The comparisons were inevitable.
The Bruins have a 19-year-old defenseman in Charlie McAvoy who appears to play the game beyond his years. His two-way play — tough in the back end, and with an increasing aggression in the offensive zone — has led people to, naturally, invoke the name of the Bruins’ last impressive teenager at the position: Raymond Jean Bourque.
But, the comparisons are a bit silly at this juncture. Bourque posted a then-NHL record 65 points (17 goals, 48 assists) for a rookie defenseman on his way to winning the Calder Trophy (rookie of the year), was named a first-team NHL All-Star and finished fourth in voting for the Norris Trophy (best defenseman) at 19 during the 1979-80 season. McAvoy, while certainly impressive, is on pace to tally 46.3 points (10.7 goals, 35.6 assists).
Still, when you’re a hotshot young defenseman who has arguably become the best player on the ice for the Bruins, the image of No. 7 (or, later, No. 77) will flash for many when they watch McAvoy play for the back and gold.
And they’ll wonder what Bourque thinks about the latest player to invoke the memory of his sterling play.
So, BostonSportsJournal.com asked him.
‘The moment didn’t look too big for him’
Bourque had heard nothing but good things about McAvoy. The two finally met during a season-ticket holder event at TD Garden last week. They spent a few hours together, but never talked about hockey.
“He seems like a very confident kid,” Bourque told BostonSportsJournal.com. “I like what I saw and what I was hearing from him. We weren’t even talking hockey but he seemed like a real solid kid. It’s real exciting for the Bruins, in terms of what they have (in McAvoy).
“Just spending a few hours with him last week, I was very impressed. He’s a very confident kid and I say that in a really good way. He’s very comfortable in his skin and comfortable with the fans. Just talking with me, he wasn’t taken back, or shy, or anything. I was pretty impressed.”
McAvoy has been outstanding so far during his rookie season. He’s leading the league in total minutes of ice time and has been a force at both ends of the ice with Zdeno Chara as his partner. When McAvoy learned he would spend time with Bourque, he couldn’t wait.
“He’s someone I’ve wanted to meet since I play for the Bruins, obviously, with the history he’s had,” McAvoy said. “It was nice at the Bruins season-ticket holder event to be able to be paired up with him and just talk a little bit. We didn’t speak too much about hockey or anything. It was more from a personal standpoint, kind of a get to know each other a little bit but it was very nice to spend that time with him.
“He said a lot of guys have his number that I can get at any time and I can feel free to give him a ring and I really appreciated that. I’m sure I’ll take him up on it.”
Bourque dominated the league from the start of his career in 1979 until he hoisted the Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche in 2001. At times, the game may have looked easy for him, but no doubt he put the work in during practice to become a Hall of Famer. When he watched McAvoy begin his NHL career during the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring, No. 77 was impressed.
“You think about last year when he came in during the Ottawa playoff series and you’re thinking this isn’t the way a 19-year-old should come in,” Bourque said. “But just watching him, his poise and how he handled the whole situation, the moment didn’t look too big for him, so that was a great sign right there, in terms of seeing what the guy is made of and everywhere he’s played he’s been a guy that’s taken charge. He’s playing a big role on the team and he seems to have those traits of a guy who wants the ball, more or less, and wants to be in charge and wants the big moments. After seeing him in the playoffs last year I was pretty excited about meeting him.”
Raymond Bourque, Special Advisor?
Considered one of the greatest defensemen of all-time, former captain of the Boston Bruins, 15-time all-star, five-time Norris winner, Hall of Famer and Stanley Cup winner. There’s one title missing from his resume that he should absolutely hold: special advisor.
He’s been down that road once before with the Bruins, but it was a brief stint. Understandably, he wanted to spend more time with his family and watch his boys play hockey and enjoy being a grandfather.
Now is the time to offer him a position. It would pay dividends to have Bourque work with the likes of McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Kevan Miller, Matt Grzelcyk, Torey Krug, Rob O’Gara, Jakub Zboril and Jeremy Lauzon.
"We’ve just talked generally, in terms of where Ray is in his own personal life and whether or not he would want to,” said Bruins general manager Don Sweeney. “If there’s a time he may want to is a question for Raymond to answer, not us. I’m not going to comment for him.”
So, how about it, Ray? Want to make it official?
“I wouldn’t say ‘official’ but I’ve let it be known to Donnie, Bruce Cassidy and to the players that if you want to chat, or spend some time, I’m more than willing and wide open to it,” said Bourque, who lives in Boxford. “Every once in a while, I’ll get a call about grabbing lunch or dinner with some of these young guys. Not all that much has happened so far, but I’ve let it be known quietly that if those guys want to reach out and chat (I’m here) because I’m a big fan and I love watching the Bruins. I get to a few games at the Garden, but my favorite seat is watching it at home, so I can watch the game and analyze things. If I go to the games, I don’t get to see much of it."
Sweeney, who played with Bourque as a defensive partner, understands first-hand the impact he would have on young defensemen. Bourque also understands how difficult that transition to the NHL is for younger players because his sons, Chris and Ryan, have experienced that during their respective minor league careers.
“He’s got two boys that have gone through very similar situations that a lot of younger players go through, trying to get up to that next level and persevere in the shadow of an iconic player, which is not easy by any stretch," said Sweeney. "It’s a testament to the character of the family itself and to both Christopher and Ryan.”
‘It’s fun to pick his brain’
Even though he doesn’t have an official title, Bourque has spent time talking hockey with many players in the organization throughout the years, including the current core of defensemen.
“Raymond’s done a lot of this on his own,” Sweeney said. “Periodically, we’ve had some good discussions over the years — not since I’ve been the general manager — in terms of having guys bounce some situational things because he’s seen and done everything. In particular, in this town under expectations and things that come with playing here and there are a lot of great things if you can channel it in the right direction. He was always one to be very good at that. He’s seen it all and done it all, so he’s a great resource.”
The Bruins already have captain Zdeno Chara as the veteran presence on and off the ice. There’s a reason why young prospects are paired with him at the start of their careers. It was the same when Bourque was playing.
“I didn’t have the opportunity to play with (Chara) but I would expect it’s a very similar situation,” Sweeney said. “When you’re a young player it’s a bit of a safety net. When you become more of an established player you know you’re getting top matchups in situations where you’re going to get exposed at times. You become a better player, a more experienced player and you relish those opportunities to play against the absolute best players in key situations.
“That’s when Raymond thrived and was at his best. He pulled you along in that regard. He really challenged you and there were times in practice he challenged you to be game ready. When the game was on it was amazing, in terms of his level of emotion then recovery level – repeat and the consistency he had.”
When Krug first signed with the Bruins as a college free agent, he became teammates with Chris Bourque in Providence. Ray liked Krug’s competitiveness and gave the young defenseman his contact info to reach out whenever.
"It was great,” Krug said. “He’s always been an open book for me to pick his mind. Obviously, I came in during the playoffs and he really made himself available for me. He’s one of the greatest defensemen of all-time. It’s fun to pick his brain and he’ll give me tips now and then and I really appreciate it.
“If I’m struggling a little bit, I’ll reach out to him and I’ve always kept the door open for him to reach out to me if he sees something I can improve on, but he’s a busy guy, he’s watching his kids a lot.”
The idea of Bourque becoming an official member of the management or coaching staff is an interesting thought for Krug and the rest of the players.
“It would be important just to see him around,” Krug said. “Guys always talk about his competitive nature and that look in his eye that he had that’s rare, and if you see him around it would light a fire under you. That’s something he always talked to me about, being good in practice and always competitive. Be that S.O.B that always comes out with the puck and being that guy in practice pushing your teammates to be better. He was obviously a special player and he’s got that ‘it’ factor.”
Grzelcyk grew up in Charlestown, and his father, John, is a longtime member of the Garden’s Bull Gang. Grzelcyk admits Bourque and Bobby Orr were his dad’s favorite players. Grzelcyk’s admiration for Bourque was evident when asked what it would be like if the former captain spent more time around the team.
“It would be a huge honor,” Grzelcyk said. “It couldn’t be a bad thing at all. With all the experience he’s been through, I would really cherish that for sure. He’s one of the best defensemen who ever played. Getting to see him lift the Cup when he was with Colorado was probably one of the coolest things I remember growing up, so maybe just to hear some of those stories and about the old Garden, just to experience that would be huge.”
Bourque said he’s enjoyed watching the young, puck-moving defenseman begin his NHL career.
“It’s fun to see Grz getting some time,” Bourque said. “I know his dad really well and I used to see (Matt) around the Garden all the time, so it’s pretty exciting to see young guys come up and you have a connection with, the local guys that grew up watching us. It’s all good, all fun.”
The Bruins have a solid young core of defensemen, led by McAvoy, and they could only benefit from Bourque’s presence around the team and advice. At this point, he’s helping in small doses but the Bruins should consider making it a more permanent relationship.