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100 Greatest Players

Ray Bourque: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Hall of Fame defenseman won Norris Trophy five times with Bruins, Stanley Cup with Avalanche in 2001

by George Johnson / Special to

The Colorado Avalanche had just lost Game 5 of the 2001 Stanley Cup Final to the New Jersey Devils. Instead of being up 3-2 in the best-of-7 series, they were heading east one loss from elimination. 

Before an optional skate two days prior to Game 6, Avalanche coach Bob Hartley came into the dressing room looking for answers.


Video: Ray Bourque capped career with dramatic Cup in 2001


"I said to the guys, 'What do you think? Does anyone have anything to say?'" Hartley said. "I probably walked three or four times around the locker room. Everybody had their heads down. Not a word.

"We knew we had opened the door for the Devils to win the Stanley Cup at home. It was hard enough to beat those guys in Denver, let alone New Jersey. Obviously the pressure was on us. No one would talk."

But then defenseman Ray Bourque, who was at the end of his brilliant 22-season career that began with the Boston Bruins and would end in Denver, and who was still without a Stanley Cup, spoke.


Games: 1,612 | Goals: 410 | Assists: 1,169 | Points: 1,579


"Tears were actually rolling down his cheeks," Hartley said. "And he said: 'It's in your hands. I know there has been a lot of talk about my future. Well, after this, I'm done. I have one or two games left. You will decide how many more games I have left to play.' Then he sat down.

"You could've heard a pin drop. Funeral-home silence. That was the shortest meeting I've ever been a part of. Nobody wanted to be part of canceling the party for Ray."

The Avalanche forced Game 7 with a 4-0 victory at New Jersey and came home to give Bourque, a five-time Norris Trophy winner, a memorable send-off. They delivered, winning 3-1, and captain Joe Sakic then produced one of the most indelible images of Bourque's career.

After accepting the Stanley Cup from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Sakic, instead of taking the customary victory lap, handed the Cup to the 40-year-old Bourque for the symbolic first twirl. An exultant Bourque, the reference point for two generations of NHL defensemen, hoisted the Cup and kissed it before breaking down in tears.

Video: 2001 Cup Final, Gm7: A Cup for Bourque

It was the moment he'd dreamed of growing up in Montreal watching players like Ken Dryden, Yvan Cournoyer, Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lafleur bring home championships.

Reality had proven a bit more fickle than imagination.

Bourque was blessed with a hard shot, could skate like the wind and make pinpoint passes out of the defensive zone. On June 26, 2001, he retired with the most goals (410) and points (1,579) by a defenseman in NHL history.

Bourque's career overlapped with those of many stellar defensemen, including Robinson, Paul Coffey, Chris Chelios, Denis Potvin, Brian Leetch, Scott Stevens, Al MacInnis, Chris Pronger, Rob Blake, Nicklas Lidstrom and Scott Niedermayer.

But he remained the gold standard.

"Al, Pronger, [Coffey], Potvin, those other guys … all great players," said Brian Sutter, who coached Bourque for three seasons with the Bruins. "And I mean great players. But Raymond was a notch above them, above everybody. In my opinion, [he was] the greatest defenseman since the greatest-ever defenseman, Bobby Orr.

"He just did … everything. And [did it] as good [as] or better than anyone else. Was solid defensively, ran the power play, a guy that was always way better in his off side of the rink, played 30-35 minutes a night, every night.

"Every year, people used to ask me who I liked for the Norris Trophy (awarded to the League's top defenseman). And every year I'd give 'em the same answer: Ray Bourque. Force of habit, I guess. But the guy was only the best defenseman on the planet for 20 years."

Bourque's NHL journey began at the 1979 NHL Draft, when Boston selected him with the No. 8 pick. Amazingly, he was the fourth defenseman taken that year.

He made the Bruins as an 18-year-old and finished with 65 points, becoming the highest-scoring rookie defenseman in NHL history to that point. Bourque won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie and was named to the First All-Star Team.

He won his first Norris Trophy after a 95-point season in 1986-87. Only Orr (eight) Doug Harvey (seven) and Lidstrom (seven) have won the award more times than Bourque.

The 1986-87 season would be the last full season Bourque would wear No. 7, his original number. In the ultimate show of respect and unquestionably his most memorable moment in Boston, on Dec. 3, 1987, the night the Bruins retired Phil Esposito's No. 7, Bourque pulled off his No. 7 jersey to reveal No. 77, which he wore for the rest of his career.

Bourque played in his first Stanley Cup Final the following spring, but the Bruins were swept by Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers. Boston returned to the Final in 1990; however, Edmonton won again, this time without Gretzky.

Despite Bourque's brilliance, the Bruins struggled as the 1990s progressed and time seemed to be running out on his chance to win the Stanley Cup, so he requested a trade away from the only pro hockey home he'd known. On March 6, 2000, the Bruins traded Bourque, their all-time leader in games played (1,518), assists (1,111) and points (1,506), and forward Dave Andreychuk to the Avalanche for forward Brian Rolston, two minor league prospects and a first-round draft pick.

"Why now?" he said after the trade. "Well, two reasons. One: I asked to be traded because I want to win a Cup. It's the one thing I haven't accomplished in my career. And two: At this point in time, I needed a change.

"I want to find out what's left to Ray Bourque."

It turned out there was plenty left. Bourque finished with 14 points in 14 regular-season games for the Avalanche, then had nine in 13 playoff games to help Colorado reach the Western Conference Final, though the Avalanche lost to the Dallas Stars in seven games.

Bourque impressed the Avalanche with his dedication as much as his play.

"He never took a day off," Hartley said. "I remember once hiding his skates in my desk so he wouldn't go out for an optional practice. Oh, he was mad. 'Where are my skates?' he was asking the trainer, me, anybody who'd listen.

"But I've got a 40-year-old defenseman who plays 30 minutes a night, and I want him rested."

Bourque had seven goals and 59 points in 80 games in 2000-01 for the Avalanche, who won the Presidents' Trophy with 118 points. On March 24, 2001, he played his first game in Boston since the trade and had two assists in a 4-2 victory.

Bourque drew cheers during warmups and waved to the crowd with his helmet off. He later saluted the crowd with his stick upon taking the ice for the start of the game as the first Avalanche player out of the tunnel, acknowledging an ovation that began before he even skated out.

"I'll always be a Bruin," he told that day. "I have a lot of memories here that can't be taken away."

On Feb. 21, 2001, the Avalanche acquired veteran defenseman Rob Blake from the Los Angeles Kings. As with Bourque a year earlier, Colorado brought in Blake specifically with a championship in mind.

"The biggest thing for me was the energy he brought every day," said Blake, now the assistant general manager of the Kings. "He still played top-four minutes when I got there. The passion he had for the game … you could see how he played so long at such a high level."

Blake often partnered with Bourque during the rest of the season.

"You've got to take into consideration he was 40 years old," said Blake, who was then 31, "but he could get caught out for a two-minute shift, a penalty-kill shift maybe, running around in his own zone, but he'd come over to the bench, take one or two deep breaths and be ready to go again.

"It amazed me. You're thinking 'You've got to be worn down, playing 25 minutes a night for over 20 years.' But he had this ability to calm his whole body down."

In the ultimate reward for his endurance, Bourque, who had played 1,612 regular-season games, finally got to hoist the Cup after his 214th and final postseason game.

"The way it unfolded was really special," Blake said. "With a minute left, you know you've won. No one had talked about it, not out loud, but that part where Joe handed the Cup to Ray Bourque to be the first one to lift it … It showed the regard everyone had for Ray and also the class of Joe.

"You can't go out any better than that."

Other accolades would follow. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2004, and his No. 77 was retired by the Bruins and Avalanche.

But the events of June 9, 2001, provided the definitive image the hockey world holds of Bourque. He had waited 22 seasons, longer than anyone Cup-winning player in history, to hoist it, but that only made winning it sweeter.

"I remember there being 10-11 seconds left on the clock," Hartley said. "Faceoff in our zone. Ray had played a lot and he was just exhausted. I went to [assistant coach] Jacques [Cloutier] and said: 'We've gotta throw Ray on the ice. There's no way he's winning the Cup sitting on the bench.'

"I didn't even watch the puck those last 11 seconds. My eyes were on Ray. Even though I was a coach in that game, for that last faceoff I was a hockey fan, like everybody else. Watching one of the greatest stories, one of the greatest players, in NHL history."

That story ended in the best way possible for Bourque.

"It took a long time, but the timing was perfect," Bourque said in announcing his retirement on June 26, 2001. "For me, this is a pretty neat finish. It means I retire as a champion."


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