Take a good look at Chris Bourque in his Bruins sweater. Unless some team gets very, very desperate, it’s the last time you’ll see the diminutive left-winger in an NHL jersey. Chris Bourque is a symbol of all that is hopeful and deceptive about our modern culture of celebrity. He’s a small (by NHL standards) man encouraged to hold dreams that were too big.
He is, by most accounts, a very nice young man–just what one would expect as the son of NHL Hall of Famer Ray Bourque. The paterfamilias was one of the classiest guys to ever lace on skates–the sort you rooted for even if you weren’t a Bruins fan (which I did, though I’m not!). Ray, who played in the NHL from 1979 to 2011, was an overachiever who used his brain to compensate for a relative lack of physical brawn. In his playing days he was 5’11” and weighed 220 pounds–a bit too much weight that frame. If one of the league’s monsters–a Jagr or a Lemieux, for instance–trapped Ray Bourque in the corner, they could outmuscle him; if one of the speedsters caught him in open ice, they could beat him to the net. The thing was, though, Bourque was so smart that he was almost never caught in the wrong place.
When you grow up in La Belle Province (Québec) with an old man like Ray, you’ve got skates on your feet before you can walk. Two of Ray’s sons, Chris and Ryan, have followed NHL dreams, and that path is where the stardust got in their eyes. Not that they shouldn’t try–everybody should give their dreams a test drive, but they should also know when to it’s time to either shift into high gear, or full over to the curb. They should also have an alternative route planned.
As it turns out, I’ve seen Chris Bourque play for quite a long time. He’s just 27, but he left Boston University–where I saw him play–after a single season to turn pro. He should have gotten a degree. I have also seen Chris Bourque in parts of seven American Hockey League seasons. He was a very popular player for the Hershey Bears, the farm club of the Washington Capitals. Fans loved him for the same reason they loved him at BU–he can absolutely fly down an open sheet of ice. But, when push meets shove, Bourque has never been able to shove back. That’s because nature cheated him.
When the Bruins plucked Bourque from the Capitals in time for this year’s abbreviated season, the Boston media went into hyperbolic overdrive–odd for a guy who, on February 2, scored just his second NHL goal. Bruins fans, of course, wanted Chris to succeed. What could be cooler than having the son of one of the best players in franchise history? And therein lies two problems. The first is the burden of a famous name–one that led a kid to pursue a path whose odds were long instead of having a good backup plan. The odds were long for the second major reason: Chris Bourque is too small to excel in pro hockey. The Boston Globe listed Bourque as 6’ and I want that reporter to be the one pouring the whiskey next time I’m at the bar! Bourque is a generous 5’8” and looks to be less than his stated 180 pounds. What I saw in the AHL was a guy with speed who got pummeled all over the ice. Give CB some space, and he could bury the puck, but professional defensemen (like his old man) are trained not to allow a lot of space on the ice. Today’s NHL is much bigger than it was even in Ray’s time; goal scoring is more a matter of muscle-and-grind than 40-foot slap shots. When I watched Bourque at Hershey, I was baffled by the fan love. He was frequently outmuscled that, were I the coach, he’d have been a fourth liner, if he played at all. If you play on the wing, you have two major jobs: keep opposing wingers from going past you–which he had trouble doing–and scoring. Bourque’s best AHL season was last year, at Hershey, where he scored 27 goals against players mostly less experienced than he. Put another way, he’s no Martin St. Louis, who is the same size, but with the upper body strength to routinely score 30+ goals per season in the NHL, not the minor leagues. What the Bruins saw in Chris Bourque confounds all logic.
On March 1, the boom lowered, and Chris Bourque was placed on waivers. He went unclaimed and is now toiling for still another AHL team: the Providence Bruins. It’s hard to imagine that he’ll get another shot at the NHL. So, at age 27, what does one do? Bourque might be an AHL roster filler for another year or two, or maybe he can catch on with a Swiss or Russian team for a time, but then what? The Bruins foolishly gave him a two-year $1.1 million contract, but only part of that is guaranteed if he doesn’t make it back to the NHL. I hope Bourque invests well–like in completing his education. His hockey career has been stardust, not stardom. And I hope his 5’9” younger brother Ryan has been paying attention.