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
February 17, 1997
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
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.
"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
"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.