In Pavel Bure’s first two seasons with Vancouver Canucks, the long-flailing franchise was on the verge. The accelerant known as the Russian Rocket launched the team to the top of the Smythe Division two seasons in the row – but Vancouver couldn’t make it past the second round of the playoffs.
In 1993-94, when Bure – just 22 – booked his second consecutive 60-goal year, the Canucks stumbled into the playoffs as underdog to the Calgary Flames, and promptly fell behind 3-1. The Canucks then reeled off three consecutive overtime wins, capped by Bure’s two-goal performance in Game 7, including the double-overtime winner, which propelled Vancouver to within a single win of the Stanley Cup.
The Game 7 Calgary goal is perhaps the best-known moment from a player who was a one-man hockey highlight reel throughout his career. In the grainy YouTube clip, Bure explodes into the screen – exactly how Brian Burke means when he says that Bure has “missile fuel for blood.” Bure takes a long pass at the Calgary blueline and is instantly behind the defence and on a breakaway. Bure fakes right, pulls the puck back left, and the red light is on.
“He was just a guy, when an opportunity was there, he was on it,” said Trevor Linden, teammate and Canucks captain of that era. “He’d do things that you’d just look at the guy beside you on the bench and laugh in amazement.”
As Bure is welcomed into the Hockey Hall of Fame – he was first eligible for induction six years ago – he is saluted by those who knew him, coaches and players. He was always deeply private, a stranger, really, to many of his teammates, known mostly for his exploits on the ice, his ability to get to top speed on the ice in an instant, and his fantastic work ethic and fitness, the son of an Olympic medal swimmer.
Bure was bowlegged, with huge thighs, remembered Burke, the foundation of his incredible skating power. And he was “ripped,” said Burke – carrying the body fat, about 5 per cent, of a world-class marathoner, with the engine of an elite sprinter. Bure, too, fed his engine well, conscious of diet and nutrition well before it was in vogue.
What was known of Bure’s private life fits snugly in the wild kaleidoscope of the style of successful Russians after the meltdown of Soviet Union: a brief engagement to Anna Kournikova, and close friendship with reputed mobster Anzor Kikalishvili.
On the ice – even in a career cut short by successive knee injuries – Bure is among the greatest goal scorers to have played the game. He notched 437 goals and 342 assists for 779 points in 702 games, from his rookie-of-the-year season in 1991-92 through 2002-03. He was the league’s top goal scorer with Florida in 1999-00, and 2000-01 Bure is among history’s most prolific goal scorers, ranked goals-per-game against the top 100 in NHL history. Mike Bossy is No. 1 at 0.762, and Mario Lemieux second at 0.754. Bure is third at 0.623. (The leader among active players is Alex Ovechkin, his 339 goals coming at a rate of 0.613 a game.)
To Duane Sutter, a teammate of Bossy’s on the New York Islanders, and coach of Bure on the Panthers, the two snipers are one of a kind. Both wingers had exceptionally quick releases, “always catching goalies by surprise,” and while Bure was a more powerful skater, they both had a tremendous sense of the game and the ice.
“It’s how they see the game, their perception of the game, to find the holes and sense the opportunity,” Sutter said.
And more so than others, Bossy and Bure had a “craving” for goals.
“Of all the guys I’ve played with or coached, him [Bure] and Mike Bossy had a very similar demeanour, a huge craving to score goals, in practice, or in the game.”
In 1989, when the Canucks drafted Bure, it was scout Mike Penny who pushed the pick. As an 18-year-old Bure could have been drafted in the first three rounds but no one took him, as NHL teams didn’t know that they would be able to move players over from the then-Soviet Union. Penny, however, had intel that said Bure had played enough elite-level hockey games to qualify to go lower. The Canucks picked him in the sixth, No. 113 overall. A brouhaha immediately erupted and it wasn’t until just before the next year’s draft that the pick was okayed.
Penny remembers totalitarian Moscow, and seeing the teenager play on Viktor Tikhonov’s Red Army squad.
“I’m thinking, ‘Holy god, this guy’s on this team and has no trouble?’ How would you like to get your hands on this guy?” Penny remembered.
It still took several years before Bure moved, coming over in 1991 as the Soviet Union crumbled. There was a court scrap over Bure’s Red Army contract, which was fought in Detroit. Once it was settled, Burke – then Canucks director of hockey operations – picked Bure up in Seattle on a Friday. Bure practised English with Burke on the drive north, and they went directly to the old Pacific Coliseum.
“This is a guy who sold tickets,” Burke said. “There are a lot of great hockey players who never sold tickets. This kid was exciting, explosive, he got people on their feet. He sold tickets. There was a buzz. When he came on, there was a palpable, noticeable buzz, starting with the first game.”