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Splendid Sophomores

by Staff Writer / Washington Capitals
A little more than two hours north of Washington, the Capitals’ Hershey Bears affiliate in the American Hockey League is off to another strong start. The defending Calder Cup champion Bears have picked up at least a point in 32 of their first 36 games this season, and their 25-4-3-4 record is good for 57 points, tops in the league. The team is teeming with quality players, but Caps fans are keeping an eye on a pair of sophomores who are progressing nicely.

Eric Fehr and Chris Bourque come from very different backgrounds, and both came to the Bears via different routes. Both players are now in their second pro seasons with the Bears, both have shown a knack for scoring key goals, and both are among Hershey’s most improved players this season.

alt Fehr came into the Caps’ fold first when he was chosen in the first round (18th overall) of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. After potting 26 goals for the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League in his draft year, Fehr netted 50 and 59 respectively, in his final two seasons of junior hockey. In his last season (2004-05) with Brandon, Fehr won the Bobby Clarke Trophy as the league’s top scorer and was also named WHL player of the year. Fehr followed up that fabulous final campaign with 16 goals and 32 points in 24 playoff contests with the Wheat Kings.

He signed his first pro contract with Washington in the summer of 2005, and turned pro with the Bears last season. As a 20-year-old kid playing his first pro season, he netted 25 goals for Hershey and got into 11 games with the parent Capitals. He was ninth among AHL rookies in goals and he led the Bears with 14 power play goals. Fehr is the first Caps farmhand to come into the AHL and score 20 or more goals as a first-year pro since Jaroslav “Yogi” Svejkovsky netted 38 for the Portland Pirates in 1996-97.

As a rookie in the league, Fehr also showed a propensity for scoring timely goals. He tallied twice in Game 7 of the 2006 AHL Eastern Conference finals, and both goals were huge. The first came in the final minute of the first period, and it cut a 2-0 Hershey deficit in half. The second was the first Game 7 overtime game-winner in the franchise’s long and storied history.

“He came in here at the beginning of the year and told us, ‘I only score big goals,’ remembered former Bear and Capital Graham Mink after the Bears won the Calder Cup last June. “I looked at him and thought, ‘Who is this guy?’ But it was absolutely the truth. The kid has a nose for the net and a flair for the dramatic.”

The 21-year-old native of Winkler, Manitoba got into two more games with Washington earlier this season, narrowly missing his first NHL goal. He is off to a terrific start with the Bears in 2006-07, with 18 goals and 34 points in 30 games. Despite missing a handful of games because of his recall to Washington and an injury, Fehr is second on the team in scoring and ninth in the league in goals. After posting a minus-12 defensive rating as a rookie with the Bears in 2005-06, Fehr’s plus-16 is tied for fifth in the AHL this season.

“Fehr is night and day above last year,” said Bears coach Bruce Boudreau recently. “He is not only getting the ability to get into people’s minds a little bit, but he is also hitting and hurting. He is controlling the puck in the corners, and he is still out there scoring the big goal. I think his improvement is dramatic. People said he had a good year [in 2005-06] with 25 goals as a first-year guy. But I think his overall all-around play is dramatically improved this year, his strength and his willingness to win battles.”

Fehr has added about 25 pounds of muscle since the Caps drafted him. At 6-foot-4 and 212 pounds, he is a handful down low in the offensive zone and he uses his large frame and wingspan well in protecting the puck.

“I feel a lot stronger this year,” says Fehr. “I feel I can win every battle on the pucks. I think that is just from adding weight and having a good workout program last summer. I think I have developed a lot more this year than I have in any other years. That’s what I thought I needed to do. Hopefully, I can continue to get bigger and stronger and move up to the next level.”

Bourque grew up in New England, and was spending most of his time in hockey rinks almost since he was able to walk. The son of Hockey Hall of Famer and former Bruins defenseman Raymond Bourque, Chris Bourque absorbed more hockey sense during his formative years than many players develop in a decade in the pros.

Drafted with Washington’s fourth pick (second round, 33rd overall), Bourque differs from Fehr in another way: size. The 20-year-old Bostonian stands 5-foot-8 and weighs 181 pounds. But like his idol Martin St. Louis, Bourque is quick, shifty, slippery and skilled. He is a fun player to watch, and it is impossible not to notice his gifts.

Bourque was playing high school hockey when the Caps drafted him in 2004, right after picking Alex Ovechkin, Jeff Schultz and Mike Green with their three first-round choices that year. Bourque had just finished his high school hockey career, and had committed to playing collegiate hockey at Boston University for 2004-05.

Refreshingly confident in his abilities, Bourque shrugged off claims that the Caps had reached for him early in the second round. The NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau rated him as the 74th best North American skater in the ’04 draft, a rating that failed to rankle him.

“I know I’m going to be under a microscope,” he said back then. “That central scouting list didn’t really bother me. If you come out and watch me play you’ll see that I should’ve been picked where I was or even higher.”

Bourque earned Hockey East all-rookie honors as a freshman at B.U. in 2004-05, and was named MVP of the prestigious Beanpot Tournament, in which he scored the tournament-clinching goal in overtime. He also represented his country at the World Junior Tournament in Grand Forks, N.D. that season, but his participation was limited to three games because of a knee injury. When the hockey season ended at B.U. in Mar. 2005, Bourque announced his intention to leave school and play junior hockey for Moncton in the QMJHL in 2005-06.

In the interim, he signed a contract with Washington’s Portland affiliate of the AHL, making his pro debut as a 19-year-old in the final six games of the 2004-05 season. He netted his first pro goal (an overtime game-winner, naturally) against Springfield on Apr. 15, and subsequently scotched plans to play for Moncton when Washington inked him to an entry level contract in the summer of 2005.

As one of the youngest players in the AHL last season, Bourque experienced some ups and downs. An early season concussion sidelined him, but he rebounded in time to score seven goals in seven games at the 2006 World Juniors Championship in Vancouver. Although the grind of the AHL schedule wore on him, he posted respectable totals of eight goals and 36 points in 52 games as a first-year pro.

alt In just 35 games with the Bears in 2006-07, Bourque has already exceeded last year’s goal total with 10. He has 22 points and is well on his way to obliterating his point total from 2005-06, too. Like Fehr, Bourque has improved defensively. He was minus-5 last season and is plus-10 to date in 2006-07.

Chris Bourque has matured,” Boudreau said recently. “He is coming along really well. He is a lot better with the game plan than he was last year. He is the one guy on our team that we can put on the fourth line, and yet he still plays on the power play and the penalty kill so he gets ideal ice time. Then he can fill in on the first line or the second line, he can fill in at all positions. Now I’ve got him playing a little bit of center. I think his improvement is dramatic.”

Bourque has played mostly left wing throughout his career, though he does play the point on the power play and is very effective in that role.

“[Boudreau] has used me at a lot of positions, and he told me he was going to do that,” says Bourque. “I am getting a lot of ice time compared to last year. I am getting pretty much 18 minutes a game most nights, and that helps out with your confidence. Playing that much and being in key situations at key points in the game, that really helps with your confidence. If you are going to play well, you have to be playing with confidence. And I’ve got some confidence now, so that’s good.”

Confidence is one factor, and comfort level is another component in Bourque’s improvement.

“I just know what’s going on, it seems like,” he says, when asked how things are different for him this season. “[I’m adjusting to] the teams and how much time you have. It’s my second year and it’s a much faster game than I played in college or high school, so adapting to it was a little hard. Last year I had some injury problems. Right now I feel like I am kind of in a groove, playing this many games in a row. I feel like I haven’t done that in a while. I’m getting the opportunity from coach, and just bearing down on my chances. I’m pretty happy.”

Bourque spent the summer training hard on his strength and conditioning, and he has carried that diligence into the regular season. After a recent Bears win in which he scored two goals, a handful of reporters waited patiently for him to appear and answer questions in the Hershey locker room. When he finally did, he was sweaty and winded from a vigorous postgame workout.

“I think I am stronger, and a little faster,” Bourque claims. “That helps a lot, my speed. I worked out hard last summer with my trainer and I think it is showing. It helps a lot out there when you can take guys wide and not worry about them hooking you. I think I’m better with the speed of the game, and using my teammates.”

A couple of confident and talented sophomores are helping Hershey to what could be another stellar season. But both Fehr and Bourque have set their sights on “scoring the big goals” for Washington. Given the steady progression each has shown so far, it might not be too long before they achieve that big goal.

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