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Fourth Time Around

Chris Bourque is a more mature - but still driven and competitive - player in his fourth separate stint in the Washington organization.

by Mike Vogel @VogsCaps / Monumental Sports Network

Friday at noon, the Washington Capitals placed veteran forward Chris Bourque on waivers. Bourque is one of more than two dozen players placed on waivers in the league today and if he clears, he'll be reassigned to Hershey of the AHL. This is not a surprise to Bourque or anyone else, really.

In the summer of 2015, Bourque signed a two-year deal with the Capitals. In signing on with Washington and starting his fourth separate stint with the Caps' organization, Bourque knew he was actually - for all intents and purposes - signing on for a couple more seasons in Hershey.

And while the impending certainty of an AHL assignment was enough to compel him to play overseas on two prior occasions, Bourque's mindset is different at this stage of his career.

"I had a couple of different options," says Bourque of joining the Caps' organization for the fourth time. "My wife and I have two kids now, so coming back to Hershey was always a thing that we both wanted to do. 

"It's definitely a perfect situation when you have a family with small kids. There's a lot of stuff to do and a nice community, and all that type of stuff. Obviously that goes into the decision. So we thought it was best for us to sign with Washington, and I knew I was pretty much ending up in Hershey." 

Bourque's professional hockey odyssey began when he was Washington's second-round choice (33rd overall) in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. He was the fourth player the Caps drafted that summer, following Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green and Jeff Schultz. After a season of collegiate hockey with Boston U. in 2004-05, Bourque left school to turn pro. He scored his first pro goal for the AHL's Portland Pirates as a 19-year-old at the tail end of that season.

The following season, he totaled 36 points (eight goals, 28 assists) in 52 games in his first full season in the league, and he and his Hershey teammates hoisted the Calder Cup at season's end. Bourque was summoned to Washington for the first time early in the 2007-08 season, making his NHL debut in Atlanta against the Thrashers at the age of 21 on Nov. 6, 2007. 

Bourque logged 11:58 in ice time in his NHL debut, and as it turned out, he had more ice time only once in the dozen games he played with Washington over three seasons. The Penguins claimed him off waivers from the Caps seven years ago today, on Sept. 30, 2009. 

Two months later, he was reclaimed off waivers from Pittsburgh and, back in the Capitals' organization for a second time, was reassigned to Hershey. 

Bourque was an integral part of two more Calder Cup championship teams in 2009 and 2010, and he won the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy for Hershey as the playoff MVP in 2010. 

At that point in his career, Bourque was 24 and he had little - if anything - left to prove in the AHL. But he also knew he would be hard-pressed to crack a deep and talent group of Caps forwards in Washington. In the summer of 2010, Bourque opted to sign a contract with Atlant Moscow of the KHL. That KHL stint turned out to be brief; after eight games Bourque left the KHL to play for Lugano in the Swiss League. 

His third stint with Washington began when he signed with the Caps as a free agent on July 2, 2011. Just under a year later, he was dealt to the Boston Bruins where father Raymond carved out the lion's share of his own Hall of Fame career as a fixture on the Boston backline. 

Chris Bourque got into 18 games with the Bruins in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, and that's the most recent - and longest - taste of the NHL he has had. In Bourque's NHL career, he has totaled two goals and six points in 51 games. Only once in those 51 NHL games did Bourque play as many as 15 minutes; he skated less than 10 minutes in roughly half of them.

Bourque had another aborted stint in Russia that morphed into another pleasant partial season in Switzerland in 2013-14, and has been back on this side of the pond since. 

"I'm not sure if I were to do it again that would go and play in Russia," says Bourque. "Those were spur of the moment decisions where I was 24, 25 and coming off my second Calder Cup and was MVP of the Calder Cup playoffs. They throw absurd amounts of money at you [in the KHL], money you're not getting in the minors. 

"I felt that if I signed with Washington again, I just would have ended up back in Hershey making a quarter of what I could have been making if I went to Russia. It's one of those decisions where you're like, 'I'll try it out, I'll test it out and see what happens.' It didn't work out. And then I ended up going to Switzerland, which was an unbelievable experience. I really enjoyed my time over there. Both times I went to Russia, I ended up in Switzerland. It's a great country with great hockey, and I really enjoyed my time in Switzerland."

Russia and Switzerland are in the rear view now, and Bourque is about to set sail on a third straight season in the AHL, his 10th overall. Last season, Bourque won the league scoring title with 80 points (30 goals, 50 assists) and he was named league MVP.

"Obviously getting league MVP last year was something that I'm very proud of," says Bourque. "It only goes to one player in the whole league, and it's voted on the coaches and the players and the media. People take notice of how you're playing, so that was something I was very proud of, and leading the league in scoring for the second time is also something I'm very proud of.

"Playing in Hershey, I've been very lucky. You get treated like an NHL player. We have a full barn every night, and we're treated unbelievably around the rink and around the town. I'm lucky to play in a place like Hershey. It's been great for me." 

For the fourth time in a decade, he donned the Hershey sweater in the Calder Cup final series, this time doing so with brother Ryan, who was obtained from Hartford at the trade deadline. The Bourque brothers played together at Hartford in 2014-15, and they'll be skating together again in Hershey in 2016-17.

"It means a lot," says Bourque, of getting a chance to play with his brother. "It's funny having my brother on the team. Obviously, it's real special. I played with him [in 2014-15] and we made a deep run before we lost in the conference final.

"He was a huge piece we added to our team last year. I think you could say this about a lot of guys on our team, but if we didn't add him I don't think we would get to the final. But I think you could say that about 10, 11, 12 guys on that team, where if we didn't have this specific player, we probably don't make it to the final."

Although Ryan Bourque didn't pull a Bears sweater on until last season, he was already very familiar with Hershey. 

"It's funny because in '06, when we won," recalls Chris, "I was 19 and he he's five years younger than me. He was coming here visiting me when we were going through that Calder Cup run, and doing a lot of things that a 15-year-old probably shouldn't have been doing. It's just funny looking back on those memories. Every time I've been to the Calder Cup, he's been here and has been enjoying the time we had, celebrating and doing all those crazy things. He was there for those moments. And now he is in Hershey and we played together on a team that went to the Calder Cup final.

"It's just ironic that he's here and it's real fun. Those are memories we are going to have the rest of our lives. You don't get the opportunity to play with your brother too much, and especially to make a deep run like we did so we really enjoyed that." 

There's another irony at play here, too. Back when Bourque first came into the Capitals' system, the emphasis in Hershey swung more toward winning than developing. Winning will always matter in Hershey, and winning is a critical part of development, too, but the scales have skewed more toward development since Bourque has returned to the organization. 

"I kind of wish I could have been coming into the system at a point like this where they are putting more emphasis on developing guys and getting guys ready for that next step," says Bourque. "It seems like it would have been a perfect situation for me, but probably 10 years too late.

"Now I'm on the other side where I'm helping the young guys find their roles and helping to show them what it takes to be a good pro. It's a role I like having, and it has its perks in seeing other guys succeed and helping them get to that spot where they are ready to be in the NHL."

In his fourth stint in the organization, a more mature Bourque is now part of Hershey's group of veteran leaders. 

"I think the biggest thing with him is just his maturity level," says Bears coach Troy Mann, who was an assistant coach for the Bears during the pre-Europe phase of Bourque's AHL career. "He is married and now he's got two kids, too, and I think those scenarios certainly change a person in terms of a growing up stage of your life.

"He had his moments back when I was the assistant [coach with the Bears] where sometimes maybe people would call him a selfish player. But he has really molded himself into a real good team guy, and he's just one of the go-to guys. Obviously on the ice, he had a great year last year, but that's true inside the room as well. He has the assistant captaincy for a reason; he's been part of that leadership in the room."

Last spring, when the Bears were about to head out for a weeklong trip to Toronto to face the Marlies in the Eastern Conference final, Bourque and other members of the Hershey leadership committee lobbied to have the team's group of black aces - a group that included Caps draftees Connor Hobbs and Colby Williams - travel along with the team even though they wouldn't be playing in the games. 

"Going down the stretch," remembers Mann, "there were a couple of trips where we were going to leave some guys home. And him and guys like [Zach] Sill and [team captain Garrett] Mitchell really battled and said, 'Hey, these guys are part of the team and we should be bringing them as well.' Evidently, everybody agreed and that's why guys like Hobbsie were in Toronto, instead of being back in Hershey. They felt those guys were part of the team and they should be part of whatever was going to happen in Toronto, and I think it was the right thing that we did. Certainly guys like Bourque and Sillsy were part of pushing that as well."

When any young player heads into his draft season, the possibilities of how his career plays out are myriad, and subject to the whims of environment, circumstance and many other elements outside the player's control. Any player's path can change based on the team drafting him, coaching, hurdles and roadblocks, the depth chart of the NHL team he is trying to crack and other forces both obvious and mysterious. 

Now approaching his 31st birthday (in January), Bourque has come to terms with his professional hockey career being a little bit shy of what he dreamed as a kid.

"Obviously you wonder, 'What if?' What if this, or what if that?'" admits Bourque. "But I'm pretty happy with how things have gone in my career. I've had a very successful career down in the minors. Obviously as a kid, I envisioned being an NHL player and playing in the NHL for so many years and being successful in the NHL, but it hasn't happened to me yet." 

It hasn't happened yet, and with each passing year, it becomes less likely. But if you expect Bourque to give it up, you don't know him well. 

"I'll never give up on that NHL dream until I retire," he declares firmly. "I still think that I can help a team out, given the right situation. You have to be given a fair shake. And not that I haven't been given a fair shake; it's just that the teams I've been on - like Washington - have had such unbelievable forwards. I'm not going to take Ovechkin or Backstrom or Oshie or Williams' jobs, all these guys. I'm not your prototypical third or fourth liner, so if I'm going to be given that opportunity, it's got to be in an offensive role.

"The teams I've been with - Washington, Pittsburgh and Boston - have all had their top six filled during my time there. It all comes down to me, too. When I've been up in the NHL, I haven't produced to what the coaching staff or management has wanted. Sometimes it's tough when you're playing on the third or fourth line and you're getting 5-12 minutes and you're more focused on not making mistakes instead of playing on your toes and making the plays you usually make in the minors.

"The guys that do stick up there, they do cash in on those opportunities where they get a bounce or two, and then you're playing with tons of confidence, instead of the other way where you're trying not to make a mistake. Obviously, I could have done a lot better when given that chance, but it's in the past. I would love to get another opportunity and if I do I would love to cash in on it." 

And if not, Bourque and his family are happy in Hershey as he continues to climb the AHL's all-time scoring charts. He netted his 200th AHL goal late last season, and has totaled 579 points in 582 career games in one of the best hockey leagues in the world.

If Bourque clears waivers on Saturday at noon, he'll be reassigned to Hershey. By my count, it will be the 16th time he's been re-assigned to the Bears in the last decade plus. 

"If you look at Chris six or seven years ago," says Mann, "he still believed that he was going to be playing or the Washington Capitals. And he was a dynamic player on the ice.

"Now, he's 30 years old. He was still a dominant player at the AHL level last year, but he has added that leadership aspect. Now you're giving him a letter because he deserves it and you really believe that he's a leader in the room, and not giving him a letter because of who he is and because he is a game-breaking type of player on the ice. He has certainly turned into a more well-rounded individual now in terms of helping on the ice, but also off the ice as well."

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