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100 Greatest Players

Pavel Bure: 100 Greatest NHL Players

'Russian Rocket' led Canucks to Stanley Cup Final, won back-to-back goal-scoring titles with Panthers

by John MacKinnon / Special to

Pavel Bure made his NHL debut with the Vancouver Canucks on Nov. 5, 1991, and it didn't take long for the creative right wing with blazing speed and a lethal scoring touch to earn his nickname.

Getting a load of the then-20-year-old Bure's eye-popping acceleration and straight-ahead speed in his first game with the Canucks, Vancouver Sun columnist Iain MacIntyre wrote: "He is the fastest Soviet creation since Sputnik."


Video: Pavel Bure won back-to-back scoring titles


Thus was Bure branded "The Russian Rocket." 

There were some crucial differences. Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite, was an ungainly hunk of metal launched into space in 1957. Zooming along in an elliptical orbit at 18,000 mph, Sputnik could circumnavigate the planet in 96.2 minutes.

Bure, who appeared to hit top speed from a standing start, only seemed to be going 100 mph in the boarded confines of a hockey rink. But from the instant he hit Vancouver, the Canucks and their fans orbited Bure, not the other way around.


Games: 702 | Goals: 437 | Assists: 342 | Points: 779


"Pavel came in with a bang and that's how he played," former teammate and linemate Ryan Walter said in 2012 when it was announced Bure would enter the Hockey Hall of Fame. "His speed was incredible.

"I had a chance to play on the same line with Guy Lafleur and people were the same with Pavel when he got the puck. The fans stood up and they expected something to happen. Pavel was like that. Really an amazing player."

Bure burned to score goals, his passion expressed with his speed, skill and on-ice body language that clearly signaled he had one thing in mind. Fans love players like that, and the Vancouver faithful took to Bure in a collective eyeblink.

About 2,000 fans attended Bure's first practice with the Canucks on Nov. 3, 1991, one of the first manifestations of what came to be called Pavel-mania.

With his boyish good looks and on-ice brilliance, Bure was Canucks fans' first hopeless crush. He didn't score in his first NHL game, but he delivered an electrifying preview of coming attractions, with three end-to-end rushes that lifted fans out of their seats at the dowdy old Pacific Coliseum.

"Obviously, it was my first game and I was a little bit nervous," Bure said years later. "We had a great team and a great coaching staff and those guys made me really comfortable.

"So that was before the game. As soon as the puck dropped, I felt really comfortable."

He played with such furious intensity that night that his being kept off the scoresheet in the 0-0 tie with the Winnipeg Jets didn't seem to matter.

"He was unbelievable," Brian Burke, then the Canucks assistant general manager, told Sports Illustrated later that season.

Finally, a true superstar by any measure had landed in Vancouver, a player whose talent was commensurate with the city's spectacular physical setting. 

"Pavel was doomed to a life of celebrity," Burke swiftly concluded.

Bure, selected by Vancouver in the sixth round (No. 113) of the 1989 NHL Draft, was ahead of schedule in jumping from CSKA Moscow in his hometown to the NHL; he had another year to go on his contract and it was still a few years before talent from the Soviet system would flow freely into the League following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

After Bure, his father, Vladimir, and his brother, Valeri, left their homeland and flew to Los Angeles, he had to negotiate his release from CSKA Moscow and the Soviet Ice Hockey Federation.

That intense, time-consuming bit of wrangling, in which Bure kicked in $50,000 to help secure his release, delayed his NHL debut.

But Bure, who had starred for the Soviet Union at the 1989 World Junior Championship on a line with Alexander Mogilny and Sergei Fedorov, came as advertised. He scored 60 points (34 goals, 26 assists) in 65 games in 1991-92, winning the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie.

Then Bure got serious, finishing with 60 goals in '92-93 and '93-94, the latter total leading the League, and scoring more than 100 points in each of those seasons. Bure led the Canucks on an unforgettable Stanley Cup Playoff journey in '94, one that took them to Game 7 of the Final against the New York Rangers. He had 31 points, including a League-high 16 goals, in 24 playoff games that season.

One of those goals was among the most memorable in Canucks history; it eliminated the Calgary Flames in double overtime of Game 7 of the first round.

Defenseman Jeff Brown fed Bure a tape-to-tape outlet pass the wing collected as he accelerated to split the Flames defense and zoom in on goalie Mike Vernon on a breakaway. Bure faked to his backhand before tucking the puck past Vernon on the forehand while Flames defenseman Zarley Zalapski, chasing frantically, tried to hook Bure to the ice. As Bure veered off to the left of the goal, Zalapski slid hard into Vernon like a bowling ball, upending the goalie and leaving both of them tangled up in the goal as Bure scored to give the Canucks a 4-3 victory.

Video: 1994 Round 1, Gm7: Bure's 2OT breakaway douses Flames

That's the way Bure played. He was so gifted that he made the sublime seem easy, and had opponents tripping over themselves trying to defend him. 

Sadly for the adoring Canucks fans, Bure's Vancouver tenure turned out to be frustratingly brief. After seven seasons with the Canucks, Bure, who had been at odds with management for years, sat out to start the 1998-99 season in an attempt to force a trade.

He got his wish when Vancouver sent him to the Florida Panthers on Jan. 17, 1999.

In Florida, Bure he got to play with Valeri, a right wing. He also was able to live something approaching a normal life in Miami, with far less daily scrutiny and no Pavel-mania.

His scoring touch remained intact; he scored 58 goals in 1999-2000 and 59 in 2000-01, winning the Maurice Richard Trophy each time as the League's leading goal-scorer. In '99-00, Bure also had 94 points, finishing second to Jaromir Jagr for the Art Ross Trophy, given to the NHL's scoring leader, and did it despite coming off knee surgery.

The Panthers traded Bure to the New York Rangers on March 18, 2002, and, for a time, "The Russian Rocket" lifted off on Broadway. Bure scored 12 goals and had eight assists in 12 games for the Rangers to finish the 2001-02 season.

But it wasn't enough to propel the Rangers into the playoffs. The next season, Bure's final one in the NHL, he was limited to 39 games because of more knee issues. In December of 2002, Bure had surgery on both knees, and another injury to his right knee in March of 2003 effectively ended his NHL career. He played his final NHL game March 15, 2003, 16 days before his 32nd birthday.

On Nov. 1, 2005, in Moscow, Bure announced his retirement and was named general manager of Russia's men's Olympic hockey team. He certainly had international portfolio. 

In 1998, Bure scored five goals in a 7-4 win against Finland in the Olympic semifinals to help Russia advance to the gold-medal game, where it lost to lights-out goaltender Dominik Hasek and the Czech Republic 1-0.

Injuries limited Bure to 702 NHL games, during which he scored 437 goals -- 254 of them for the Canucks -- and had 342 assists for 779 points. He had 35 goals and 35 assists for 70 points in 64 Stanley Cup Playoff games, all but four of them with Vancouver. Bure played in one Stanley Cup Final.

By consensus in Vancouver, Bure easily remains the best and most exciting player to don a Canucks jersey. The Canucks and Bure repaired their relationship over time, and Vancouver retired his No. 10 on Nov. 2, 2013.

It was well deserved. With his blinding speed and offensive flair, Bure was a rare player who consistently delivered art on ice, when he was healthy.

"I loved to score, but I was trying to do something creative, to beat the guys with different moves," Bure said in 2012 upon his induction into the Hall of Fame. "Then, you didn't have [the] Internet, or so many cameras. You had to go on the ice and do something there so that people would go talk to their friends and say, maybe it's fun to go watch that team or that player.

"That's something I wanted to do."

In his prime, the "Did-you-see-what-Bure-did-last-night?" word of mouth traveled almost as fast as he did. So, mission accomplished, and then some.


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