June 9, 2021 will mark 20 years since the most iconic Stanley Cup handoff in NHL history. Legendary defenseman Ray Bourque, having completed the final game of his career at 40 years old, accepted the trophy from Colorado Avalanche captain Joe Sakic and ended a 22-year wait.
In 2020, Bourque caught up with The Hockey News to discuss his career for the special collector’s edition magazine, The Top 100 Defensemen of All-Time. In that interview, he told the tale of the winning his first Stanley Cup. This is an updated version of that feature.
It was September 1979. The Boston Bruins’ emotional wounds were scabbing over after a devastating Game-7 overtime loss to the Montreal Canadiens in the semifinal the previous post-season.
Brad Park, who was on the ice for the crushing goal, was entering the back end of an all-time great career. At 31, he was tasked with mentoring a new generation of Bruins D-men. One of them was a sturdy young kid named Brad McCrimmon. The other, though, really caught Park’s attention. Ray Bourque was only 18, but Park was convinced he’d make the team.
That really meant something, because in 1979, perhaps more than any other NHL year, being 18 made you an underdog. Not only did the league lower the draft age from 20 to 18 that year, but the draft was also the first since the NHL/WHA merger. Any WHA players young enough to meet the requirements could be picked. The lowering of the draft age essentially put three years’ worth of picks into one draft class, and the WHA offered players who already had pro experience. That put the 18-year-olds at a disadvantage.
According to Harry Sinden, GM of the Bruins in 1979, the consensus among front offices league-wide was that the WHA kids would fly off the board in succession at the top of the draft. The WHA feeder system and bias toward older players were largely responsible for what, in hindsight, looks like a bunch of legendary players being stolen with later picks. It was a big reason why Bourque slipped to eighth.
The Colorado Rockies wanted a defenseman at No. 1 overall and chose the older Rob Ramage, who had a year of pro experience with the WHA’s Birmingham Bulls. Several other WHA players came off the board to open the first round. The Bruins scouts were enamored with 19-year-old defenseman Keith Brown. The arguing continued right up until draft day. But Sinden had seen Bourque play a handful of games in a prospect tournament and was adamant he was the kid to take.
“I said, ‘I’ve never seen Brown play, and I’ve seen Bourque play, so if you decide to take Brown, it better work, because I know how good Bourque is,’ ” Sinden said.
The point was rendered moot when Chicago grabbed Brown one pick before Boston’s turn. Bourque became a Bruin and showed up to camp as a rosy-cheeked teenager. As a first-rounder, Bourque possessed great raw tools, and they stood out quickly. He was strong for his age, debuting at a stout 5-foot-11 and 197 pounds. He was fast. He shot the puck hard and accurately. He was a tremendous passer. But what really impressed Park was that Bourque was an absolute sponge. Park dished out daily tips, from waiting for screens and shooting the puck through traffic to keeping shots about eight inches off the ice, just high enough to get over the goalie’s stick blade. Bourque couldn’t get enough.
“It was eagerness to learn and develop,” Park said. “Being a young guy, he would try things, and when they’d work out, the smile on his face was a wonderful sight. When things didn’t work out, he would mutter to himself. The attitude was that he wanted knowledge, he wanted to improve his game and had that determination. He constantly worked on his skills and his shooting and his passing.”
Picture Sidney Crosby’s famously obsessive, student-like approach to the game, place it inside the brain of a defenseman, and you have Bourque. Whether it was workouts or drills or practices or summer training, Bourque couldn’t do anything half-heartedly. He embodied fiery competitiveness. His need for greatness could’ve driven him to madness, but he harnessed it just enough to weaponize it.
“It was never being satisfied, regardless of how things were going, and looking for perfection on a daily basis,” Bourque said. “Knowing that you’ll never reach it made me a very consistent player and allowed me, year in, year out, to always stay hungry to try to be the best you can be. When I look back on my career when I speak about looking for perfection, it’s, ‘You’ll never reach it, but don’t let it destroy you. Let it feed you and make you as good as you can be.’ ”
Bourque’s blend of skill and preparation made him an instant success. He won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie in 1979-80 and was a first-team all-star. No skater had ever accomplished both in the same season. That set what would’ve been an impossibly high standard for some going forward, but Bourque maintained it. He was a driver of the Bruins’ offense, a master of shooting from a variety of angles and setting up great scorers like Cam Neely with precision passes. Bourque and Paul Coffey were the dominant defensemen of the mid-to-late 1980s. Bourque won five Norris Trophies in an eight-season stretch between 1986-87 and 1993-94. He competed on playoff teams in each of the first 17 seasons of his career. He was one of the game’s elite offensive defensemen but was just as stellar defensively, blending intelligent anticipation with underrated physical play, peaking at a beastly 223 pounds.
It was always Bourque sent out against rivals’ top forwards, usually with regular partner Don Sweeney.
“That was a lot of fun,” Bourque said. “You go against Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, probably the two best players I played against, and then another night you’re going against Eric Lindros, John LeClair and Mikael Renberg. Totally different package of players, but very challenging and fun, especially when you get the job done.”
Yet as Bourque racked up individual accolades, questions bubbled up about whether he’d ever win a championship. So much of his career coincided with dynasties. The New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers won nine of 11 Cups between 1980 and 1990. Bourque’s Bruins reached the final in ’88 and ’90 but won just a single game in nine matchups across the two series with Edmonton.
“In ’90, we had a really good shot,” Bourque said. “I thought we matched up a lot better than we did the first time we played Edmonton. It was very disappointing that we didn’t find a way to do better. To just win one game, it was very frustrating, because I thought we came out, played really well in that first game and lost in triple OT.”
As the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings established mini-dynasties with multiple titles in the 1990s, Bourque began to wonder if his Bruins had missed their window. By 1996-97, they were out of the playoffs, picking first overall in the draft and commencing a rebuild around Joe Thornton. Bourque was creeping up toward his 40s. An agonizing thought popped in his head: if he was going to win a Stanley Cup, it might have to be outside Boston, a city he’d grown to love with all his heart. The anguish came to a head during Boston’s ugly 1999-2000 season.
“It had been a while, we weren’t very good for a few years, and then especially that last year, it was really getting hard to go to the rink,” Bourque said. “I was always one that was very excited, with passion and energy and all that, and that was wearing me down, and I was 39. I needed to go somewhere (else) to see if it was my age or if it was just the situation that I was in.”
Turns out it was the latter. After Bourque requested a trade, Sinden found a taker for a blockbuster on March 6, 2000, sending Bourque to the Colorado Avalanche, who were loaded with future Hall of Famers, from Joe Sakic to Peter Forsberg to Patrick Roy. Joining a great team gave Bourque a legitimate shot at a championship, and he added something to the Avs on top of his still-great play: the win-it-for-Ray factor. Everyone in that dressing room was determined to get Bourque a Cup. The Avs lost a Game-7 heartbreaker to Dallas in the 2000 Western Conference final, but Bourque re-upped on a one-year pact for 2000-01. He and his wife knew it would be his final year, championship or not.
During training camp, Bourque posted the motto ‘MISSION 16W’ in the dressing room. His teammates embraced the win-it-for-Ray mentality even more.
“You know that they want to help you, and it got annoying, actually,” Bourque said with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Come on. We want to win it for each other.’ ”
The Avs clawed their way to the 2001 Cup final and fell behind 3-2 in the series against New Jersey but forced a Game 7 back in Denver. Bourque knew it was his final outing: one do-or-die game for the Cup. On the flight home before Game 7, Sakic started cooking up an idea. As Bourque put it:
“I remember Joe just chasing me down in the plane after we won Game 6 and asking, ‘How are we gonna do this?’
“I said, ‘Do what, Joe?’
“He said, ‘The Cup thing.’
“I’m like, ‘Joe, let’s just win the game first. We’ll have plenty of time to figure out what we’re gonna do.’ ”
After Colorado triumphed in Game 7 with a 3-1 victory, Sakic executed what many consider the most iconic Stanley Cup handoff in history. He accepted the trophy from commissioner Gary Bettman and, instead of hoisting it, pivoted right to Bourque. The call from ESPN announcer Gary Thorne: “And after 22 years… Raymond Bourque!” Overcome with emotion, Bourque raised the Cup for a few glorious moments and graciously tried to hand it back, but Sakic refused, demanding that Bourque skate a lap with it.
“It was a great team, we had a great year, but it was a good story,” Bourque said. “It’s just a win-win situation for everybody. The old guy chasing the Cup works out, and his last year, his 22nd year, he retires and he walks off a champion. Joe wanted to make sure I was the first one to hoist it, and I appreciate the move he made. It was a classy move, and he’s a classy guy and a great player, and he had lifted that before, so he wanted me to experience it.”
Retiring after more than two decades, Bourque had little left to give the game. Instead of going the coaching or front-office route, he chose to spend time with his wife, his daughter and his two hockey-playing sons and to work on his charity, the Bourque Family Foundation. He still lives in Boston, the city he fell in love with 40-plus years ago. He wishes to this day he could’ve experienced winning the Cup as a Bruin, but it’s tough to imagine a higher finishing note than his, capping a 22-year chase for perfection.
Though he denies it, it’s fair to wonder if his staggering statistical resume, one of unrivalled consistency, is partially the product of a man who always had the Stanley Cup carrot dangling in front of him. It wasn’t just that he won five Norris Trophies, the fourth-most all-time. Bourque never finished lower than seventh in his 22 seasons. He was a Norris finalist 15 times and a runner-up six times, including 2000- 01, his final NHL season, at 40. His 13 first-team all-star selections are the most by any player at any position, ever. He was a first- or second-team all-star 17 years in a row to start his career and 19 times overall. He’s the NHL’s all-time leader in shots. No defenseman has more career goals, assists or points.
Is it possible that, even as The Hockey News’ choice for the No. 5 defenseman of all-time, Bourque is slightly underrated? He was still an elite player right down to his final season. No defenseman has maintained such a high standard for as long as Bourque did.
“If anybody is ahead of him, it’s probably because they won more Stanley Cups, that would be my guess,” Park said. “Sometimes there are defensemen who have won Stanley Cups that couldn’t carry Ray’s skates.”