Pavel Bure may have missed all of the Canucks’ 50th anniversary celebrations (so far), including the jersey retirement for the Sedins, but he’s still a key part of their history and the most dynamic player ever to wear a Canucks jersey. It’s fitting, then, to look back and get a better picture of who Bure was, with Kevin Wong’s Lost Shifts series.
On March 15, 2020, 17 years will have passed since Pavel Bure last graced the ice of a National Hockey League rink. Memories of Bure continue to be shared to this day — fables of a figure whose sublime displays of skill and immeasurable popularity changed the landscape of the NHL one stride at a time.
There were thousands of rushes, all of which compelled audiences to rise from their seats and opponents to relent to whatever brilliant, creative maneuver he had crafted within his imagination. He was a king of style, though not at the expense of results.
Bure was an innovator and a uniquely-dynamic force, especially when he was healthy. He was in a special class as a Vancouver Canuck — phenomenal each time he stepped on to the ice, and a celebrity off of it, even among non-hockey fans. He attracted fans from everywhere, his popularity transcending the confines of the hockey world. Without him, Canucks nation as we know it would not exist.
Tragically, he was injured for the majority of his career and his skating was never quite as effortless after his anterior cruciate ligament was torn in a match against the Chicago Blackhawks on November 9, 1995. Numerous surgeries were required to treat this damage and he never truly recovered.
In spite of this major injury and the subsequent setbacks that would prematurely end his career, Bure was considered to be the NHL's most fearsome goal scorer throughout his time in the league and might have been one of the most prolific ever if not for the injuries. He was the sixth-fastest player in NHL history to reach 400 goals at the time of his accomplishment, eclipsing that plateau in 635 games.
His career ended with a total of 437 goals scored in a span of 702 games. Upon joining his final team, the New York Rangers, in 2002, he scored 12 goals and 20 points in 12 games — he retired with so much left to offer.
Alexander Ovechkin, now heralded as potentially the greatest goal scorer of all time and in many ways Bure's successor when he entered the NHL in 2005, scored his milestone 400th goal in 634 games -- one game fewer -- and matched Bure's career total of 437 goals in 711 games. Ovechkin is now on his way to breaking Wayne Gretzky's record.
Vancouver briefly had a player of that luminous quality, as every time Bure was healthy he was capable of 60 or more goals, achieving such grand totals primarily without the support of other elite players. Who knows how much more plentiful his career totals would have been with a centerman who could alleviate some of his burden. He was majestic, even without help. From his debut on November 5, 1991 against the Winnipeg Jets to his final game against the New Jersey Devils in March 2003, the hockey world was treated to a show so spectacular that to inform new hockey fans about this legendary player with words alone would never suffice.
Most words and stories about players from days of yore originate from memory, but such recollections are prone to distort over time and details have a tendency to become obscure.
Before social media, comprehensive television contracts and online video allowed moments to become instantaneously accessible and virtually imperishable, only few could truly witness the brilliance of Pavel Bure on more than just an occasional basis: the CBC and local television networks such as BCTV might have aired a game a few times per month, whereas most home matches could only be seen live at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver.
Highlight packages on CKVU's Sports Page and TSN's SportsDesk attempted to offer glimpses of every goal, but would sometimes skip moments to save time in their broadcasts. In other words, to really understand the inner workings of a player's game was extremely difficult for any but the most dedicated fans of the sport. One could not study a player through on-demand viewings as they can now.
Such little relative coverage caused the dissemination of often vague and sometimes inaccurate reports about players; in Bure's case, he developed an unfair reputation as a one-dimensional, moody breakaway artist when he was anything but that. He was fearless, relentless, and willing to push his physical limit to cover as much ice as possible and separate the puck from his opponent.
To ensure that truths about Bure's game are preserved in history, I present to you now, in association with Pass It To Bulis, the first episode of a brand new series detailing not only the style of play and nuances of Bure's game, but the way in which other historical players contributed on the ice as well.
Very little is remembered about the specific styles of so many former NHLers, and so throughout numerous installments we will explore and revisit their games with footage and analysis. This project began in 2012 and has now been relaunched with remastered audio, video, and a brand new series format for your viewing pleasure.
Each episode will examine one game and capture the essence of that player's performance within a condensed, four-to-five minute video presentation. This is Episode 1 of The Lost Shifts. Today's topic: Pavel Bure.
In this episode, we examine Bure's performance in Game 7 of the Smythe Division Semi-Finals between the Vancouver Canucks and the Winnipeg Jets.
Pavel Bure was a rookie that year, amassing 34 goals and 60 points in 65 games. Most notably, however, he finished the regular season with 22 goals in the final 23 games of the schedule and paved a clear path to the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year — the first Canuck to accomplish this feat. At this stage in his career, he was still lighter and not quite as strong as he would be in later years, although his tenacity and courage were still exceptional.
Pavel Bure was as determined as any to provide his best performance at both ends of the rink, intelligently anticipating the actions of his opposition so that he could counter their movements with bursts of pressure and creating offense by catching his opponent off-guard. He combined explosive first steps with tremendous side-to-side, on-a-dime agility, top-tier speed, sheer physical strength and effortless finesse to overwhelm opponents.
In instances when the other team controlled possession of the puck, he could rapidly close the distance between himself and the puck carrier to force a potential turnover. This element of surprise often led opposing players to panic and commit infractions in an attempt to obstruct him. He drew countless penalties and triggered many other instances of obstruction that should have been penalties and certainly would be given today’s standards of officiating.
He was supremely elusive, and if not for these desperate hooks, trips, and other penalties by the other team, he would have been free to charge down the ice at will for an superb scoring opportunity. The obstruction of that era was, by today's standards, unacceptable. Players fought hard for every morsel of space on the ice, as most hooks and holds were considered to be sound defensive plays.
The rink was sometimes a terror-inducing battleground — especially during the playoffs — and yet Bure's displays of artistry and genius occurred amidst these obstacles. There is no question that he would have thrived in the current NHL where small, skilled players are much safer than they have ever been. Bure played in a vicious era.
His complete skill set and exceptional hockey IQ allowed him to contribute in all aspects of the game. He was aggressive when he needed to chase down pucks and intimidate the opposition, and often sought to disrupt the opponent's attack with pressure of his own. For this reason among others, he was an excellent penalty killer, and with each of his teams he was relied upon to produce caution from his opponents.
If the opposition made even one mistake and relinquished control of the puck, Bure would moments later be barreling down the ice trying to reach the loose puck for a dangerous scoring opportunity or to keep the puck from re-entering the Vancouver zone. He has the eleventh-most shorthanded goals of all time in the NHL with 34 tallies. His teams would additionally place him on the ice at the end of games to defend a slim lead, as his presence would force his opponents to remain tentative.
As an offensive player, Bure possessed all of the tools that most NHL skaters can only ever dream about.
He could fire the puck from anywhere in the offensive zone and score. A multitude of goals were scored from as far back as the offensive blue line, as Bure's slap shot was a remarkable cannon.
Whenever he carried the puck up the ice and through the neutral zone, the opposition's gap control was of the utmost importance. If the defenceman remained too far back, he could walk in and fire the puck on goal. If they attempted to contain him aggressively, he could maneuver around them and quickly weave a clear path directly to the net. His talent to deke and stickhandle deceptively, even at top speed, along with his ability to shift quickly from side to side, made him one of the most fearsome one-on-one players ever.
He was a vastly underrated puck distributor as well, setting up teammates for scoring opportunities time after time and routinely offering crisp, tape-to-tape passes. A terrifying player on any rush, he could shoot the puck or serve it to a teammate for an empty net.
His best friend, renowned enforcer and fellow Canucks icon Gino Odjick, scored 16 goals in 1993-94 while playing on his line. Other linemates he played with include Igor Larionov, Anatoli Semenov, Greg Adams, Murray Craven and Dixon Ward, among others. Larionov departed after Bure's rookie season, as he disagreed with the clause in his contract that compensated the Soviet sports agency Sovintersport.
Vancouver Canucks general manager Pat Quinn sought a skilled centerman who could complement and elevate Bure — he would later regret not finding that player, and Bure was forced, for the majority of his career, to create his own offense.
One of the most egregious misconceptions about Bure as a player was that he was reckless defensively. Some have even wrongly alleged that he was a cherry picker — one who lurks in the neutral zone while the rest of the team is hemmed in their defensive end.
His signature play was the end-to-end rush, hence he often began to ascend up the ice from his own zone and sometimes started from behind his own goal line. His mission in his defensive zone was to retrieve the puck and then, if possible, carry it out safely. His famous first shift, for instance, was one such coast-to-coast rush against the Jets. The excitement he generated every time he touched the puck was due to his ability to take the puck practically anywhere he wanted at speeds that no opponent could comfortably handle.
Bure was one of the cornerstones of his team's defensive breakout, regularly supporting his team's puck movement from one end of the rink to the other. His elite sense of puck control also provided options for offensive zone entries, as he could draw the opponent towards him and then distribute the puck to an open teammate. He skated effortlessly with the puck, and avoided checks with a quick side-step. Furthermore, he often played the point on the powerplay, quarterbacking the offense alongside Jyrki Lumme and briefly Jeff Brown.
In a 1993 episode of Power Stick Hockey Week, Bure's former Canucks teammate Ryan Walter told his interviewer, "He's the type of player who's a gamebreaker, but he's also a backchecker; he's got incredible speed, great hands, but I think the thing I've appreciated about Pavel the most is that he's a team guy."
Walter was an NHL veteran and a valued member of the Canucks' leadership group in Bure's rookie season. He and Odjick were Bure's first linemates in the NHL.
In the footage against Winnipeg, one can clearly see examples of the adversity Bure faced. Hooked, held, tripped, and pinned, he still managed to battle through the obstacles to remain a lethal offensive presence.
Meanwhile, he offered the same degree of intensity that opponents attempted to impose on him — even if the puck was slightly outside of his immediate vicinity, he pounced and pestered the opposition with his quickness and precise, proactive positioning. On the backcheck, he commonly tied up the puck carrier upon their entry into the Vancouver zone, containing them so that the Canucks could once more gather themselves and turn the play back up the ice.
Bure caused chaos for the Jets offensively with chance after chance — that and his keen defensive posturing on his part contributed to the Canucks' series victory.
It is crucial not to forget the awe of his on-ice performances or the characteristics that made him special. Rather than allow his and other players' legacies to fade and be lost with time, the preservation of their routine shifts can allow us to recall the specifics that might otherwise be forgotten and give future generations an opportunity to keep their memory alive.
Pavel Bure was a once-in-a-lifetime athlete — exceptional in a variety of unique ways and unlikely ever to have a true equivalent in the NHL. One can just imagine how breathtaking he would have been in today's NHL.
Kevin Wong is on Twitter @CambieKev.