From Eddie Shore to Bobby Orr to Zdeno Chara, the Boston Bruins have always had one of the NHL's top rearguards patrolling their blue line. And while no one will dispute Orr as the greatest defenseman ever, Ray Bourque is not far behind.
When asked which of the two defenseman he would want on the ice in the final minute of player, long time Boston coach/general manager Harry Sinden said "I'll take Orr if I'm down by a goal, but I'd take Bourque if I'm defending a one goal lead."
Though he too ranks as one of the greatest offensive defensemen ever, it was Bourque's defensive genius that set him aside from his peers. While his offensive game grabbed more headlines, Bourque's tremendous defensive instincts that rivaled anyone in the game's history. In a split second he could dissect the oncoming play and more often than not positioned himself perfectly to defend. Though not big, his incredible balance made him tough to play against. Therefore Bourque was not afraid to play the physical game when he had to.
Skating was the key to Bourque's game. Overshadowed by the puck rushing exploits of Orr and Paul Coffey, Bourque too could skate like the wind. More importantly, perhaps he was better than Orr, Coffey or just about any other defenseman in terms of lateral movement, balance and agility. He would often jump into the offense as a 4th forward, or breakout of his own zone to lead the attack.
More often than not he would use incredible passing skills to kick start the offense. Though he was often zeroed in on by opposing team forecheckers, Bourque was rarely rattled, and always made a great first pass out of the zone to headman the transition offense. He had that rare touch and vision of a creative center on the back end. He had the uncanny ability to control the play, both with and without the puck. He was extremely methodical in his approach as a hockeyist.
He had an arsenal of lethal shots to unleash on goalies. He could shoot as hard as practically anyone, but more often than not he changed his shot up in order to get the puck to the goal crease. No matter how closely he was checked from his point position or how crowded the shooting lanes were, Bourque seemingly always landed the puck on net. He would often stray from the point position and jump into the slot for dangerous scoring chances. He was so deadly accurate with the puck that he won or shared the all star game's shooting accuracy competition 8 times between the competition's inception in 1990 and 2001. And he shot often. Only Wayne Gretzky regularly finished ahead of Bourque as the season's shots on goal leader.
Perhaps the most complete defenseman this side of Doug Harvey, Bourque retired as the career leader in practically every offensive category for a defenseman. He retired with 410 goals and 1169 assists for 1579 points! These totals also rank him as the highest scoring player in Boston Bruins history. A quiet and humble person, he seemed happy to live in the shadows of Coffey and especially Orr.
Believe it or not, Ray Bourque was the 8th player chosen overall and the 4th defenseman in the 1979 NHL entry draft. He joined the Bruins directly, scoring a goal and an assist and being named first star in his very first NHL game. He set a NHL record (since surpassed) for first year blue liners with 65 points in 80 games, as well as recording a +52, earning him the Calder Trophy. He was also named to the NHL's First All Star team, the first of 18 All Star nods.
By 1983-84 Bourque became only the sixth defenseman in NHL history to score over 30 goals in a single season campaign. He also finished with 96 points. But it wasn't until 1986-87 that the annual all star was finally given recognition as the NHL's best defenseman. Too often overlooked because of Paul Coffey's high scoring totals in Edmonton, Bourque won his first of five Norris Trophies over the next seven years.
Wearing jersey number 7 through his first eight seasons with Boston, Bourque surrendered that number in December 1987 when the Bruins honoured Phil Esposito. At center ice in front of Esposito and the hockey world, Bourque unexpectedly removed his jersey to reveal a second Bruins' sweater - this one numbered 77. Esposito's 7 would be forever retired, while Bourque quickly established his own unique identity in Boston. It was perhaps Bourque's most indelible moment in Beantown.
Boston loves Ray Bourque, but not quite as much as Bourque loves Boston. He cultivated many relationships in his adopted town, and lives there in retirement. He only has one regret in Boston:
"That's probably my biggest regret, not winning a Cup in Boston. That, for me, was tough,” said Bourque to ESPN.com.
In 1987-88 the Bruins went to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in a decade. Though they were swept by the Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers powerhouse, Bourque tied for 7th spot in playoff scoring with 21 points in 23 games. The Bruins went back to the Stanley Cup finals in 1989-90. The Bruins, huge underdogs, again lost to the Oilers in the finals.
Bourque continued his excellent play throughout the 1990s, even though the Bruins began a slow and steady decline. Bourque never complained, and continued to be the NHL's best example of elite consistency and proficiency.
Late in his career, the long time Bruins captain made the tough decision to leave his beloved Bruins in search for the Stanley Cup. He agreed to a trade that landed him in Colorado. He would play parts of two seasons with the Avalanche, retiring in 2001 after hoisting the silver chalice above his head.