November 02, 2013

1994 Vancouver Canucks: The Russian Rocket

The following is an excerpt from my unreleased book: Remembering The 1994 Vancouver Canucks. Please see below for the full table of contents.

The Russian Rocket

Vancouver hockey fans never had a superstar before. After years and years of the likes of Wayne Gretzky and Steve Yzerman coming to town and beating us singlehandedly, embarrassing us in the process, Pavel Bure represented hope as much as hockey excellence. Finally Vancouver had a shooting star of our own.

Pavel Bure was the most electrifying player I have ever seen.  Bure had the rarest of all abilities a hockey player can possess - to pull the fans out of their seats seemingly every time he touches the puck. Heck, fans may have paid full price for their seat on any given night, but they didn’t use it very often when Bure touched the puck. Those of us watching at home on television had to pay close attention. There was no multitasking during Canucks games back then. If you did, there was a fair chance you would miss something spectacular.

Every goal the Russian Rocket scored and every rush he lifted off on was truly an event in itself.  Not even the Great Gretzky had the crowd standing night in and night out.

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 was nicknamed the Russian Rocket because of his incredible speed. Few players could match his foot speed, but what made 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 was 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 to watch the late night highlights and were absolutely awed by this kid’s 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.

Bure’s most famous goal came in the 1994 playoffs. You know which one. Game 7 vs. Calgary – double overtime nonetheless. Jeff Brown knifes a pass through the neutral zone to a breaking Bure. Number 10 splits the defense to get in alone and put his patented backhand-forehand deke on Mike Vernon. The Canucks were on the brink of elimination in that series, down 3 games to 1. But thanks to three straight overtime wins, the Canucks completed the comeback and went all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Bure was a back-to-back 60 goal scorer by then, and had cemented his superstar status with that incredible goal and his spring performance that year. He led the entire National Hockey League in goals that post-season with 16. His 31 points was the second highest, only trailing the Rangers Brian Leetch. In fact, Pavel Bure scored at least one point in 16 consecutive playoff games in the spring of 1994. Bryan Trottier of the New York Islanders holds the NHL record at 18 games.

Outside of game five, Bure was not his dominant self in the Final series against New York. He had a respectable 3 goals and 8 points in the 7 game series, but he was targeted by the Rangers and shut down at the key times.

For me, the two memorable Bure moments in the Stanley Cup Final were both bad ones. In game 3, playing in front of their home fans for the first time in the series, the Canucks came out storming and energized. A win at home this early in the series would have been significant. Bure gave the crowd exactly what they wanted when scored on his first shift to give them the early lead. But late in the period, with the score tied 1–1, Bure hit Jay Wells in the face with his stick and bloodied him. That led to the expected penalty, but no one thought the referee would have the nerve to kick the Canucks best player out of the game. “They would never kick out Messier,” I kept saying to myself, and I was proven right later in the series. Everyone knew that. How could they kick out our star player? And when Glenn Anderson scored on the ensuing power-play I knew the game was over. The Rangers cruised to a 5–1 victory and 2-1 series lead.

The major turning point in the entire series was in the second period of game four. The Canucks were all over the Rangers, leading 2-0, even though goaltender Mike Richter was standing on his head with one of the greatest goaltending performances I have ever watched. Richter’s exclamation point came when he stopped Pavel Bure on a rare Stanley Cup penalty shot. Had Bure scored on his patented deke, it would have been a dagger in the Rangers’ heart and evened the series. Instead Richter’s heroics energized the Rangers who came back and won the game 4-2 and took a stanglehold on the series, 3 games to 1. I remember being so disheartened.

After 1994 Pavel Bure became a controversial figure in Vancouver. “Whatever” is my response nowadays. Back then I lamented him too much, too. Maybe he was too one-dimensional of a player. Maybe he was not the greatest team player. Maybe he never warmed to the community. Maybe he should have played his exit card from Vancouver more professionally. I never once bought into the unsubstantiated rumor that he threatened to hold out from game 7 against the Rangers unless he got a new contract. But I, like so many others, grew to dislike the greatest player in Vancouver Canucks history.

But when I look back at the Russian Rocket nowadays, I just want to remember the good times – the astonishing speed, the spectacular breakaway goals, the powerful slap shot, the goal against Calgary, and, most of all, the hope and joy he brought us all.

June 11th/14th, 1994 - The Highs, The Lows

Bure-ing The Flames
The Russian Rocket
Captain Kirk

Shooting Down The Stars
The Elbow
The Mighty Pat Quinn
Cliff Ronning: The Little Man That Could

Be-Leaf It Or Not!
Forever A Canuck: Trevor Linden
Greg Adams! Greg Adams!

New York: All The World Is A Stage
The Penalty Shot
Nathan Lafayette And That Damn Goal Post
What A Mess!
Doug Lidster: The Lone Ranger
It Was A Riot!

June 15th, 2011: Looking Back At 1994

No comments: