November 07, 2012

Russian Rocket: Pavel Bure



Pavel Bure was the most electrifying new generation hockey player of the dead puck era. While the likes of Jaromir Jagr, Dominik Hasek, Paul Kariya and Eric Lindros were all amazing hockey players, it was Bure had the rare ability to pull the fans out of their seats seemingly every time he touches the puck. Every goal the Russian Rocket scored and every rush he lifted off on was truly an event on to itself.

No one loved to score goals as much as Pavel Bure. Even in practice he wanted to see the twine bulge. In that sense Bure ranks as one of the greatest pure goal scorers in hockey history. Names like Mike Bossy and Rocket Richard are fair comparisons.

Bure is nicknamed the Russian Rocket because of his incredible speed. Few players could match his foot speed, but what makes Bure so special is he could carry the puck at top speed. Most players just push the puck in front of them as they break down the wing; Bure is capable of deking through a top defenseman without losing steam. Sometimes he even dropped the puck into his feet to kick it by the blueliner, and then accelerate by him to get in alone. He was truly a magnificent player to watch, and you often watched with your jaw hanging open.

Vancouver fans still remember his first game. He did not score any goals that night, and the game was not even televised. But fans stayed up late to watch the late night highlights and were absolutely awed by this kids speed and flash and dash. Finally, after years of wallowing, Vancouver had a superstar.

Though small by NHL standards, Bure was built like a rock, blessed with great strength and balance. He had legs like tree trunks that powered his scary speed. He had an arsenal of goal scoring tricks. His wrist shot was lethal, as was his slap shot. But most of all he loved to deke.



Pavel also had a nasty streak him and would not take anything from bigger players. Just ask Shane Churla. Churla, a noted NHL roughian, was giving Pavel a hard time in one particular game. Pavel took only so much before he caught Churla with an infamous blind hit and a vicious elbow. It was not Bure's prettiest moment, but he gained respect because he let the NHL know he would not take such abuse without retaliation.

Pavel played the game with reckless abandon, particularly if he sensed an opportunity to crash to the net and score a goal. He was seemingly fearless even after injuries began taking their toll on his body.

One area that his coaches would have liked Bure to do more of was use his linemates better. Too often Bure tried to go through the entire opposition by himself. Sometimes he actually did it, and every time it was an event. But Bure was a good passer, underrated even, and the team would have been better off if Bure would have been a little less selfish at times. He was also knocked for his defensive play.

"Pasha" was drafted in the sixth round of the 1989 NHL Entry Draft, 113th overall, by the Vancouver Canucks. It would turn out to be a controversial pick at that time because no 18 year old could be drafted after the third round unless he had played more than ten games in 2 seasons in a major junior league. The NHL Media Guide stated that Pavel had only played 5 games the year before, but Mike Penny (the Canucks' Chief Scout) discovered proof in the form of score sheets which had recorded that Pavel had played 11 games in that previous year.

At the age of 16, Pavel joined the Red Army to play with the best hockey players in Russia at that time, including the popular KLM line (Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov, and Sergei Makarov). It was with that team also that he met Sergei Federov and Alexander Mogilny. Together, they formed one of the best lines in the world. They were being groomed to carry on the tradition of the KLM line in the old Soviet regime, prior to the fall of communism and the opening of NHL gates to former Soviet hockey players.

Pavel played in the World Junior Championships for three years where he scored 27 goals and 12 assists for a total of 39 points in just 21 games. In 1989 and 1990 he won the gold medal, and in 1991 just before joining the Canucks, he won the silver medal. In 1989 he was named the Soviet League Rookie of the Year.

As a kid the thought of a Russian in the NHL was so remote that Bure never dreamed of North American glory. He dreamed of playing with the mighty Soviet national team, like his idols Boris Mikhailov and Valeri Kharlamov.

"I never dreamed about the NHL. Growing up I didn’t hear too many things about it. North America was like a different planet. Kinda like something you read about but a place you never thought you’d go. It was my dream to be a part of the national team and win an Olympic medal because my father went to three Games and didn’t win a gold. My biggest dream was for me and my brother to go to the Olympics and win a gold for the family."

By the early 1990s Soviet players were being allowed to join the NHL, though the Russian federation tried their best to keep young stars like Bure. Tempted by the large contracts of professional hockey, Bure became disenchanted with his contract from the CSKA. Along with his father, an Olympic swimmer and younger brother and future NHLer Valeri, he slipped off to North America to start his new life with the National Hockey League’s Vancouver Canucks.

Pavel came to Vancouver 15 games into the 1991-92 season. With his explosive rushes, his first game remains one of the most talked about nights in Vancouver hockey history. Bure instantly became the NHL's most electrifying player, as he would score 34 times while adding 26 helpers en route to winning the Calder Memorial Trophy as the best rookie.

The following season the Russian Rocket lifted off to a new stratosphere, scoring 60 goals while adding 50 assists and being named a NHL First Team All Star.

In 1993-94 he scored 60 goals for the second-straight year, making him the eighth player in NHL history to accomplish that feat (the other players to do that were Phil Esposito, Mike Bossy, Jari Kurri, Wayne Gretzky, Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, and Mario Lemieux). This time he led the league with his 60 markers. During the unforgettable Stanley Cup run of the 1994 playoffs, Pavel led the team in scoring with 31 points. He also led the entire league in playoff goals with 16, none bigger than the game 7 overtime goal against the Calgary Flames to advance the Canucks to the second round.

The following season was a difficult season for the entire NHL and most of its players as the season was shortened due to a labour dispute. Pavel only managed 20 goals and 43 points in 44 games. Yet it was nowhere as near as difficult as the next two seasons.

1995-96 was supposed to be the great rejoining of perhaps the league's most dangerous duo - Pavel Bure and newly acquired Alexander Mogilny. Unfortunately only 15 games into the season Pavel Bure's ACL ligament was severely damaged while playing against the Chicago Blackhawks when he was taken down behind the net by opponent Steve Smith. Pavel's season was over, and a career long history of knee troubles began.

The 1996-97 season saw Pavel return for 63 games but only muster 23 goals and 55 points. During the season people wondered if the Russian Rocket would ever return to his former glory. Following the conclusion of the disappointing season it became known that Pavel had played much of the schedule with a severe case of whiplash, and perhaps should have sat out part of that season as well.

Any doubts about Bure's ability to return to his style of explosive speed, all out recklessness and goal scoring clinics were answered in the 1997-98 season, as Bure teamed up with Mark Messier to score 51 times while tying for 3rd over all in league scoring.

Bure, who had notified the Canucks he wished to be traded as early as the 1995-96 season, finally demanded a trade by sitting out the start of the 1998-99 season. Bure sat out despite being scheduled to make $8 million US citing reasons such as not enough privacy in a small, Canadian market, a variety of disputes with management and a desire to play with a winning team.

The trade finally came on January 17, 1999 as Brian Burke trade him to the Florida Panthers. Bure, Brett Hedican, Brad Ference and a 3rd round pick went to the Sunshine State in exchange for Ed Jovanovski, Dave Gagner, Mike Brown, Kevin Weekes and a 1st round pick.

Bure's stay in Florida started out a bit rocky, as he re-injured his damaged knee. However Bure again rehabilitated his knee and by the 1999-2000 season reestablished himself as one of the league's top players. As far as blue line in was concerned, Pavel Bure was the most electrifying goal scorer of the modern era was back. He ranked first in the NHL with 58 goals, capturing the newly minted Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy. He was also selected as a finalist for both the Hart Memorial Trophy and the Lester B. Pearson Award as the NHL's most valuable player. He was also MVP of a memorable All Star game. 

His 2000-2001 season was equally as impressive. Again he ranked first in the NHL in goals with 59. He set a NHL record by tallying 29.5% of his team's goals for the season. 

Bure slowed in the 2001-02 season, scoring just 22 times in the Panthers first 56 games. The financially strapped Panthers were going nowhere, despite Pavel's best efforts, and the team simply could not afford a $10,000,000 salary. They dumped his contract to the New York Rangers in exchange for prospects and draft picks.

Reunited with Mark Messier, Bure's career was rejuvenated in Manhattan. He ended the season with 12 goals in 12 games, but the Rangers still missed the playoffs. 

While Bure with the Rangers promised to be one of the best shows on Broadway in recent years, Bure's knee injuries returned and robbed him of his career. He would play only 39 more games in the NHL. He finished with 437 goals, most of the of the highlight reel variety, and 779 points in 702 games.

Although he lived the good life in North America, Bure's love for Russia never waned. Throughout his playing career he remained a strong supporter of the Russian national team. He represented Russia in two Olympics, capturing silver in 1998 and bronze in 2002. After his playing days were over, he was the surprise choice as manager of the 2006 Olympic team. With his stature in Russia as one of the true legends of hockey, it was hoped Bure's stature could convince the fractured Russian national team to put aside their differences and play for their country. Despite a good showing, Russia finished out of the medals.

Bure was a mysterious character too. A book called The Riddle of the Russian Rocket published in 1999 detailed several oddities about Pavel. Pavel, a very private person, is known for, among other things, a very public dispute with Sergei Fedorov over mutual girlfriend model/tennis player and Anna Kournikova, and for hanging out with some of Russia's top mobsters, most notably Anzor Kikalishvili.

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