If you're only reading the stories about Ray Bourque, you might be as sick of the coverage of him as he is. But if you're watching him play in the Stanley Cup Finals, watching him relish every moment of this charmed season, this just reward for an unparalleled career, you can't get enough of him. It's enough to make you wish for seven games.
No one takes the ice with the assurance of Ray Bourque, recognizable through blurry eyes from the top of the arena and through bad television reception from across a crowded bar, his regal command of the rink is unmistakable. He handles the puck as well as anyone in the Finals, and to merely circle the zone while the play is stopped is to declare his turf from the Rockies to the Meadowlands.
Best of all, no one emanates the appreciation of each moment to the degree that Ray Bourque does. It's rubbing off, no question. His team has been inspired on his behalf since he left his long-time Boston Bruins late last season to pursue a more realistic shot at seeing his name inscribed on the Stanley Cup. Even his opponents seem to better appreciate the once-in-a-lifetime thrill of competing for the championship after pausing momentarily to see it all through Bourque's eyes.
A day before the first game in the Finals, Bourque admitted that he had allowed himself the fantasy of envisioning his name on the Cup, imaging himself hoisting it up and carrying it around the rink. "Not for long though," he told reporters after an off-day practice. "I have got to stop myself because I know there is so much work to be done. But yes, I have [envisioned it], and it is a pretty neat feeling. I don't remember feeling like this for the previous two. Probably because I don't know if I am going to get the opportunity again. But I am certainly enjoying it and visualizing a lot of things."
Bourque turned forty just after Christmas last year, and although there are the inevitable questions about his retiring someday -- perhaps closing his career with the Cup in his hands -- no one with an ounce of objectivity could suggest that there he is not still among the very few elite defenders actively in the game. The record books place him alongside the likes of Gorde Howe, Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky, third in all-time games played, second in all-time assists leaders, and first all-time in points from defensemen. Earlier this year in Denver, he played in his record 19th consecutive All-Star game. He is as durable as any, eating up minutes on the clock and containing opponents with authority. And after twenty-two seasons in the NHL, he is making a legitimate quest for the Cup.
Grandfather of the Blue Line
Though it had been a long time since he'd been in the finals, Bourque's vast veteran experience has been one of the keys to solidifying an Avalanche team that has been underachieving since its championship season six years ago. He has been called a father figure in the locker room; "You could say grandfather figure," Bourque quips. Whatever generation he represents, the consensus among his teammates is that he is a vocal leader when necessary, and a leader by example every time he skates. "I go out and enjoy the game and have a good attitude and work hard at it and bring that kind of atmosphere everyday to the rink and just try to do my job. That's how you lead first, and then whatever has to be done after that, you do."
"We have got some great leadership on this team," Bourque acknowledged as he sat beside his two compatriots in defense, Adam Foote and Rob Blake. "These two guys alongside of me with Joe [Sakic] and Patrick [Roy], and a few other guys, we have been around. So [the younger players] are getting it from a lot of different areas."
But it isn't only the younger players who benefit visibly from playing alongside Bourque. Blake, his newest teammate after a February trade brought Blake to the Avs, has seen his own game elevated since coming to Colorado. "I don't think you ever stop learning in this league," Blake said after a practice last week. "When you can come into a situation where you've got one of the greatest defenseman to play alongside, to watch him day in day out, watch him prepare for the Playoff games, I mean, that's how you get better, that's how you learn."
The Big Three
Blake, Bourque and Foote have established themselves as one of the top defensive teams of all-time. They are known as the Big Three, and the irony is that the original Big Three of the Montreal Canadians was anchored by Blake's former teammate with the L.A. Kings, Roy's teammate his rookie year in Montreal, and the coach on the opposing bench in the Finals, Devils Head Coach Larry Robinson. The comparisons between the two legendary defensive trios has only heightened the irresistible quality of the Bourque story, offering a freebie to the NHL, a chance to celebrate its legacy over several generations..
It only takes Bourque one word to capture the legacy of the original Big Three. "Domination," he summarized. "I grew up watching them, and they competed so hard. They always seemed to be on the ice, just winning Cups after Cups. Larry was a great skater to carry the puck one end to another. He could hit, fight you, just do it all. And Serge, the spin-around, you know, the strong defense and goal. Lapointe was another guy that was strong defensively, and he would jump into the play offensively. And he was a really emotional guy as well. It was really a lot of fun watching them play when I was growing up, and playing against them and actually meeting them was a thrill as well."
"It is a very high compliment," Robinson says when he and his old teammates are compared with the Avalanche's Big Three. "I mean you have got three great defensemen in Ray and Blakey and Foote, so that's very nice to still be compared [with them]."
Each of the three were leading their respective team's defenses, Bourque in Boston, Blake in L.A., and Foote for Colorado, before two key moves brought them all together over the past year. "The more the merrier," says Blake of the abundance of No. 1 defenders. "I think all three of us push each other every game. You come to the bench and you watch Ray or Adam go out there and do what they do each shift, it brings the best out of you every time."
Roy has no trouble putting into perspective what the Big Three have meant to the Avalanche. "During my playing career I had the chance to play with Larry Robinson and Chelios and these guys, and after that Desjardins. I always had a chance to play in front of great defenses. This defense is as good as I've played throughout my career. I consider it a privilege to play in front of guys like Ray Bourqe and Adam Foote and Rob Blake and the rest of the group."
Bourque's foes don't begrudge him the acclaim he is justly receiving at this point in his career. But the Devils bench doesn't feel that a Stanley Cup is necessary for Bourque's legacy to be complete. "With what he has done and accomplished," says Devils captain Scott Stevens, "[not winning a Cup] doesn't change in my eyes what he has done as a player and how good he is."
Coach Robinson concurs. "You cannot take away what Ray has meant to the game and what a terrific hockey player Ray has been over his career," stresses Robinson. "No matter whether he wins a Stanley Cup or not, as soon as he decides to hang them up he will be in the Hall of Fame, first and foremost because there is no one more deserving to be there than Raymond."
So big has his story been throughout hockey and on the Avalanche, that any other year's primary sidebar -- the loss of Peter Forsberg and his spleen -- has been virtually ignored in the media and the locker room. Not even Forsberg's debilitating, life-threatening condition couldn't steal focus from the Bourque saga for more than a day.
"That has been pressure," Foote says of the season-long quest to bring Bourque a Cup. "It is something that we have been talking about all year as a team. We have taken it to heart. We have been determined since day one. It is for the fans, it is for all of us and it is going to be for Ray."
"He has meant so much to the game and has done so much in the last 22 years," says team captain Joe Sakic. "That definitely would be nice to see him win one."
"We're in the middle of the best time of our career, everybody," says Roy. "We have a guy on our team that plays for 22 seasons, 20 in Boston, and gave his heart to that organization and never really had a chance to win a Cup. When Ray came over to Colorado, we knew it was a big decision on his part. He believed a lot in that team. Since he's joined our team it's been a big motivation for our team, and everybody in the back of their mind thinks about Ray. We'd love to see that happen. That's what we're focusing on."
Perhaps it's a form of his leadership that Bourque is able to shoulder so much attention on his quest for the Cup, taking his teammates out of the spot lights to a certain extent. With the increased scrutiny that the Finals brings, he's been somewhat astounded by the unending appeal of his angle.
"Probably like a lot of people, I'm getting a little tired of hearing about Ray Bourque, Ray Bourque, Ray Bourque this, Ray Bourque that," he good-naturedly told reporters after the Avalanche's Game 1 victory brought him a step closer to his goal. "I am here to do a job and play hockey and win -- try to win -- my first Cup. It is a great story, but until it happens, that's all it is, a story. I hope everything comes true. In the meantime, I'm kind of getting sick of seeing my face all over the place."
But when asked if all the attention, the scrutiny, the pressure has kept him from stepping back and enjoying the Finals for even a minute, Bourque doesn't hesitate to respond. "I'm enjoying every second of it. I am having fun with it. For me, it is where I want to be. I am not holding anything back."