The number 1 hockey fan in Canada called NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on his cell phone with 10 minutes left in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, requesting not one of those nifty caps inscribed MISSION 16W or even one of the 77 MISSION ACCOMPLISHED versions that would appear in the bedlam of the Colorado Avalanche dressing room. The fan only wanted a few moments of Raymond Bourque's time. This wasn't going to be easy--the crush of television reporters first had to get a word from Bourque--but league officials were determined to make it happen, eventually thrusting a beige phone into Bourque's hand in a curtained alcove off the interview area.
"Oui, Monsieur Chretien," Bourque said.
For the next three minutes or so, Bourque explained to the Prime Minister of Canada how happy he is to be a French Canadian whose name soon would be engraved on the Stanley Cup, that no, he didn't quit pursuing his dream, and yes, he was extremely proud. Then he thanked Jean Chretien and hung up. "What did the Prime Minister say to you?" Bourque was asked.
"He told me that if I was ever in Ottawa, I should stop by."
Everybody loves Raymond in Ottawa. They love him in Denver, where friends decorated his driveway with signs of support and where one thoughtless neighbor displaying a New Jersey Devils banner found his backyard festooned with toilet paper. They love him in Montreal, where he grew up. They love him in Boston, the city he played in for more than 20 years before asking out 15 months ago to chase the dream, a city in which TV ratings for the Cup finals were higher than they were in the New York City area, home to the New Jersey Devils. They love him in the Avalanche dressing room, so much so that protocol was gleefully violated when Joe Sakic passed the Cup directly to Bourque at center ice without taking the traditional captain's spin around the rink. From Canada to Colorado, Bourque's quest to get his name on the Cup practically turned him into a cottage industry, although no cottage could have held the 23 family members who were at the Pepsi Center last Saturday to witness the Avalanche's clinching 3-1 victory.
In a flash of uncharacteristic audacity but typical generosity, Bourque had telephoned one of his sisters, Lise Desmarais, in suburban Montreal on June 5 after Colorado had fallen behind the defending champion Devils three games to two. Bourque invited Desmarais and her husband, James, to New Jersey for Game 6 and then to Denver to see the Avalanche win the Cup on home ice. "He calls," Desmarais says, "we go."
Bourque's extended family, which seemingly encompassed the entire hockey world (but didn't get hotel rooms in Manhattan and Denver on his tab), was almost as moved as his relatives were by the conclusion of a journey that began 1,826 NHL games ago, spanned 22 years and touched four decades. There was grace to the final victory lap, and whenever Bourque saw it drifting into the maudlin, he mentioned his teammates, notably goalie Patrick Roy, who proved more than a mere diversion to the nonstop Ray-o-thon by saving 49 of a combined 50 shots in Games 6 and 7. The Stanley Cup, the most coveted piece of silverware in North American sports, celebrates the team over the individual, but perhaps for the first time in its 109-year history, the chalice was about one man, a 40-year-old defenseman with a graying goatee who never had anything handed to him--at least not until Sakic pressed the object of desire in his hands. Bourque raised the Cup over his head, the weight of careerlong expectations replaced by 34 1/2 pounds of sterling. He was shocked. "Maybe it's because I'm old or I was tired," he said, "but it felt really heavy."
The snapshot of Bourque, one of the most popular players of his generation, bench-pressing the Cup to the heavens will serve as the lasting image of the 2001 finals. In the history books this series will look more like a classic than it did on the ice. Except for a furious first period, the Avalanche and the Devils didn't play Game 7 as if it were the deciding game of the Stanley Cup finals, though you might have expected that two superb teams that had failed to provide a compelling game through the first six would seize their last chance to set things right.
This series had no more discernable pattern than a toddler's finger painting. It was seemingly random hockey, producing no signature moment beyond the near Bucknerian puckhandling gaffe in Game 4 by Roy, who is now a four-time Stanley Cup winner and who occasionally handles the puck like a stevedore unloading a freighter. Colorado defenseman Rob Blake theorized on Saturday morning that when each team was playing its best defensively, it was nearly impossible for the other club to play well. That notion would not be challenged in Game 7 after left wing Alex Tanguay, a second-year sniper better known for having boarded in Roy's basement last year than for his six goals and 15 assists in the 2001 playoffs, scored the first two goals, and the Avalanche clamped down. New Jersey never found its way to the front of Roy's crease and back into the game.
Since falling behind the Philadelphia Flyers three games to one in the Eastern Conference finals a year ago, the Devils had seemed to revel in replaying The Perils of Pauline, in which the heroine is tied to the railroad tracks by a mustache-twirling cad, then saved at the last minute. On Saturday night the locomotive was Roy's exemplary play (he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP for a record third time) and Sakic's second-period goal 25 seconds after Devils defenseman Sean O'Donnell had high-sticked wing Shjon Podein. It was the type of inane penalty that had exasperated New Jersey coach Larry Robinson throughout the playoffs, and his remarks had been particularly pointed after the 4-0 home loss in Game 6. With the Meadowlands parking lot ready to be turned into paradise, with talk of a parade that would swing by the proposed site for a new arena in Newark, Robinson was reduced to skewering his team after the second period, then taking his diatribe public after the match. "Tonight they kicked our butts and rubbed our faces in it," Robinson said, a graphic if not quite accurate account of a disturbing game for New Jersey.
If the Devils had been willing to have their noses rubbed in it, if center Scott Gomez had been willing to hang on to the puck for another second and find a teammate with a pass when he saw red-bearded 6'5", 225-pound wing Chris Dingman barreling toward him at the boards, they might have been tough enough to overcome their three straight fruitless power plays in the first period of Game 6. Instead, the spooked Gomez coughed up the puck like a hairball to defenseman Adam Foote, who scored the first Colorado goal.
The loss seemed to numb New Jersey's nerve endings. The Devils, who had skulked out of a half-empty Continental Airlines Arena after Game 6, arrived for their Game 7 morning skate in Denver full of piss and vinegar--with an emphasis on the former. As talk swirled about a conspicuous postgame police presence for the anticipated riot (page 98) and word leaked of plans for a parade on Monday, Robinson gathered his players at the end of the practice. He announced that they could all stay for the Avalanche parade, a crack that was greeted by the appropriate guffaws. In a press conference that followed, Robinson said, "I love urinating on parades."
However, before there could be precipitation of any kind, the Devils would have to stay out of the penalty box and get more from their captain, 37-year-old defenseman Scott Stevens. On Saturday night Stevens played a game for the aged, not the ages, finishing with a -2 rating, inadvertently screening netminder Martin Brodeur on Sakic's goal, getting felled by checks from middleweights Sakic and Dan Hinote, and taking a tripping penalty in the final six minutes that snuffed any hope of a comeback. A third New Jersey Cup in seven years would have secured the Devils' legacy as one of the best postexpansion teams, but their performance late in the series downgraded them to merely splendid. "We've got to learn to play disciplined," said Robinson, whose team was outscored 15-2 in its four losses. "That's one reason Colorado beat us."
The only moisture that fell in Game 7 came from Bourque's tear ducts. His eyes began welling up at the national anthem, and he also had tears in his eyes when he was on the bench during the match, which wasn't often considering one of hockey's best-ever three-zone defensemen played 29 minutes and 35 seconds. For Bourque, the last 10 minutes seemed to take 22 seasons to play. A TV camera caught him smiling on the bench with less than five minutes left, but that must have been some imposter because the real Bourque, the most steadfast of men, recalled not letting his emotions go until more liquid started dribbling down his stubbled cheeks with 10 seconds remaining.
"A name was missing from that thing," Roy would say about Bourque and the Stanley Cup. "And today it is back to normal. [It was so special] seeing Ray raise that Cup, seeing his eyes, seeing how excited he was."
These battered men become little boys every June, playing for, above all else, the trophy at the end of the season. On Saturday night Bourque bathed in the Cup's silvery glow and accepted congratulations from old friends like former Boston Bruins defense partners Don Sweeney and Gord Kluzak and new buddies like Chretien, who was too busy running a country to fly to Denver but not too busy to watch the game. The cheering will stop soon, though, and then Bourque will have a decision to make. He will receive $6.5 million if he plays next season or $1 million if he walks away from a mutual option with the Avalanche. Although one family member expects Bourque to retire and return to his home north of Boston, the defenseman said he will take several weeks to rest and ponder his future. Bourque has earned that right no less than he earned the Cup, finishing the playoffs with 10 points and a +9 rating.
Bourque's wife, Christiane, slipped an empty champagne bottle into a bag late on Saturday before the family left the arena, a final keepsake. Maybe the city was still suffering from a hangover when it awoke on Monday morning, but that didn't stop thousands of Denverites from snaking their way through LoDo to a rally at Civic Center Park. This was a tribute to Bourque and the Avalanche, but didn't it also pay homage to the World Series that Ernie Banks will one day win, to the Super Bowl victory that will no longer elude Dan Marino, to the NBA title that will never again slip through Karl Malone's and John Stockton's fingers? Didn't this parade celebrate the possible? The weather was grand. Not a drop of rain.