I don’t remember much about high school graduation day. I can picture the sun-soaked cap and gown ceremony. I can still feel the epic stomach ache that caught up to me after hours and hours of eating.
But that’s about it. Twenty years and two kids will do that to you.
There’s one memory, however, that is so sharp, I don’t even associate it with the hazy coda to my high school career – and that’s watching TV with my friends – both die-hard Bruins fans – as Colorado Avalanche captain Joe Sakic passed the Stanley Cup to Ray Bourque.
In that moment, New England’s heartbeat for and with the former Boston captain, and one of the all-time greats finally got his moment in the sun. His home jersey, trimmed with burgundy and blue, was of little consequence. It had been 15 years since Boston won a major sports title, and on the night of June 9, 2001, we were going to live vicariously through Bourque.
It was a weirdly joyous moment from an era of Boston sports that we can barely comprehend today.
A Boston icon
As freshly minted graduates, we’d known Ray Bourque as the driving force of the Bruins for our entire lives. He was an icon: a comic book hero with a spoked B shield and a comet of a slapshot. Like the Man of Steel, you could always count on him. He started his career with 17 consecutive first or second team All-Star selections and pulled down five Norris trophies as the league’s top defenseman.
And yet, “he doesn’t get enough credit,” Mike “Mike from Woburn” Curtis tells me. “To call him a ‘franchise player’ does him a disservice. I think he’s the second best defenseman in NHL history behind Bobby Orr.”
Curtis pointed out a 2016 Down Goes Brown post where Sean McIndoe identified nine seasons when Bourque finished as runner-up for a prominent trophy: six times for the Norris and three for the Hart as the league’s most valuable player. And that’s not to count the two occasions his Bruins team was runner-up for the Stanley Cup.
His consistent greatness was just remarkable.
“If you put Ray Bourque on those [1990’s] Red Wings teams and Nick Lidstrom on those Bruins teams,” Curtis proclaims, “we’d put Bourque on this absolute pedestal because he would’ve won multiple cups and done things he couldn’t come close to here.”
Close but no cigar
And therein lies the issue that clouded Bourque’s legacy as his Bruins tenure pushed two decades. His career had everything: the on-ice accolades, the game-winning goal at the 1996 All-Star Game in Boston, the really cool human moments like the Phil Esposito jersey retirement ceremony and Normand Levielle’s last skate at Boston Garden. Didn’t this guy deserve a Stanley Cup?
“When [the Bruins] missed that playoff in ‘97, I was a correspondent for The Hockey News,” says Mike Loftus, who spent more than a decade covering number 77 for The Patriot Ledger. “They were all over it [in Canada]: ‘he’s gonna go down as the greatest player to never win the Stanley Cup.’ The guy at the top of the list was always Marcel Dionne, but nobody was upset about Marcel Dionne because the perception was all he wanted to do was score as many goals as he could.”
“But that was a big thing – ‘is he ever going to get his chance?’ He was so dominant. People were bummed it was going to go that way.”
Bourque’s Bruins had a penchant for running into hockey dynasties. In the early ’80s, it was the Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier-led New York Islanders, who won four consecutive Cups and bested the B’s on the road to two of them.
Then it was the Wayne Gretzky-era Edmonton Oilers – the other great team of the decade. With Cam Neely as the Hall of Fame offensive complement to Ray’s pristine play on the blue line, the Bruins reached the Stanley Cup Final twice in three years. But they won just a single game between the two series.
“You’ve got to be lucky,” muses two-time Stanley Cup winner and longtime Bruins TV analyst Derek Sanderson. “We won the Cup in ‘70 and Montreal [amid a stretch of 10 Cups in 15 years] didn’t even make the playoffs.”
The B’s then met the back-to-back champion Pittsburgh Penguins in consecutive seasons, with the 25-year old Neely’s rocketship to hockey immortality permanently dented by a player who will not be named here.
A tumultuous decade
The ’90s were a stressful time for to be a hockey fan. Work stoppages disrupted the ‘92 playoffs and canceled nearly half of the 1994-95 season. Team payroll spending quadrupled, even quintupled in some cases. And the Bruins slowly leaked talent as price tags became more expensive, to diminishing returns.
Bourque remained, even as other franchise players started to take matters into their own hands.
By the middle of the decade, the Garden was shuttered, the Gallery Gods muted and the Bruins were pretty much two things: their star defenseman, and the longest postseason streak in the history of North American sports. Their championship window appeared to have closed.
“A player like that, for that long, and you couldn’t surround him with the right talent?” said Mike Felger, who covered the Bruins for the Boston Herald in the ’90s. “They got close a couple of times but they never really invested the money they should have invested in that roster when they had the chance. They blew it.”
During the 1996-97 campaign, the 36-year-old defenseman suited up for a last place team as the B’s missed the playoffs for the first time in 30 years. General Manager Harry Sinden would attempt one more bold redesign.
He brought in two-time Jack Adams award winner Pat Burns as head coach. He drafted Joe Thornton with the No. 1 pick and plucked Sergei Samsonov eighth overall. Jason Allison, acquired at the deadline the previous year, would finish ninth in the league in scoring in 1997-98. The B’s returned to the playoffs and won a series the following season.
“Burns did a lot with the team,” Felger remembers. “He really whipped them into shape and did a great job for a couple of years. Turning sh*t into Shinola – you know what I mean? Then, it fell apart for Pat. He couldn’t keep it together, the talent wasn’t there, and it went the other way.”
End of the road
At the start of the 1999-00 season, goalie Byron Dafoe – a Vezina finalist the season before – was mired in a contract holdout. When he came back, he got hurt. Forward Dmitri Khristich (who totaled 58 goals over the previous two seasons) was dealt for a second round pick following a contentious arbitration hearing.
“That was the point,” Loftus recalls, “where Ray said, ‘I don’t have time for a youth movement. Would you look into trading me?”
The 39-year old asked Sinden to try to move him to a contender, desiring – as he said in a 2000 interview – to “go four rounds through the playoffs…really have to battle and you really have to come together as a team Those were my fondest memories and I’d like to go through that again. I knew it wasn’t gonna happen in Boston this year.”
“I remember feeling bad for Ray Bourque,” my friend Matt Pulsifer – who invited me over on graduation night to watch the game – remembers. “I got a chance to go to a game in late February/early March and Ray just didn’t look like himself. My thought was that he was just kind of over it. And then within a week or two, he was traded.”
On March 6, 2000, after almost 21 seasons in Boston, Bourque and fellow veteran (and future Hall of Famer) Dave Andreychuk were shipped to Colorado for Brian Rolston, Martin Grenier, Samuel Pahlsson and a first round pick.
“I would not equate this to the Phil Esposito trade, or the Barry Pederson-for-Cam Neely trade where Harry took a big swing to bring in talent,” Felger posits. “I believe they were working with him and oddly enough wanting to do right by him. They wanted him to go get a championship.”
“It was Boston’s version of [the Oilers trading Wayne Gretzky to Los Angeles in 1988],” says Loftus. “You just couldn’t picture it. ‘Is this really gonna happen?’ I guess it is.”
“I have limited memory of it,” recalls 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Ty Anderson, “but remember hating it and realizing the road I was going down as a Bruins fan.”
This is the point where many New Englanders tabled their feelings for the Bruins to follow Bourque in Colorado.
“I didn’t know [the family] personally,” says Loftus, “but I remember speaking with his wife. You couldn’t watch every game you wanted to back then. And she was like, ‘how am I going to know [how the games are going]?’ I had actually started to listen to games on the Internet back then. I remember telling her, ‘well, you can at least listen online.”
“I remember being struck by just how hard Boston fans were rooting for the Avs to win the Cup,” Johnston muses. “I’d never seen anything quite like it.”
But even with the future Hall of Fame defenseman in tow, Colorado was not quite yet a team of destiny.
“He didn’t win the Cup that season,” Pulsifer recalls. “The Avs made the Conference Finals and lost in Game 7. So I felt like, maybe it was all for nothing that he left. But then he comes back for that 22nd season.”
“When he went out [to Colorado], they lost,” says Sanderson. “You get a whole year under your belt, you’re much better off.”
“That team the next year,” says Loftus, “they won everything. They won the Presidents’ Trophy; that team was so loaded.”
“And [Bourque] was a major part of that team,” remembers Curtis. “He wasn’t just a mascot like Peyton Manning. The guy was an absolute horse. He kept himself in tremendous shape.”
As dominant as the Avalanche were that year, they still fell subject to the whims of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. As such, they found themselves facing elimination in Game 6 of the Final against the defending champion Devils. But they forced a Game 7 back home, took a 3-1 lead on a Sakic goal midway through the second period, and after 22 years, Ray Bourque was finally going to get to skate with the coveted trophy.
“That moment I will never forget,” says Pulsifer. “As the captain, [Sakic] gets the Cup first and of course he’s going to lift it over his head. But he doesn’t. He barely remembers to take a photo with it before passing it over to Ray to get that first lift. Such a classy move. It just proved to me that it really was Ray’s Cup and that wasn’t just something us Boston fans felt.”
“Then, seeing the pure joy on Ray’s face, you could practically see 20 years of frustration melting away.”
The Sakic pivot, Gary Thorne’s iconic call, Bourque’s elation – I’ll just leave the link right here.
A day in the sun
Four days later, when the confetti had been cleared from the streets of Denver, 15,000 fans packed City Hall Plaza in Boston to honor a hockey hero.
“He recognized how happy so many people were back here,” Loftus opines. “I think he wanted to say thanks to people who were really happy for him.”
But for some, the event remains an uncomfortable topic.
“It was a big middle finger to the organization,” says Felger.
As Paul Doyle of The Hartford Courant wrote, “the rally to honor Bourque was as much about venting for hockey fans who have not seen a championship since 1972.”
Steve Freyer, Bourque’s agent for the entirety of his NHL career, told Steve Buckley of The Athletic that Mayor Menino came up with the idea.
“I was at the rally,” Curtis reflects. “I thought it was great.”
“Some people point to that as being a low point for Boston fans: having to celebrate another team’s championship,” says Johnston. “But I think it speaks more to how much people loved Ray for everything he had done as a Bruin.”
“It feels pathetic when you think back on it,” says Felger. “I didn’t feel it was that pathetic at the time. He was an important guy. He gets a day with the Cup; he was going to bring it back to Boston, anyway. Was he just going to bring it inside some crowded bar? Create some kind of fire hazard?”
“If Ray Bourque walks into Daisy’s and that’s his day with the Cup, that’s not quite going to do it justice.”
“I really do think you guys are going to experience this, and you deserve one,” No. 77 told the crowd, motioning to his shiny piece of hardware.
It would be some time before Bourque’s prediction proved prescient. The New England Patriots improbably took the stage at City Hall Plaza just eight months later. Children born in 2001 would see 12 major pro sports championships come to Boston before graduating high school. But hockey fans would have to wait the longest – through another lockout and the trade of another franchise player in Thornton – before the City held a Stanley Cup rally for the black and gold on June 18, 2011.
The debate over what should’ve happened to Ray Bourque – his career with the Bruins, the trade, the rally – was quick-burning fuel for the sports radio fires of the day. Those conversations continue to manifest in living rooms and bars throughout the region. But the story had a happy ending for the protagonist, and that’s the important takeaway. We cheered Ray Bourque 20 years ago because we genuinely wanted something good for him.
Remembers Loftus: “I really felt like the attitude became, ‘if it couldn’t work out for the Bruins during that era, it was good that it could work out for that one guy.”
“He was a loyal, company guy,” Felger states. “He’s a Bruin. He was a throwback in that regard. He wanted to win here. Believe it. They just weren’t capable of doing it for him.”
It’s hard to imagine another athlete, anywhere, taking part in a similar story today.
“It’s such a different era now,” says Loftus. “Anybody can get traded.”
Ray Bourque was a reminder of why we love sports. The hot takes, the gripes – those are part of the equation. But there was that interpersonal relationship Bourque maintained with fans despite not knowing each and every one of us. He didn’t have to blow kisses to the crowd. When he arrived here in 1979, he barely spoke English. But we knew what he gave, night in, night out to entertain us, inviting our average selves to share in the superlative moments. And on the night of his biggest triumph – laundry be damned – we saluted him.
“He played the game the right way,” says Johnston.
Some might dismiss that as a platitude. But it’s Raymond Bourque’s legacy. And 20 years ago today, he added something no one can ever dispute: Stanley Cup champion.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can find him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.