnipeg Jets on Nov. 5, 1991, in Vancouver. He did, however, go coast-to-coast on three dazzling rushes, sucking the breath out of 16,123 Canuck fans. "He was unbelievable," says Brian Burke, who was Vancouver's assistant general manager at the time and is now the general manager of the Hartford Whalers. From that moment on, says Burke, "Pavel was doomed to a life of celebrity."
The instant star got a guarded reception from his new teammates. Before signing, Bure had been quoted in a local paper as saying he expected to score 50 goals and make $1 million in his first season. The remark rang a bit selfish. "We worried he might be a kid with a bit of a big head," says alternate captain Ryan Walter. "But there was nothing to worry about. The fact that he reported in such great physical condition said a lot about his attitude."
Bure also has worked hard at learning English and making friends with North American-born players. He has become particularly tight with Vancouver left wing Gino Odjick. At first glance their friendship appears to be a case of opposites attracting: Bure is one of the NHL's most-feared scorers, Odjick one of its most-feared pugilists. But Odjick, a full-blooded Algonquin, grew up on an Indian reservation in Quebec. He knows how it feels to be an outsider.
When asked by a reporter if he was drawn to Bure because he empathized with the Russian's plight as a stranger striving for acceptance in a strange land, Odjick thinks for a moment and then says, "What?"
The reporter tries a different tack. As part of a wave of skilled foreign players coming into the NHL, wasn't Bure actually a threat to him? Replied Odjick, "No foreigner's going to get my job."
Antiforeigner sentiments in the league are fueled by Don Cherry, the outrageous, xenophobic Hockey Night in Canada commentator and former NHL coach. It's part of Cherry's shtick to run down players who fail to measure up to his standards of hockey manliness. Those players happen to include many of the Swedes, Finns, Czechs and Russians in the league. Bure was not exempt. In a first-round playoff game against the Jets last season, a television camera caught Bure kicking the skates out from under Keith Tkachuk. "You'd never catch a Canadian kid doing that," said Cherry, incorrectly. "Bure, ya little weasel!"
Vancouverites rallied behind Bure. Apologies from Cherry were demanded. The backlash was a measure of how fond Canuck fans had become of their Russian star in only six months. For several weeks WEASEL POWER T-shirts sold briskly.
Bure has some work to do before he rates mention with the league's best player. Just ask Vladimir. "This [Mario] Lemieux, he knows what going to happen a second before it happens! He is born to be a hockey player. Pavel is not near this guy," says Vladimir. His solution? "Pavel needs work, work, work."
Specifically, he needs to improve his defense. Also, Canuck general manager and coach Pat Quinn must frequently remind Bure not to try to do everything by himself. Early this season, says Quinn, "Pavel was becoming too individual in his play." Part of the problem was his center. When Igor Larionov left Vancouver at the end of last season to play in Switzerland, Bure's regular center was gone. He didn't click with either of Larionov's replacements, Greg Adams or Petr Nedved. On Nov. 3, Quinn traded for 30-year-old Anatoli Semenov of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Centered by his countryman, Bure has scored 13 goals in 13 games through Sunday.
Quinn was ebullient after Bure scored twice in Vancouver's 6-2 win over the San Jose Sharks on Nov. 10. Bure's first goal was an uncanny individual effort. Carrying the puck in the circle to the left of the Sharks' net, Bure was repeatedly clobbered by San Jose's Brian Lawton, who finally knocked him to his knees. Somehow Bure retained control of the puck—and regained his feet. One second and two blurred strides later he had covered the 20 feet to the crease and stuffed the puck past paralyzed goalie Brian Hayward.
"A lot of guys would've quit on that play," said Quinn after the game. "We've had a lot of great—well, great's not the right word—highly talented Europeans come to our game. A lot of them don't have the grit to fight through the hooking and bumping and holding, and battle for the puck. Well, this kid's got grit."
Said a reporter, "Someone should show that goal to Don Cherry."
Someone should show that goal to Vladimir.