It didn't take long after Pavel Bure's NHL debut for it to become clear he was a special talent, not only because of his extremely high hockey IQ, explosiveness and speed, but because of the experience he already had.
Bure debuted with the Vancouver Canucks on Nov. 5, 1991, coming to North America after winning two World Junior Championship gold medals and one World Championship with the Soviet national team. Bure also played three seasons with the juggernaut Red Army, which dominated Soviet club hockey by recruiting all the best talent in the country. In his last season with the Red Army, at age 19, Bure scored 35 goals in 44 games.
Pavel Bure scored 34 goals and had 60 points in 65 games and won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's best rookie in 1991-92. (Photo: Getty Images)
"I was named the best forward at the WJC tournament in 1989," Bure said. "I thought to myself that if I could be successful against NHL players at this level, I would do well playing in the NHL."
The player known as the "Russian Rocket" would be proven right. In 1991-92, his first season with the Canucks, Bure scored 34 goals and had 60 points in 65 games and won the Calder Trophy as the League's best rookie. His road to the NHL, though, was an adventurous one.
"I went over to Moscow in the late '80s to scout Igor Larionov and young Bure was training with the Red Army team," said Vancouver scout Mike Penny, who spotted Bure for the Canucks. "I was watching him play and couldn't believe the things the kid was doing out there on the ice."
Bure was selected in the sixth round (No. 113) of the 1989 NHL Draft by the Canucks, but not without some controversy. Because of NHL rules at the time, Bure could be drafted only in the first three rounds because it was thought he hadn't played at least two seasons with a minimum of 11 games per season. But the Canucks managed to present documentation that he had in fact met the requirement and snatched Bure from about two dozen NHL teams interested in the speedy prodigy.
"The year he became eligible for the draft, a funny thing happened," Penny said. "It was a big confusion about how many games Bure played for the Red Army in 1987-88. Inevitably we were able to prove that he did play a sufficient amount of games and selected him, which caused a little bit of an uproar."
Bure played his first game for the Canucks against the Winnipeg Jets. On his first shift he deked around a few opponents, showing his signature stickhandling and explosiveness. Bure didn't score his first goal in the NHL until his fourth game, against the Los Angeles Kings. But from the first game he made the sold-out Pacific Coliseum fall in love with him.
"The buzz in Vancouver before my first game was huge," Bure said. "Many fans were eager to see the mysterious Soviet player. People expected me to bring the Stanley Cup to Vancouver. It made me nervous because I just wanted to have fun playing hockey without big expectations."
The baby-faced descendent of the famous Swiss watchmaker and the son of an Olympic swimming medalist combined the best attributes Soviet hockey had to offer: slick stickhandling, quick shot, great speed, and tremendous hockey IQ.
"He was always in great shape, always dedicated, highly competitive, and on top of that possessed great skill," Penny said. "He became a special player in Vancouver right out of the gate. He possessed the magnetism of a star."
Bure scored 60 goals in 1992-93, then followed up with his breakthrough season. In the 1993-94 season he led the NHL in goals with 60, then continued his run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the Canucks reached the Final, where they lost to the New York Rangers in seven games. His 16 goals and 31 points in 24 games that postseason are Canucks playoff records.
"You could play Bure on the power play, 5-on-5 and also have him killing penalties because the opponents backtracked a lot with him killing penalties," Penny said. "Once you made a mistake and he got the puck, he was gone. Bure was so versatile that technically you could play him all 60 minutes."
One of the most explosive players during his prime, Bure had arguably one of the fastest set of feet in NHL history, helping him become one of the best pure goal scorers of all-time. He had five 50-plus-goal seasons and his 0.623 goals-per-game average is fourth among players who played at least 400 games.
"A lot of players could skate well in the NHL," Canucks captain Trevor Linden said. "But Bure had a great combination of explosiveness and speed. Sometimes it seemed that he was going to take off and go airborne. He was so much fun to watch."
Even though Bure never won the Stanley Cup, the Hart Trophy or the Art Ross Trophy, he became one of the most exciting and dynamic players of his generation. Bure scored 437 goals and had 779 points in 702 games for the Canucks, Florida Panthers and Rangers before his career ended because of chronic knee injuries
Bure had it all: blinding speed, creative passing, a laser sharp shot, and the ability to beat any defender in the League.
"He lived up to his nickname; sometimes Pavel looked like a real rocket out there," Pat Quinn, who was general manager and coach of the Canucks during Bure's tenure, once said of him. "Bure was the ultimate goal-scoring machine."