By Bruce Berlet
Ray Bourque, one of the greatest defensemen in hockey history, speaks as confidently as ever at age 50 while continuing to carry plenty of clout, especially when it comes to discussing his sons.
Chris Bourque, 25, a three-time Calder Cup winner with the Hershey Bears, is off to his best start as a pro, which comes as little surprise to his Hall of Fame father.
“He should do well because he’s a sixth-year pro and has had other good years in the AHL and a really good year in Europe last year,” dad said of Chris, who has 10 goals and 16 assists in 19 games while playing on the Bears’ top line, with All-Star center and fellow alternate captain Keith Aucoin and former Hartford Wolf Pack left wing and captain Boyd Kane. “Everything has kind of come together for him, so it’s kind of his time, as he has done a lot of good things in the AHL and hopefully will get an opportunity (with the parent Washington Capitals) and take advantage of it. It’s a tough lineup to crack, but people are watching, so who knows?”
Ryan Bourque, 20, a rookie with the Connecticut Whale, overcame an early injury that sidelined him for six games and scored his first pro goal with his father and mother, Christiane, in attendance at a 6-3 loss to the St. John’s IceCaps on Nov. 4.
“They’re five years apart, but Ryan was always around Chris and his buddies,” Ray said. “He took a beating for many years just hanging around with them, but he loved it and they’re very close. They train together, spend a lot of time together and hang out together. They’re good brothers. They’re real tight.”
The brothers admit father really does know best when it comes to knowing their games.
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“I think I bring more of a speed and high-energy type game, while my brother is more finesse, can score and run the power play,” Ryan said. “He has a really good all-around game, and I like to play defensively. He’s just a high-talent, high-caliber guy. We’re different in a lot of ways but similar, too.”
Chris concurred that he’s a different player from Ryan, though he has similar attributes that can help lead to being part of a winning environment.
“Ryan is one of the best skaters that I’ve seen and really uses that to his advantage,” said Chris, who re-signed with the Capitals on July 2 after playing last season with Atlant Moscow Oblast in Russia and Lugano in Switzerland. “He can get in on the forecheck and really pester the other defensemen. He’s really aggressive and can force a lot of turnovers. He’s a great player to play with because he’s always going to be first on the puck and causing a ruckus. And he probably doesn’t get enough credit for how good he is offensively. He sees the ice really well and has a really good shot. I know the points aren’t coming right now (one goal, two assists in 12 games), but eventually they’ll come in spurts for him.
“I don’t think a lot of people realize how big of an adjustment it is coming from junior and college. I think everybody kind of goes through those moments in a season where maybe you’re second-guessing yourself. It’s all about confidence. If you have the confidence, that really helps. And when he’s playing with confidence, he’s a very gifted player and very responsible defensively, which helps his team out even more.”
Chris then couldn’t help but take a playful shot about his brother’s quickness.
“He’s got those bowlegs, so that definitely helps,” he said with a chuckle.
But Chris would have been proud of his younger brother after arguably his best game as a pro Saturday night, when he was constantly on the puck and tipped Stu Bickel’s right-point shot, creating a rebound that Andreas Thuresson swept past Danny Taylor with only 21.6 seconds left for his second goal of the game, to give the Whale another come-from-behind victory, 3-2 over the Springfield Falcons.
Dad has a special insider’s feel for his sons, after coaching each during part of their formative years on the ice and playing with both in a summer league in suburban Boston for the last half of the decade since he retired as a Stanley Cup champion for the first time with the Colorado Avalanche in 2001, after being traded by the Bruins late in the previous season.
“I played a little less this summer because it’s tough to leave golf to go skating,” said a smiling Ray, who has had a single-digit handicap for years and is still an 8 at three country clubs while playing in numerous charity events. “I skate a lot in the winter, but not so much in the summer. Once a week on a Wednesday night after dinner is enough, but it really is a lot of fun, a real blast, skating with Chris and Ryan.”
Ray said he has never moved up front to form a Bourque-Bourque-Bourque line to resemble the Marty Howe-Gordie Howe-Mark Howe combo that played for the World Hockey Association’s Houston Aeros and New England Whalers and NHL’s Hartford Whalers in 1973-1980.
“But we’ve had a couple of goals of Bourque from Bourque and Bourque,” Ray said proudly. “I remember playing against Gordie when he was 50, and that’s what I am now, so it’s pretty incredible what he was able to do at that age.”
Ray and Christiane also will have a rather incredible experience Tuesday night, when Chris and Ryan play against each other for the first time as Hershey visits the XL Center. It’s the first time that brothers will face off in Hartford since the Whalers’ Keith Primeau played against brother Wayne of the Buffalo Sabres for the first time on April 7, 1997. That matchup was made memorable when Keith came to the aid of goalie Sean Burke and scored a takedown and unanimous decision in a fight with Wayne in the second period of the Whalers’ 4-2 victory.
“That’s blood, man,” a smiling Keith said in the postgame locker room. “I’m just a little disappointed that it had to happen, but right away I came in and called my parents and apologized, so I got that out of the way.”
Chris said there won’t be a repeat of the Primeaus for the Bourques.
“I’ve had one career fight and I’m 1-0 and looking to keep it that way,” he said with a laugh. “That’s not my job.”
Chris’ main job is to play a tenacious brand of hockey, and be interested in matters such as Ryan being his best man on July 15 when he married his longtime girlfriend Kimberly McManus, a 2009 Brown University graduate and aspiring actress.
The Bourques get to see Ryan play regularly since he’s about two hours from their home. They also occasionally travel to watch Chris when Hershey is in the area, or they drive to central Pennsylvania, where the Bears have a nine-year-old, 10,500-seat building for hockey and one of the AHL’s strongest fan bases. They’ve seen Chris help the Bears capture the three AHL titles and be named playoff MVP the last time they won in 2010.
So the big question is: Who will be dad and mom be rooting for on Tuesday?
“We’ll just watch the game and hope both do well. You can’t lose in that one,” dad said proudly.
Ryan and Chris are trying to keep this “first” in their lives in perspective.
“It’s going to be a fun time and an awesome experience, but it’s only one game,” Ryan said. “And I’m sure it’s not going to be the last time I play against him.”
No, it won’t. The Whale and Bears face off three more times this season – Dec. 9 at the XL Center and Feb. 4 and April 8 at Hershey.
Still, the first meeting is always a little different and more significant and noteworthy.
“It’s very exciting and definitely special,” Chris said. “When the schedule came out, I think both of us kind of looked at that date and knew what that game was going to mean to us since we’ve never been able to play against each other. There’s not that much of an age difference, but it’s a five-year gap where you don’t play against each other when you’re in high school or growing up. So we’ve never had a chance to play against each other in a real game, so it’s going to be fun playing against my little brother.”
When reminded about 30 to 40 family members and friends are scheduled to head to Hartford from their hometown of Boxford, Mass., Chris chuckled and said, “I’m going to let Ryan worry about the tickets.”
As with any offspring, dad said Chris and Ryan have similarities and differences.
“They’re similar in their passion for the game,” Ray said. “They love playing it, they work real hard and they prepare well. But their games are a little different. Ryan might just be a tad quicker in some ways. Chris is a better finisher in terms of scoring. They both see the ice really well, but Chris is probably more of a natural scorer than Ryan.”
Ryan and Chris admitted the accuracy of that assessment, and each has tried to learn and pick up traits from the other.
“His compete level really sticks out,” Ryan said of Chris. “I’ve never really known a friend or kid who has loved the game as much as him. He’s a rink rat. He can’t get away from the rink, even in the summer league when he’s taping his stick two hours before the game. I’m still in the pool or thinking about summer things, and he’s still thinking about hockey.
“But he has been great for me. He has been through the ropes, he knows what it’s like at the professional level, he knows how hard it can be at times, so he has been great when I’ve been down or negative and picks me right up. I’m thankful to have him, and if you look what he’s done at (the AHL level), it’s crazy. He already has three rings in this league, and you can learn a lot from a guy with that experience and track record. Washington is a tough lineup to crack, but he has a long career ahead of him, so I’m sure he’ll find his spot sooner or later.”
Though playing with Chris and other older players in his formative years was difficult at times, it proved mighty beneficial for Ryan in the long run.
“Chris has got a great group of friends at home like Keith Yandle and Ryan Whitney, so skating with guys who have made a name for themselves at the NHL level helps out a lot,” Ryan said. “I’m thankful to have been able to do it.”
Chris said playing with older youngsters definitely helped Ryan.
“It put him in a situation where he was always the smallest kid out there and having to play with kids four or five years older, even if you’d stick him in the net,” Chris said. “I wouldn’t take it easy on him by any means, and I probably won’t be dropping the gloves with him because he’d probably beat me up.”
But Chris was there to offer assistance in all facets of the game – and life.
“I’ve been up and down in the minors for five-six years, and I’ve pretty much seen it all,” Chris said. “It’s definitely not an easy road to be on, but it’s something that you have to go through to get to the next level. I’m always there whenever he has a question, if he’s down or even if he’s up, just to keep letting him know to just stay the course and eventually he’s going to get the opportunity. And hopefully he can capitalize on the opportunity that’s given him. It seems like the Rangers are pretty high on him, and they should be because he’s a good player. He just has to stay the course and just grind it out and just keep learning every day.
“The American Hockey League is a very good league, and he just has to keep getting better every day. Hopefully I can answer any question that he has because I’ve been there and been on some pretty successful teams, so I know what the whole deal is. He just has to keep going at it. He’s there for a reason and hopefully they realize that.”
The upcoming mano-a-mano hasn’t changed Chris’ desire to provide helpful brotherly advice.
“We talk pretty much every day,” Chris said. “We’re pretty close, and I just check up on him and see how things are going. We play in the same conference, so I check the schedule and see how the scores went and then kind of ask him how it went. We keep in contact a lot, especially since the Whale has (wing Francois) Bouchard (from a trade for defenseman Tomas Kundratek). We were pretty close, too, and I still keep in touch with Bouchard and now he and Ryan are always together because they knew each other from before.
“(Bouchard’s deal) was tough because that was the first time one of my best friends got traded. We actually got kind of emotional when we said goodbye to each other, but it’s good that he’s close there, and it looks like he got put into a good situation. He wasn’t getting too much playing time in Hershey, so he deserves a break like that to be able to prove to himself and show that he belongs. It’s a good situation for him to be put in, and I know he was very excited to get traded to that organization. I know he’s very happy to be there. Knowing Ryan makes it easier, and he has got (rookie Jonathan) Audy-Marchessault, another French guy, there, too.”
Chris and Ryan are similar in that both are wings in the 5-foot-8, 180-pound range who starred at Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Mass., and on U.S. national teams before taking vastly different final approaches to the pros.
Chris, a second-round pick of the Capitals in 2004, elected to play in college but spent only one season at Boston University before turning pro and joining the Portland Pirates at the end of his freshman year (2004-05).
“I would have loved to see him at BU for four years, but after that experience, he started playing pro at 19, and that wasn’t all bad,” Ray said.
Chris said his parents wanted him to try college, and when he was growing up, he always wanted to go to Boston University. So when renowned BU coach Jack Parker offered Chris a scholarship, he took the offer. Then after getting 10 goals and 13 assists in 35 games as a freshman, Chris planned to join the Moncton Wildcats in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League because it was hosting the Memorial Cup the following year. But the Capitals wanted Chris to sign with them, so instead of playing junior hockey, he turned pro and played six games with the Pirates, then affiliated with Washington.
“I was tempted to go to Moncton because my best friend from high school, Keith Yandle (now with the Phoenix Coyotes), had gone there, so it would have been nice to play with him,” Chris said. “I just wanted to play hockey every day. I didn’t want to have to worry about exams and all that. School just wasn’t for me, just as it isn’t for everyone. I definitely enjoyed my time at BU and don’t regret the decision going there. It’s a great school, and Jack Parker is one of the most legendary coaches in college hockey, so it was fun to be able to play for him.”
Ryan, a third-round pick of the New York Rangers in 2009, was supposed to go to the University of New Hampshire but visited the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts, who had his rights, and decided that was the route that he wanted to take. He leaned that way because the QMJHL was closer to the pros than college as far as the number of games played, plus the Remparts’ owner, general manager and coach was Hall of Fame goalie Patrick Roy, a close friend of his dad and a teammate on the Stanley Cup champions in Colorado.
“I knew Patrick so well, and Quebec is a beautiful place, so I thought Ryan would have a really nice experience there, and he did,” Ray said.
“Obviously I was a young kid and had their support, but ultimately it was my decision, 100 percent my call,” Ryan said. “They just gave me advice and the pros and cons of school and juniors, and ultimately I decided I wanted to go to Quebec because of it being more like the pros.”
But after two seasons with the Remparts that included time with Whale teammates Audy-Marchessault and Kelsey Tessier, Ryan decided to turn pro and was among the Rangers’ final cuts this year after accompanying the team to Europe for four preseason games.
“Ryan came out of the U.S. national development program and knew he was a few years away, so he went to Quebec and now he’s in Hartford,” Ray said. “He and Jonathan only really played together on the power play, but they were fun to watch and put up some pretty good numbers.”
It will be difficult for Chris or Ryan to approach the numbers and greatness of their dad, but they will forever be indebted to him for how he has helped shape their careers and, more importantly, their lives.
“It was always such a pleasure to be able to go to the rink with my brother when we were younger,” Chris said when asked about this father’s biggest influence. “We would hang around the rinks, watch practice and be able to go and skate before and after them. That was probably the best privilege to have and just being able to watch those guys day in day out and see what it’s really like to be a hockey player really made me want to be one.
“There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to try to become a professional hockey player because the lifestyle just seemed so fun and exciting. To be able to do something that you love to do and go to the rink every day was just awesome. I’m happy that it has worked out pretty well for me so far so hopefully it can keep going.”
Chris and Ryan learned under the coaching tutelage of their father and still have frequent talks before games.
“He just wants to make sure that we work hard every shift and leave it all on the ice and be responsible,” Chris said. “You have to be respectful when you go to the rink and be respectful of your teammates. That’s pretty much what he always harps on us.”
Ryan echoed those thoughts, saying, “His professionalism, how he carries himself on and off the ice and his work ethic. I was young when he was playing, but I knew nobody worked harder than him, and he was so competitive. When you have a competitive attitude like that, you’re going to be very successful in life in whatever you do, not just athletic competition.”
Ryan smiled when told his dad said he had an 8 handicap in golf.
“I wouldn’t take that number,” Ryan said. “He can be a lot lower than that.”
Then there are those summer league hockey games for dad and his sons.
“He stays on defense and lets the two young guys do most of the skating,” Ryan said with a smile. “For him, it must be awesome, and for us, to have a dad who’s 48, 49, 50 years old and probably the best player in the league … I don’t know how that works, but I think it just shows that you might grow old in body but not in mind.”
Chris proudly said, “He’s a freak of nature, that guy,” comparing his father to another former Bruins legendary defenseman whose number is also retired in the rafters, Bobby Orr.
“It was unbelievable and how incredible shape he was in and how good a player he was,” Chris said, alluding to his father’s 21-year career in which he frequently played 30 minutes a game and hardly seemed to break a sweat. “Sometimes they have those old Bruins games on NESN that I watch, and he was the best player, by far, on the ice every game that you see.
“He and Bobby Orr were players who are ahead of their generation. It’s ridiculous how good those guys were, and they’re the guys you talk about. Dad is 50 now, but he’s still one of the best players on the ice (in the summer league). He makes unbelievable passes; he has an unbelievable shot and can actually move pretty good for a big man. He always says he’s going to try to make a comeback, and I bet he could still play if he really wanted to.”
Could there be another father-son trio skating around the ice in downtown Hartford somewhere down the line? Now that would be worth the price of admission, just as it was to watch the Howes together a quarter of a century ago.
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