MONTREAL -- Already an inspiration for the Metis community in his home town of Lac La Biche, Alberta, Rene Bourque also happens to be one of the most interesting players to ever don a Habs jersey. Though most fans would not consider the six-foot-two forward to be a once-in-a-generation star like Maurice Richard, Guy Lafleur or Patrick Roy, Bourque’s hockey journey is perhaps one of the greatest underdog stories never to be told in NHL history. Read on to find out why.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, the famed English-Canadian author popularized a little-known theory about hockey, namely that players born earlier in the year (closer to January 1) are over-represented in the major leagues due to the cut-off birth dates for minor hockey registration. According to the book, kids born earlier are bigger, stronger and more mature than their younger counterparts, and are more likely to receive better coaching and play against better competition growing up – a recipe for success in any sport.
Rene Bourque was born on December 10, 1981. Currently, there are only 12 forwards in the NHL born in the last month of the year who have scored more career points than the undrafted Bourque (268 in 520 games). Established players ranked above Bourque include All-Stars Paul Stastny (drafted 44th overall in 2005), Johan Franzen (97th overall, 2004), and Daniel Alfredsson (133rd, 1994).
A road less taken
At age 17, Alex Galchenyuk was coming off an 83-point-in-68-game performance for the Sarnia Sting of the OHL, one of the toughest and tightest-checking Major Junior leagues in the world. A 17-year-old David Desharnais also competed in the Canadian Hockey League in the QMJHL, becoming the Chicoutimi Sagueneens’ fourth-best scorer as a rookie. Meanwhile, at the same age, Bourque was not even playing Major Junior hockey, but competing in Midget AAA as one of the oldest players in the SMHL. He had already decided to stay in Saskatchewan and play Junior AAA the following season instead of quitting school and pursuing CHL hockey at the expense of getting an education.
As Canadian amateur scouts are usually busy keeping tabs on CHL players like Galchenyuk in the months leading up to the draft, few bothered to drive all to way to Saskatchewan to check on Bourque’s progress in Junior AAA, where he starred for the St. Alberts Saints. The 18-year-old would go unclaimed in the NHL Entry Draft and spent the next four years playing NCAA Division I hockey at the University of Wisconsin, graduating with a Consumer Behavior and Business degree.
After difficult rookie and sophomore campaigns in Wisconsin, the winger clung on to his dream of both earning his degree and eventually playing in the NHL. Bourque’s physical and technical development throughout his collegiate career finally allowed him to score a team-leading 36 points in 42 games as a 22-year-old senior. However, he was still considered a long-shot prospect, considering that former Wisconsin teammate and fellow 22-year-old Dany Heatley (a January baby) had just scored 41 goals for the Atlanta Thrashers of the NHL after leaving the UW Badgers three years prior.
At that moment, it would have been hard to imagine Bourque making an impact at the pro level. Still, the Chicago Blackhawks took a chance on the free agent, and Bourque, by then nearly up to his fighting weight of 213 pounds, earned Rookie of the Year honours during his lone AHL season before making the jump to the NHL and topping the 20-goal plateau three times as a Calgary Flame.
What to expect now
Coming off his career-best 27-goal, 58-point season in 2009-10, Calgary offered the power forward a six-year contract, banking on the fact that Bourque would continue to produce at the same rate up until his 35th birthday.
However, that would be betting against the odds, as NHL forwards tend to peak in their mid-twenties, and then score gradually less over time. With time, exactly that happened, and the Flames traded Bourque to the Canadiens with Patrick Holland and the pick which would later become Zachary Fucale, in exchange for Michael Cammalleri, Karri Ramo and a fifth-round pick. As a comparison, Heatley went from a 50-goal scorer as a 25-year-old to someone who has yet to score more than 26 in a single campaign since turning 30. The best point of reference for Bourque could be the career arc of former Hab Martin Rucinsky. The Czech had his most productive years in Montreal, between the ages of 24 and 30, and then bounced around the league averaging 36 points per season up until his retirement at age 36.
Going forward, in addition to making an impact off the ice with his charity work, focused on helping rural Alberta kids afford to compete in hockey, Bourque could still cause some damage on the ice thanks to his heavy shot and quick stride. After all, the aforementioned Rucinsky did put up 55 points in 52 games as a 34-year-old in 2005-06. Looking back at the way Bourque’s career evolved, it is fair to say that anything is possible.
Jack Han is a writer for canadiens.com.
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