BY: Bruce Berlet
“He’s got good DNA,” Redden said.
Good, indeed. How about great? Like in some of the best all-time from father Ray Bourque, the Hockey Hall of Famer and all-time leading scorer against the Hartford Whalers, the previous hockey inhabitants in the former Hartford Civic Center.
“My mother used to eat dinner in West Hartford before the (Whalers-Boston Bruins) games,” Ryan recalled after a Whale practice at Champions Skating Center in Cromwell. “She liked the restaurants there and the games were so close, so it was fun for her.”
Now Ray and his wife, Christiane, will be frequent visitors to the XL Center to watch Ryan play for the Whale. And they’ll have special interest and likely lots of friends from Boxford, Mass., accompanying them on Nov. 29, when the Hershey Bears and Ryan’s older brother, Chris, visit the XL Center.
“That will be a great night for bragging rights and a great kitchen table discussion,” Ryan said with a wide smile and chuckle.
The Bourque brothers have warmed up for that encounter for years, especially this summer, when Ryan had 31/2 months to train for the first time in time in years with Chris on the South Shore of Boston.
“It was awesome, and I feel a lot stronger and my cardio workouts have me in game shape,” Ryan said. “The biggest thing is my explosiveness. I feel like I have a step more and a step faster, and I think it makes a big difference as well.”
“We can’t even get him off the ice,” Ryan said.
Ryan said they don’t have a Bourque-Bourque-Bourque line like the Howe-Howe-Howe line that played in the World Hockey Association in Houston and Hartford.
“Dad always plays defense, and my brother and I can’t play together because we’re always fighting with each other,” Ryan said, smiling. “It was funny when my mother was talking to my brother the other day and she was like, ‘You better not hit Ryan. You better not hurt him. He’s our baby.’ I said, ‘Worry about the other way around. I’m more of a gritty player than he is.’ ”
Chris wasn’t available for rebuttal, but Nov. 29 can’t come soon enough.
But in reality, Ryan said he feels “extremely fortunate and thankful” to have received guidance from a Hall of Famer who faced adversity with total professionalism, and someone fighting to get playing time in the NHL who has challenged him every day and remains his best friend.
Well, most of the time. When those family bragging rights are on the line, even brothers can get a bit edgy, even in the presence of a Hall of Fame father.
“It’s funny when you’re getting older you’re battling as kids and fighting and almost just hating each other every day in the backyard,” Ryan said with a smile. “But now it’s funny because we can try to help each other out when we’re down or we’re up. It’s great to have Chris there and to see what he went through.
“He’s five years older, so he doesn’t want to see me go through what he has gone through and did everything he could to push me in the summer in the weight room to try to get to the NHL as fast as I possibly can. Although we are two completely different players, it has been great to have him. It’s a tough place there in Washington (with the Capitals), but I have all the faith in the world that he’ll be able to make a mark this year. He’ll get his chance and stick.”
Still, having the last name of Bourque in hockey can cause unrealistic expectations, though Chris had to face more as the older brother.
“I think it was little tougher for him,” Ryan said. “I obviously got it but never to the extent he got it. My brother was always a top player in Massachusetts and always successful. But I was kind of a late bloomer so I flew under the radar a little bit when I was growing up.”
Bourque wasn’t “really into hockey” until he was 12.
“I loved hockey, but I also enjoyed the other sports,” Bourque said. “When I was 13 or 14 is when I really started pushing it and just playing hockey. And when I was 15 and 16, I got a chance to go out to the national team, and I think that’s where my progress really took off. I started to separate myself, but by the time that happened, I was in Michigan and learning a lot more stuff. Then going to Quebec City, my dad was a Quebec native and from that province, where I spoke a little French. It can be tough media-wise, but something you have to deal with.”
Bourque said being among the Rangers’ final cuts that afforded him maximum time with some of the world’s best players proved “a great learning experience,” especially training and playing three preseason games in Europe before being assigned to the Whale on Saturday.
“Obviously it was helpful in many ways, especially confidence-wise in that they have faith in me to keep me around for that long,” Bourque said. “It’s also such a physically tough camp, so you’re coming in (to the Whale) already in game shape, so that’s really helpful. The sooner you can do that, the sooner it’s going to be good for you. It was a great opportunity and experience for me to be up there and travel to Europe with the team. I’m thankful for that opportunity, but now it’s time to get down to business and start our season here, and I’m really excited and truly looking forward to it.”
A decade ago, Chris and Ray skated with their father’s Colorado Avalanche teammates and played hockey with their children during the team’s run to the Stanley Cup in 2001 for what turned out to be Ray’s perfect ending to a Hall of Fame career. The Cup victory also helped propel youth hockey in the Denver area to new heights, and Ryan traveled the country playing for the Littleton Hawks before experiencing a moment of a lifetime when Avalanche captain Joe Sakic was given the Stanley Cup from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, lifted it over his head and then handed it to Ray, who had finally realized his dream after 22 years in the NHL.
“No better way to top off his career than that,” Ryan said. “I was living there the whole year with my brother, and my sister Melissa was back home but she came out for (the finals). And I was actually on the ice when they had the Cup presented to them. That moment is still one of the best moments of my life. To see (Sakic) give dad the Cup … It couldn’t have ended any better.”
The Bourques then moved back to the Boston area, and Ray began coaching his sons and then assisted Steve Jacobs at Cushing Academy with Bill Troy. Ryan then played two years for the U.S. national team that he called “another great experience, getting the international experience and what I learned on and off the ice.”
But Ryan and Chris headed in different directions after high school. Chris went the college route, attending Boston University for one year before being a second-round pick of the Capitals in 2004. Ryan chose the junior path, forgoing a scholarship from the University of New Hampshire to play with the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He played an NHL-AHL type schedule and his teammates included Whale teammates Kelsey Tessier and fellow rookie, Jonathan Audy-Marchessault, a 5-foot-7, 175-pounder with good skills and hands.
“Marchessault was one of my best buddies in Quebec for two years, so when I knew he had a chance to come here, it was awesome for me and we’re actually going to be living together,” said Bourque, the Rangers’ third-round pick in 2009 after he excelled on the U.S. Under-18 national team before helping Team USA win gold and bronze medals in the 2010 and 2011 World Junior Championships. “So it’s great to have him here, and I’m just so happy and proud of him that he had the camp that he had and was able to make the team.
“I knew he was capable of doing it. Wherever he has been the underdog or been underestimated, he has always come and proved everyone wrong. I think he feeds off that. He likes that. When he got to Quebec, he was a 16-year-old kid, and no one expected him to play there and he made the team. It’s a similar story here, and he has been doing it his whole life, so I have no doubt that he’ll be able to do it now.”
Audy-Marchessault joked that Roy said he didn’t play the two buddies together on a regular shift “because he said we ran around too much.”
“If we try to do too much is what hurts us,” Bourque said.
But Bourque and Audy-Marchessault jelled together in the prospects tournament in Travers City, Mich., where the Rangers lost in the finals to the more experienced Buffalo Sabres.
Chris Bourque has spent most of his six pro seasons with Hershey but played last season in Russia and Switzerland. Though he helped the Bears win Calder Cup titles in 2009 and 2010, he has only one goal and three assists in 33 NHL games with the Capitals. Ryan said Chris wasn’t sure if he was physically mature enough when he left Boston University to handle the bigger, stronger and more mature players he encountered in the pros. And Ryan benefitted from the Remparts playing a NHL-AHL type schedule with a team ironically owned, managed and coached by Hall of Fame goalie Patrick Roy, who was one of his father’s former Bruins antagonists and later an Avalanche teammate.
“That was a tough adjustment for my brother,” Ryan said. “This is also a different step to what I think is the second-best league in the world, but it’s also a different step from the AHL to the NHL. If you are successful here, it’s important that you just keep doing the same things when you get up there, which is what my brother has told me. Plus just for my development, it was a lot better for me to go to Quebec and get both the coaching from Patrick and the coaching staff there and play the style and numbers of games that the season would entail.
“My main objective is to play at the ultimate level, but it’s nice to be able to have my brother to see how tough it really is, to see how hard you really have to work. He has been great with me, telling me a lot of tips. He doesn’t want to see go through the same thing that he went through, but at the same time, he knows it’s a great spot here and just told me to take it one day at a time and just work as hard as I can to try to get to the next level.”
Whale coach Ken Gernander doesn’t doubt that will happen. Gernander and assistants J.J. Daigneault and Pat Boller coached Bourque for three years at the prospects tournament, and Bourque was one of the Rangers’ best players in September.
“He’s just tenacious and hard-working. I don’t think you’re going to find anybody who’s going to work any harder,” Gernander said. “It’s kind of ridiculous to say ‘give 110 percent’ because it’s not physically possible, but he does give 100 percent all the time. And obviously he has good quickness to get there when he puts his mind to it, and his skill level is such that he’s pretty capable. We’ll see how it translates at the AHL level, but I know for a fact that he’s going to be a hard-working guy putting his nose in there. He’s got the courage to get in the mix. He’s not a perimeter type of guy, and I think he’s going to provide a pretty good boost for us.”
Gernander said that kind of tenacity is linked to a willingness to do whatever it takes.
“If there’s a scrum and you’re willing to get right in the middle of it and get down in a good athletic position, then you’re going to look stronger,” Gernander said. “That’s one of his strengths. And having been at Traverse City for a few years, he’s a little bit more acclimated.”
Bourque had 45 goals, 57 assists and was plus-26 in 93 games with Remparts, but he has simple goals with the Whale that should make it easy for Gernander to play him in any situation.
“I told myself I’m just going to take it one day at a time,” Bourque said. “Obviously this is my first year (in the pros), but obviously I want to make a difference and do everything I can to help this team win, whether it’s defensively or chipping in offensively. I’m not a guy who likes to set goals statistically. I like to try to bring the same effort and same game every night, try to be as consistent as I can.
“If I’m doing the right things on the ice and keeping things simple, then I think accolades will come with that. I’ve said it a hundred times, but if I can do even a quarter or half of what my dad did in his career, I’d be pretty happy with mine.”