Grampa Celtic Talks Bourque, Orr, Hondo, & Bird

You may think that Ray Bourque never really stirred passions in people, but there were exceptions. A somewhat overzealous female fan once wrote to tell me she thought the great defenseman was a "living saint."


Ray surely doesn't want to go there. But he is a thoroughly modest man who has always been way off the charts when it comes to a combination of extraordinary ability and personal comportment. It's not as if he was trying to impress anybody. He was just being himself.

And it now is a "was." One of the great careers in North American sport is over. Unlike so many others, this one had a happy ending. It took 22 years, but in the end Bourque got what he deserved: His name will now be inscribed on the Stanley Cup.

It makes me feel very good to know that Bourque's last hockey memory will be Game 7 of the 2001 Stanley Cup finals. This is a man who truly deserved to have the satisfaction of lifting the Cup in front of delirious home fans. With all due apology to the likes of Karl Malone, John Stockton, and Barry Bonds, Ray Bourque entered this season as the active North American professional athlete most deserving of a maiden championship.

Stockton would come the closest on a character basis. But as skilled as the great Utah point guard remains, he is no Ray Bourque. In Bourque's 22d, and final, NHL season, he was runner-up for the Norris Trophy as best defenseman and was named a first-team All-Star for an astonishing 13th time. That puts Bourque in the inner sanctum of great valedictorians, along with, in chronological order, Jim Brown, Sandy Koufax, Bill Russell, and - let's hope he sobers up quickly and stays retired - Michael Jordan.

No two superstar retirements are ever exactly alike. The 29-year-old Brown bade us all a surprising adieu following a 1,544-yard/17-touchdown season, but he was bored, with acting on his mind. Koufax, three months shy of his 31st birthday, stopped pitching after a 27-9/1.79/322-K season in the hopes of having a functioning left arm for the rest of his life. (Given today's medical advances, we can easily see the nonpareil lefthander winning 300 games). Russell, who coasted through most of his final regular season in anticipation of giving his all in the playoffs, knew he had nothing more to give, physically or emotionally, and he was able to reward himself with an 11th championship. Jordan, well, not even Jordan seems to know what Jordan thinks or wants; it is truly appalling to think that he might even be willing to tamper with one of the great sport exits ever in order to satisfy some psychic need.

Now we have Bourque, whose retirement will hurt the Avalanche because he is still a great player. First-team All-Stars are not easily replaced.

Bourque can still play, all right, and that is part of the reason he thinks this is a good time to retire. "I never wanted to hang around a year too long," he explained yesterday. Leaving people wanting more is a great concept, but not one many great athletes are willing to adopt, if only because the money today is so intoxicating. But it doesn't even have to be the money. It is very doubtful that the reason Cal Ripken has stayed around that dreaded year too long has much to do with the money. The same forces that drove him to continue The Streak most likely compelled him to keep playing, period. In Cal's case, he has already said he was obsessed with the feeling of extracting every last drop from his career opportunity because he had borne too frequent witness during his career to players who didn't.

You've got to be true to yourself, however, and Cal's way is clearly not Ray's way. Cal might be willing to go out hitting .210 with occasional flashes of power and no range, but Ray isn't. The common denominator is that both of these sport immortals sleep well at night.

The other reason Bourque gave us is a very understandable one, too. He said he was finding it "increasingly difficult" to get up for the regular season, especially training camp and the early part of the season. That put a strain on him because he knows all too well the importance of those early games. Absent the home ice advantage, he might not be going out as a Stanley Cup winner.

Bourque will be 41 Dec. 28. Having been a professional since 1979 means he has been to an ungodly number of practices. Then throw in the exhibition games and playoff games on top of the regular season. He is telling us that the circuit is on overload. That certainly sounds rational.

Finally, he factored in the family situation. He knows he has already missed too much of daughter Melissa's life. He wants to check out Christopher as he continues his own hockey career. Young Ryan is the lucky one. He will have his dad around in a manner the other two did not.

OK, let's get to the hot topic. Where does Bourque rate in our pantheon of Boston sports heroes?

Ray Bourque is not Bobby Orr, all right? He never said he was or tried to be. Orr was the ultimate explosive hockey player and he remains a positively mythic figure in Bruins lore, in part because of his unfulfilled promise. Physically speaking, Bourque was the anti-Orr, a tremendously durable player who was fortunate enough to avoid the killer injury, which is not to say he didn't play through major discomfort when it was necessary.

Orr reinvented hockey in this town the way Larry Bird reinvented basketball, drawing in the neutrals as well as the resident aficionados. Bourque was a master technician whose game included exquisite subtleties noticeable only to the savants. The great winter sport analogy is John Havlicek, who wasn't Larry Bird, but who, like Bourque, had his own inimitable stamp of greatness, with specific skills and attributes Bird didn't have.

For many Celtic followers, Havlicek will always be the Ultimate Celtic. I suspect Bourque's many sophisticated admirers would likewise regard him as the Ultimate Bruin.

Yes, Bruin. After doing his best here for 20 1/2 years, he found it necessary to go elsewhere if he was ever going to know the feeling of handling the Cup. How could anyone who has followed his career have begrudged him that? All he asked for was to spend one start-to-finish season pursuing what he termed yesterday a "shared goal" with a group of sufficiently skilled and dedicated players. The damnable penuriousness of Jeremy Jacobs prevented that from ever happening in Boston. Anyone locally who does not see that, and who objected to Bourque's relocation request, is inherently excluded from the dialogue on the grounds of stupidity.

Ray Bourque came back here to share his happiness with the Boston fans. An incredible number of people turned out to let him know they were happy for him, maybe even to let him know they loved him. In other words, they got it.

Ray Bourque's exit from hockey was classy and understated. Not exactly a surprise, huh?

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