A quarter century ago, a small Russian dynamo came to the NHL and skated past the best players in the world. He became the Russian Rocket and was unstoppable.
Kirk McLean skated behind his net toward a sliding puck. He reached out and stopped it. For a moment, he waited.
The goalie had done so countless times during his career in hockey, an unremarkable and routine play. But what happened on this night, Nov. 5, 1991, he would never forget. After a beat, McLean’s newest teammate on the Vancouver Canucks came rushing toward him. In one motion he swooped in, received the puck from his goalie and was off. McLean returned to his crouch in front of the net, but never took his eyes off the prized rookie, one of the most hyped imports in NHL history, as he disappeared into the other end.
A sea of fans inside the Pacific Coliseum began to rise, their roar cresting in anticipation as the Canucks winger whirred up the ice, leaving even his teammates in awe.
“The crowd was anticipating something,” McLean said. “Everybody was mesmerized. Most of the guys on the bench, as well, watching to see what would happen.”
His speed, McLean can still recall, was something to behold, almost unseen in the NHL at the time, and when paired with his inhuman agility seemed unfair to those he skated by. The result of the play, the kid’s first shift in the NHL, almost didn’t seem to matter. “He didn’t score, but certainly it showed what he was capable of doing at high speeds handling the puck,” McLean said. “Like a Connor McDavid does now.”
This, 25 seasons ago, was Pavel Bure.
“It’s kind of funny,” he said. “When you mentioned 25 years, it still feels like yesterday.”
This, now, is Pavel Bure, inside his home in Moscow. He is a husband, a father of two, and the president of a fledgling hockey league. But to a franchise he helped plumb from the depths of irrelevancy, he is so much more than that, even today.
Nearly an entire generation of hockey fans missed Bure, or at the very least was obscured from the Russian sensation’s finest years in the NHL. He was a foreign wonder, a young star from Moscow with talents you had see to believe. But in the pre-YouTube era, as part of the Soviet Union’s famed Central Red Army Team, to most of the hockey world Bure was a mere whisper in the wind. To the Vancouver Canucks, who drafted Bure in 1989, he was a savior the team could not be totally sure would ever arrive.
It took the Canucks more than two years to pluck Bure from the Red Army, a protracted, public contract negotiation in which Bure himself offered to put up $50,000 just to see the deal across the goal line. When he finally reached British Columbia, in the fall of 1991, for Vancouver it was not a moment too late.
The Canucks B.B. (Before Bure) were for a long time nothing much to remember. Vancouver hadn’t had a winning season since 1976, and for a stretch in the ’80s the team could barely draw 10,000 fans to its games. Then along came this kid from the Soviet Union, and suddenly along came hope, too.
Before his first practice after joining the team, Bure rode to the rink with teammate Geoff Courtnall. As they pulled in, Bure thought the scene laid before him was normal, par for the course in a hockey-mad country. Some 2,000 people were on hand, and Bure could not understand why this was unusual. It had to be explained to Bure that the fans were only there to see him.
“There were some lean years in the mid- to late ’80s, and the city was craving for something,” said McLean, who arrived in Vancouver in 1987. “(Bure) brought that to the team. He was a big part of a lot of the fan base coming back.”
On the ice, the dividends were almost immediate. Bure energized his new team and scored two goals in just his fourth game. But off the ice, for Bure, this was still a new world. In the Soviet Union, he had lived in a training facility 11 months of the year, where food, lodging and transportation were taken care of. “Everything,” Bure said, “was set up for us.”
In Vancouver, while Bure had the support of his organization and Canucks teammate and fellow Soviet Igor Larionov, he had to grow up fast. He knew almost no English, so tasks like getting an apartment, setting up hydro payments and even picking from a restaurant menu weren’t simple. “I couldn’t even order food because I didn’t know how to say steak or chicken or fish, you know?” Bure said. “Basically I had to just point. I would have to show them what I wanted to eat.”
Live interviews were even more difficult. Between periods during one of his first games, Bure stood without expression as a TV reporter volleyed questions at him in a language he could not yet comprehend. After one inquiry, Bure answered, “Yes,” and the reporter narrowed his eyes, incredulous, as if to suggest, are you sure? Bure quickly changed his tone. “No!” he corrected himself, and hoped this time he had answered it right. “I was just guessing,” Bure said with a laugh.
The language came to him, and the growing pains of a new culture would subside, but what was not open to interpretation was how good this phenom was on the ice. Bure earned the famous nickname ‘Russian Rocket’ – handed to him by Vancouver Sun beat writer Iain MacIntyre – as he notched 34 goals and 60 points over just 65 games. He cruised to the Calder Trophy, edging Nicklas Lidstrom of the Red Wings and Tony Amonte of the New York Rangers. Vancouver won 42 games, at the time its most in franchise history, and finished second in the Campbell Conference standings.
Bure’s career to follow was both a runaway success and a tale of what could have been. He led the Canucks to the 1994 Stanley Cup final, behind a league-best 60 goals, and over 13 years in the league with Vancouver, Florida and the Rangers, Bure scored 779 points – three times leading the NHL in goals – and was named an all-star three times. But Bure was not merely some finesse player, content to pick his spots and skate about the safe zones of the rink. “He did whatever it took to score,” McLean said. “He went into the dirty areas in the corner. He took a massive beating.”
Alas, all those chops took their toll. Knee injuries forced Bure to retire at 32 in 2003.
He has returned to Russia, which of course today is a much different nation than the Soviet Union he left as a 20-year-old in 1991. In Moscow, he operates as president of the World Legends Hockey League, a senior circuit for former pros 45 years and up, now with teams from seven European nations. Last autumn, in Toronto, Bure met with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman about expanding the league into North America.
Bure continues his life in hockey, this time in the front office. But certainly, there can be no replacing that first legendary season in Vancouver, 25 years ago, when a 20-year-old with rockets on his skates ignited a city, the league, the sport.