Trying to predict how a teenager’s skill will evolve is not an easy task, but a role that is essential for elite teams. And while the travel can be wearing, the opportunity to find the diamond in the rough helps inspire in the elusive search.
There are rare gems that come along once in a lifetime and, for the Vancouver Canucks, Pavel Bure fit that bill. The way in which Bure was drafted would only add to the allure of his superstar flare.
Mike Penny was serving as Director of Scouting for the Vancouver Canucks at the time when he first laid eyes on the young Russian.
“I saw him as an underage player, the year before he was eligible for the draft,” recalls Penny. “And thought, oh boy, this is a guy you have to follow up on.”
And he did exactly that.
“He didn’t leave the country [Russia] much,” remembers Penny. “The only time he would leave the country to play was with the national team. If you wanted to go see him, you had to go there.”
When Pavel was first being looked at, it was during a time of political warfare. Westerners were not welcomed with open arms into the Soviet Union. Special visas had to be acquired and even then there were barriers to get to see the best hockey players behind the Iron Curtain.
This, however, was not new to Penny. At the time, the Canucks did not have a Russian scout so it was up to the Canucks brass to get over there on their own. Penny had been through the process before with Igor Larionov.
Penny continued to travel overseas to see a number of prospects and was stationed in Finland the Christmas of 1988. While he didn’t know it at the time, it would mark a historic day for Canucks hockey.
The Russian national team had travelled to train at the Finnish National training centre. Penny caught wind of it and decided to head to the facility on the 25th of December.
“I got instructions from a guy on how to get to this facility,” said Penny, who was travelling solo from Helsinki. “It was snowing heavily that day. I kept driving down a road and wasn’t sure if I got on the wrong road. I couldn’t stop and ask for directions because even the gas stations were closed because of the holiday. Finally I got to this wooded area and could see the rink at the training centre.”
It was the first time Penny had gone to this particular rink. He entered through the doors and grabbed a spot in the stands, as the sole spectator. The Russians squared off against the Finns for a sanctioned game. At the conclusion, Penny collected a game sheet for his records and headed back that night to Helsinki.
“I think back to that day in Finland that I drove all the way up there [to the facility] and not knowing if he’d be there,” said Penny. “We were at the right place at the right time.”
Six months later, Penny would join his colleagues for the 1989 NHL Entry Draft in Minnesota. By the time they reached the sixth round, Penny addressed then General Manager Pat Quinn about the young Russian.
“Pat asked ‘are you sure he’s eligible’?” recalls Penny and responded with “What’s the worst case scenario? We should take the gamble.”
The question had to be asked by Quinn because for the 1989 draft, an 18-year-old player selected after the third round would only be eligible if he had played more than 10 games over the course of two seasons in a recognized League. The NHL draft guide’s informa- tion conflicted with the intel the Canucks had.
With the 113th overall pick, the Vancouver Canucks selected Pavel Bure, raising a few eyebrows. The onus was now on the Canucks to prove he met the eligi- bility. Otherwise he would be reinstated for the 1990 NHL Entry Draft.
“We had discovered that Pavel had played 11 games,” said Penny. “We were able to get the information out of the Russian League from a man named Igor Kuperman. Then we counted the times he played with the Russian National team, including that game I saw him play on Christmas Day.”
The Canucks had proven that he was indeed draft eligible but it would be nearly two years before the young Russian would come overseas and sign with Vancouver. Working diligently with one of Bure’s North American agents Serge Levin, Canucks then Director of Hockey Operations Brian Burke would finalize the details of the contract.
“I wasn’t here when he played his first game against Winnipeg over at the PNE but I remember calling Pat and asking ‘what do you think?’” said Penny. “Pat’s response: He’s pretty good.”
It was one of the best Christmas gifts the Canucks would ever receive.