Sometimes the father will see his son on television--his pretty
face, his penetrating blue eyes, his teenybop appearance. The
father will hear how his son is doing far away in South Florida,
how he is scoring goals and piling up points and bewildering
goalies, how he is the most explosive player in the NHL this
season, a superstar making the extraordinary look routine. He
will hear about the gossip columns, the rumors. The father will
turn away or turn the channel or just turn off the TV. It is too
painful. Everything has gone wrong. "I made him king," the
father, Vladimir Bure, says from his home in Vancouver. "From
average guy, from worst guy, I made him king of the ice."
Five hours till midnight. The king slouches on his couch, the
wind off the Atlantic whipping through the curtains. Forty
stories below, the streets of South Beach are humming. Cops have
shut down intersections, traffic is snarled, and people are
beginning to booze it up: The millennial turn has come at last.
It is Dec. 31, 1999, and the night has taken on that rare feel of
history come alive. The phone in the apartment buzzes and
vibrates, then plays a familiar tune, again and again. Pavel Bure
picks it up, glances at the caller I.D. and lets the answering
machine take a message. Boris Yeltsin abruptly resigned the
Russian presidency earlier in the day, the world may end at the
stroke of midnight, but Russia's biggest sports star is loose and
laughing. Anything can happen now.
"That's the excitement of life," he says. "I really like
excitement, no matter what. I try to live with excitement, I try
to play with excitement."
Out on the streets and airwaves, the revelers are only beginning
to catch on. The South Florida conversation is still dominated by
the usual names--Dan Marino, Jimmy Johnson, Pat Riley, Fidel
Castro--all of them skating on reputations growing creakier by the
day. After only 41 games with the Florida Panthers, though, Bure
has established himself as Miami's athlete of the moment, a blend
of talent, star power and, most important, production that has
been nothing short of breathtaking.
January 31, 2000
Consider: When he came to the Panthers a year ago in a
nine-player trade with the Vancouver Canucks, Bure, now 28, had
just finished his own power play--a five-month holdout in which he
refused to suit up for the Canucks and demanded a trade even
though he was under contract through 1998-99. Yet the layoff had
no effect on his play; Bure scored two goals in his 12-minute
Panthers debut, then four more over the next two games. He went
on to score 13 goals in 11 games before a torn ACL in his right
knee ended his season on March 3. After a slow start this year
due to other nagging injuries, Bure has been even more
spectacular. In 13 matches in December he scored 12 goals
(including four game-winners and two hat tricks) chipped in 10
assists and scored points in a club-record 11 straight games.
"What he brings to the team," says right wing Scott Mellanby, "is
obviously the entire offense."
Not since Marino's bombs-away days of the mid-1980s has Miami
seen an athlete put up such spectacular numbers. Equally
important, the Russian Rocket has given the polyglot,
style-conscious South Florida market a new action figure it can
obsess over--a dashing, high-octane bachelor who, despite his
Garbo-esque protestations to the contrary, is delighted to be the
center of attention. No one in the NHL over the past decade has
provoked more speculation on such a wide array of subjects: Who
was that woman Bure married and divorced just after he arrived in
the U.S. from Russia in 1991? Did Bure try to blackmail the
Canucks into renegotiating his contract during the '94 Stanley
Cup finals? Is he connected to the Russian mob? Is he a
backstabbing womanizer who poached an old friend's flame?
His recent public forays with tennis starlet Anna Kournikova--not
to mention his leasing of an apartment in the same building, just
four stories below hers--have sparked questions about a love
triangle involving a former Red Army teammate, Sergei Fedorov of
the Detroit Red Wings, and Kournikova. Bure's typically coy
responses ensure that the questions won't stop anytime soon,
which, it seems, is precisely the point.
When, in early November, the Panthers faced the Canucks in
Vancouver and Bure returned there for the first time since his
bitter departure, he stopped by a coffee shop. Ten minutes later
his cell phone rang. "I know where you are: Starbucks," a friend
said. Bure asked how he knew. "I just heard it on the radio," his
friend replied. In newspapers and on television, the Canucks ran
spicy ads imploring fans to LOVE HIM, HATE HIM, JUST DON'T MISS
HIM. It may have been the first time in years that Bure and the
Canucks had agreed on anything--because, for him, there's nothing
worse than being ignored. "That's the most important thing," Bure
says. "If I stepped on the ice in Vancouver and I would hear
silence, then I would be like, What's wrong? If they are either
booing you or cheering you, it means they care about you."
But Bure never stepped onto the ice during that trip to
Vancouver--he had a broken finger at the time, and that was the
first of three games Panthers' management made him sit out--and
that couldn't have been more appropriate. Throughout his
nine-year NHL career, no player has vacillated so rapidly from
one extreme to the other, one day enthralling fans with his
on-ice genius, the next simply vanishing for long stretches to
rehab his knee or dispute a contract. It's not that he promises
so much and fails to deliver; Bure delivers plenty. "I've had
lots of good players, Steve Yzerman, Fedorov, but I've never seen
a guy who is so automatic around the net," says Panthers general
manager Bryan Murray, who coached the Red Wings from 1990-91 to
'92-93. "Watching him is unbelievable. I shouldn't say it this
early in the year, but when he gets in on a goaltender, it's
almost no competition."
Yet, there's always a string attached; sooner or later, Bure's
fragile body or fragile ego rears up to exact a mighty price for
all that talent--and he or his fans or his team pays. There's no
better example than last March, when Bure blistered the Colorado
Avalanche and all-world goalie Patrick Roy with a natural hat
trick before blowing out his knee for the second time in his
career. The Panthers squandered a 5-0 lead, and with Bure
sidelined, their season was over, too.
Always, it seems, the Bure option is heaven or hell, on ice and
off. If he's your friend, he can be blindly loyal; if he's your
enemy he can cut you cold. Bure's business associate, 50-year-old
Anzor Kikalishvili, who has called himself Bure's "spiritual
father," has been identified by the FBI and Russian law
enforcement officials as one of the heads of the Russian mafia
involved in extortion and racketeering in the U.S. and Russia.
(He's never been charged with a crime, and in the past he has
denied the allegations.) Until he changed his name and launched a
political career last year, Kikalishvili was the president of the
Twenty-First Century Association, a Moscow-based entertainment
conglomerate that also runs a nonprofit foundation to assist
Russian athletes. Despite reports that he is an officer of
Twenty-First Century, Bure insists he has no connection with the
company. Nevertheless ads featuring pictures of Kikalishvili and
Bure together are plastered on billboards around Moscow, and Bure
readily acknowledges that he maintains a friendship with
Kikalishvili, whom he has known since he was 14.
On the other hand, in the fall of 1998, Pavel severed ties with
his father, who coached him as a child, engineered his departure
from the Soviet Union in 1991 and served for most of Pavel's
career in Vancouver as, in Vladimir's words, "his business agent,
his masseur, his pool boy, his bodyguard." The two haven't spoken
Neither situation is pleasant, but Bure says he will deal with
the unpleasantness and any other turmoil the world sends his way.
"I'd rather have crap and great stuff in my life than just be in
the middle with no great stuff and no crap," he says. "I don't
want it just O.K. It's like I want everything or nothing."
Pavel's younger brother, Valeri, extends his left wrist to reveal
a watch, fiddles with the strap and removes it. Sitting in a
hotel in Dallas, he holds the watch up in the lobby light: It is
square, shiny, with the words PAVEL BURE inscribed in Cyrillic on
the face. "This was number three of 50," Valeri says.
The first watch went to Yeltsin, the second to then Russian
prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. The watches, which reportedly
are worth $30,000 apiece, carry great meaning in the Bure family.
Pavel and Valeri's great-great-grandfather was a prominent
watchmaker who lost his business at the end of the Romanov
dynasty, just before the revolution of 1917. In partnership with
Kikalishvili, Pavel tried to resurrect the watch company in '96,
but the start-up distracted him from his NHL career and provided
the most tangible link between him and Kikalishvili. After they
produced these special-edition timepieces, the venture was put on
It has been a sweet winter for the Bure boys. In his sixth NHL
season Valeri, 25, has become a star for the Calgary Flames, and
if he can't match his older brother's gaudy numbers, he has
plenty to be proud of: 24 goals and 46 points in 47 games through
Sunday. Like Pavel he has earned a berth in the NHL All-Star
Game, on Feb. 6 in Toronto. Like Pavel, he is a very good right
wing, small but tenacious. His play, however, lacks the open-ice
pyrotechnics that Pavel is known for, the ability to change the
tone of a game in one sudden flurry. "It would be almost
impossible to do something better than him," says Valeri. "He has
something different from everybody right now. It's something
natural that comes to him: All these people going one way, and he
goes the other."
With 34 goals and 57 points Pavel was on pace, at week's end, to
score 59 goals this season, which would put to rest any lingering
doubts about the condition of his knee or the larceny Murray
committed when he sent defenseman Ed Jovanovski, forward Dave
Gagner (since retired), goaltender Kevin Weekes (since traded),
prospect Mike Brown (still in the minors) and a future
first-round draft choice to Vancouver for Bure. Immediately after
acquiring him, the Panthers tore up Bure's contract and signed
him to a five-year, $47.5 million deal. Florida missed the
playoffs the last two springs and has had to overcome its
reputation as a numbingly dull practitioner of the neutral-zone
trap. Now, the Bure-led Panthers are seen as a skilled, dynamic
club, capable of scoring big in a league in which goals are hard
to come by. At week's end Florida was 28-15-4-3 and had a firm
grip on first place in the Eastern Conference's Southeast
Division. The Pittsburgh Penguins' Jaromir Jagr can be as
explosive as Bure, but no one in the NHL has had more impact. He
inspires Stanley Cup dreams. He ignites the imagination.
The reason is simple. "Pavel loves to score goals," says former
Vancouver coach Mike Keenan. "Peter Forsberg might be a better
playmaker, Eric Lindros adds a different dimension, but Pavel
loves to score goals."
Who doesn't? But it's one thing to love it and another to work at
it, and nobody in hockey works at scoring the way Bure does.
"I've never seen anybody play the way he plays, even in
practice," says Mellanby. "There's no such thing as a warmup."
In every Panthers practice there's a battle between Bure and
whoever squats in goal. Florida netminder Trevor Kidd, an
eight-year veteran who has been sidelined since last month with a
dislocated right shoulder, says no one he has seen attacks the
net like Bure. "It's not even close," Kidd says. "The unwritten
rule is, the first shots in practice are [easy ones] for the
goalies; you just wrist a few into the glove. Not Pav. He comes
in trying to blow one by you, and if you make the stop, there's
no question about him trying to swat the rebound. He hates to be
When observers try to describe his talent, they often point to
Bure's Gretzky-esque ability to see the play develop before
others do. Bure doesn't buy it. "You know what? I don't have this
vision," he says. "I heard some people say, 'For me it looks like
watermelon coming.' No, it doesn't happen that way for me. I have
to work on it."
His conditioning is exceptional; he spends hours training or
riding a stationary bike. "His body is amazing," says Panthers
left wing Ray Whitney. "We go through a hard practice, and he
just doesn't get tired."
"Watch him, and you may think Pav doesn't work as hard as he
should in the corners, but what he does is set people up,"
Whitney says. "When there's a chance to score by the net, Pavel
is one of the grittiest guys on the team. He'll stick his nose in
there and bang and hack away, and he knows he's going to get hit
from behind. But when there's a chance to score, I've never seen
a guy hungrier."
On Dec. 20, in a mesmerizing 6-4 home loss to the Toronto Maple
Leafs, there was a perfect Bure moment. His two assists helped
tie the game 2-2 after two periods, but most of the early
attention had been on Kournikova, sitting behind one goal at the
National Car Rental Center, all blonde hair and black leather. At
one point when her famous face appeared on the scoreboard, the
crowd gave a rousing cheer. Panthers broadcaster Denis Potvin,
winner of four Stanley Cups as a player for the New York
Islanders, stood in the press box during a break in the action
and took a question about Bure's ambition. He nodded down to the
stands. "What does he want? I think he's got what he wants,"
Potvin said with a grin. "He's got Anna Kournikova sitting in the
corner, and he's got $8 million a year."
Forty seconds into the third period Bure took a pass from
Mellanby, bore down on goalie Curtis Joseph, juked and, as Bure
whipped by him, backhanded a shot past the netminder. The puck
bounced so softly off Joseph's rear end that it barely crossed
the line, and for a second or two no one was sure what had
happened. Joseph whirled and saw the puck behind him. Bure
pointed to it and then pumped his fist in his typical childlike
glee. Hungry men must eat.
Pavel was six and was wearing dull figure skates the first time
he went to a rink to play hockey. Mostly he sat, immobilized by
his fear. "He was last guy in the group," says Vladimir Bure. "If
there were 103 guys, he was last, he was worst. I said to him,
'You know what your name is. You know who I am. Our family tries
to be the best. If you'd like to be hockey player, you have to be
For more than a century the Bure family had been buffeted by the
whirl of Russian history. The watchmaking business drifted off in
the smoke of Lenin's revolution. By the mid-'30s Pavel's
grandfather, Valeri, had established himself as the top
goaltender on the Soviet Union's national water polo team, but
then the Stalin regime exiled him and his teammates to a Siberian
gulag. Pavel's father was born there, in Norilsk, north of the
Arctic Circle. It was only after Stalin died, in 1953, that the
family could return to Moscow.
Valeri became a respected swim coach and established one of the
country's first synchronized swimming programs, all the while
pushing his son. Vladimir developed into an Olympic swimmer and
represented the Soviet Union in the 1968, '72 and '76 Games,
winning one silver and three bronze medals. In '72 he swam a
personal best 51.77 in the 100-meter freestyle but came in third
as Mark Spitz collected one of his seven golds in Munich. "This
guy, Mark Spitz, was from the moon," Vladimir says. "[My father
and I] never dreamed that someday I could compete with Mark
But that was one of the few times Valeri was satisfied with his
son's effort. Vladimir was equally demanding of Pavel, subjecting
him to endless athletic drills. When Pavel emerged as a young
hockey star by the time he was eight, Vladimir set one condition
for his continuing to play. "To be best on the team was nothing,"
Vladimir says. "There are how many cities in Russia? How many
countries in the world? How many guys playing? So I say, 'If you
like to be the best, you have to score 33 percent of all goals on
the team.' I didn't care how the team played. Even if the team
lost 5-3, but he scored three goals, we celebrated. If the team
wins 10-0 and he scored just one goal, it was disaster. I told
him, 'Why you make mistake here, why you make mistake there?' At
that time he was looking for me [in the arena] after each shift.
We had some signals. I told him what he had to do on the next
shift. He would listen 100 percent, like good son, you know?"
By the time Pavel was 16, he was playing on the prestigious Red
Army team, on which he and Fedorov and Alexander Mogilny became
one of the most dynamic young scoring lines in hockey history.
But with the breakup of the Soviet empire in 1991 the team--like
almost everything else--fell into disarray; Fedorov and Mogilny
had already defected to the U.S., and Vladimir was sure his son
would follow. In September 1991 Vladimir, Pavel and Valeri
obtained tourist visas and left the Soviet Union for Los Angeles.
(Pavel's rights were owned by the Canucks, who had drafted him in
the sixth round in 1989.) Pavel then acquired a work visa which
he held until he got his green card last year. Still, within
weeks of his arrival in L.A., he tried to hedge his bets by
marrying an American woman he had met at the 1990 Goodwill Games
in Seattle. "It wasn't a marriage," says Pavel, who was granted a
divorce after nine months. "That's like the most stupid mistake."
On the ice, though, Pavel could do little wrong. He was named NHL
rookie of the year in 1991-92 and by '93-94 had become only the
eighth player in league history to have two 60-goal seasons. He
was viewed as the heir apparent to Gretzky and Lemieux. "It was
unbelievable feeling when 20,000 people were screaming my last
name," Vladimir says. It got even better: After scoring the
winning goal in double overtime of Game 7 of the '94 Western
Conference quarterfinals against the Flames, Bure led the Canucks
into the Stanley Cup finals against the New York Rangers.
Then, before Game 5, newspaper reports circulated that Bure had
threatened to sit out the finals unless the Canucks agreed to
renegotiate his contract. Bure hotly denied the report and played
in every game, ringing up three goals and five assists as the
Canucks lost in seven games. But Pat Quinn, who was then
Vancouver's general manager and coach and now holds those titles
with the Maple Leafs, says he knows that one of Bure's agents,
Ron Salcer, made the threat. (Salcer did not return phone calls
seeking comment.) "His agent did throw that threat out: that Bure
wouldn't play if he didn't get the new contract," Quinn says.
"Pavel claims he never knew about it, which I believe." Why?
"Because I think he's a truthful young man."
But Bure dismisses that scenario. Yes, he had been unhappy in
Vancouver almost from the beginning because of various perceived
slights, and had demanded a trade more than once. But, Bure says,
he and the Canucks had a handshake agreement on a new contract
before the playoffs began. It is the one issue in his career that
he cannot address with his usual equanimity.
"Seven weeks later, why would I say, 'Give me the money or I'm
not going to play?'" Bure says. "It doesn't make sense. I asked
Ron [Salcer], 'Did you do it?' He said, 'No, I never said that.'
So I don't know who's lying. That pissed me off big-time. I don't
care about other rumors; people can say whatever they want. But
this is my profession. I've been doing this all my life. I
reached a level where you can't get any higher: playoffs, the
finals, Game 5, and I'm going to say that? F--- it. No. No."
Regardless, that Stanley Cup series remains the high-water mark
of Bure's career. His relations with Canucks management
deteriorated from there, and injuries along with the NHL lockout
in 1994-95 limited him to a total of 49 goals over the next three
seasons. In November '95 he tore the ACL in his right knee for
the first time, and a year later his relationship with
Kikalishvili became a recurring story in the media. In September
'97 Bure fired Salcer and his other agent, Serge Levin, and, for
the first time, stopped training with Vladimir.
"Sooner or later we have to go on our own," Pavel says. "We can't
totally depend on our parents. It doesn't matter if you're
successful or not, you have to go. We live only once, and if you
respect yourself, you have to go on your own and make things
happen. Ask anybody--that's part of life. If I have children, the
same thing is going to happen to me."
The move didn't come as a shock to anyone familiar with
Vladimir's heavy-handed manner. (In 1991, for instance, he
slapped Pavel in the face for his inattention during a
trading-card photo session in Los Angeles.) Vladimir admits that
such splits are natural in coach-player relationships. A year
later, though, after Pavel and Valeri had allowed their father to
help train them for the '98 Olympics, they stopped speaking to
him. Vladimir says he was never told why. When Pavel was
scheduled to return to Vancouver with the Panthers this season,
the Canucks invited Vladimir to the game, possibly looking for
any way to distract Pavel. Vladimir was in the stands that night,
but Pavel's injury kept him out of action, and Vladimir didn't
connect with him before or after the game.
The strain between father and sons had been growing for
years--they even fought over the possible revival of the family's
watch company. Vladimir, who had divorced Pavel and Valeri's
mother in 1983, remarried in 1993 and has a four-year-old
daughter with his new wife, Julia. Valeri makes no bones about
where the sons' loyalties lie. "As much as my dad had an
influence on us, the person who really raised us and gave us what
we have is my mom," he says. "She did everything for us. We went
through tough times and good times, a roller coaster, but she's
been the one person who gave us everything that we know."
Vladimir says he won't allow himself to get excited over his
sons' success this season. He is a personal trainer for NHL
players--"We work sometimes five hours per day, guys screaming,
guys crying, but finally you get the result," he says--and trained
New Jersey Devils rookie Scott Gomez in the off-season. Vladimir
foresees no reconciliation with Pavel. "I don't think so," he
says. "Because his friends who surround him are very bad, and my
ex-wife is happy about [the split with his sons]."
Asked if by "friends" he means Kikalishvili, Vladimir says yes.
Told that Pavel is generally considered an intelligent person,
Vladimir says, "No, I don't think he's so smart, because he makes
lots of mistakes. I don't follow what he's doing, but the rumors
are not good." Asked if he thought Pavel could be involved with
the Russian mafia, Vladimir says, "There's not easy answer. But I
always try to tell him, 'You're like king. But a king has to be
careful. Before taking one step, you have to think three times.
Each step under control. People are watching.' Maybe he's doing
nothing wrong, but for the king he can't do this. He didn't
listen to me."
Four hours till midnight. Bure sits on his couch, the wind still
whipping through the curtains. His mother, in town for the
holidays, comes from the kitchen bearing water and coffee. Bure
says he will work out tonight before dinner and go to bed early.
He says he's happy, even though in the past few months there has
been produced a documentary on Canadian TV detailing his ties to
Kikalishvili and a biography that attempts to link him to other
Russian crime figures. "When I heard, I said, 'Oh, it's pretty
good, they're writing a book about me,'" Bure says. "I never read
it. A friend of mine read it, and she said it was really boring."
So far, no one has pinned anything on him, but there have been
plenty of insinuations. The book, Pavel Bure: The Riddle of the
Russian Rocket, describes a night, Oct. 30, 1993, on which Bure
was supposedly out with alleged Ukrainian cocaine traffickers
Eugene and Alexander Alekseev, which was said to be observed by
Canadian authorities. That night supposedly ended with Bure
taking a taxi home; while the Alekseevs' car was damaged by a
bomb (the brothers escaped serious injury). Bure, who says that
was the one page in the book he did read, calls the allegation
"totally a lie, I never met those guys." Three weeks ago a
high-ranking official with NHL security told SI that the
Vancouver police had refuted the report, saying they'd had the
Alekseevs under surveillance that night but "did not see Pavel
with the Alekseevs."
That's not to say the NHL is comfortable with Bure's off-ice
associations. Two years ago the league hired a former FBI agent
to investigate the Russian mob's connections with NHL players,
including Bure's ties with Kikalishvili. According to NHL chief
legal officer Bill Daly, "We haven't uncovered anything concrete,
but we're concerned about the relationship simply because the FBI
is not high on this guy. We're monitoring, and to the extent that
it becomes problematic, we would do something about it."
It is convenient to trot out Churchill's famous line--"a riddle
wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma"--when trying to sort out
anything Russian, and Bure has done nothing to disperse the smoke
surrounding his life over the past decade. But when he says, "I
think it's just my fate, no matter what I do," to be the object
of constant speculation, it's not an easy notion to resist. Just
as his father and father's father lived on the knife-edge of
Russian history, so it is with Bure. He is the perfect poster boy
for the aspirations of postcommunist Russians: flush with new
money, held in high and cautious regard, an enigma wrapped in a
rumor inside a tacky new skyscraper on Miami Beach. No, he
insists, he has no connection with any mafia. It is all wrong, he
says, and it has always been wrong. And Kournikova? Bure goes
silent, then says he will answer that question later.
His phone vibrates, plays its little tune: Bure glances at the
caller I.D., puts up a hand. This one he has to take. "Hi, baby,"
he says. There's a woman on the other end, and she's not
Kournikova. She wants to know what Pavel's doing now and later
and where he'll be tomorrow. She wishes him a happy New Year and
tells him she loves him, and he mumbles a smiling, noncommittal,
"me, too," and says goodbye.
Bure loves Miami. He loves the weather, he loves the ocean and
the fact that he's famous. He loves that he is playing
outstanding hockey after two major knee surgeries. "It's a gift
from the gods," he says. "A very real privilege." He is asked
about hockey, about what the sport does for him, and for a moment
Bure doesn't answer. He is looking at his phone, punching
numbers. "I like games," he says. "For me, all life is a game."
Suddenly he lifts the phone to his ear. "Allo?" he says. He
speaks a few sentences in Russian, then hands the phone over.
"She wants to talk to you," he says.
Kournikova is on the other end, speaking from somewhere in
Australia, from one century to the other. "I'm already in 2000!"
she says. Asked if there's anything the world should know about
her and Pavel, she says, "No, there is nothing you should know.
If everybody knew everything, it would be too easy."
Bure takes the phone, says a few words, hands it back. "Hello?"
she says. "Please don't write anything crazy about me. Just say
we are friends."
Kournikova hangs up, and Bure is laughing hard at the thought of
turning the tables, toying with the gossipmongers for once. Life
is a game, after all. And this city, this night, this moment:
This is not just O.K. The king ends his year with a win.
Bure is Miami's athlete of the moment, a blend of talent, star
power and production that is breathtaking.
"I'd rather have crap and great stuff in my life," says Bure,
"than just be in the middle with no great stuff and no crap."
"Forsberg might be a better playmaker, Lindros adds a different
dimension, but Pavel loves to score goals."
Bure loves Miami. He loves the weather, the ocean and the fact
that he's famous: "For me, all life is a game."