Former Canuck Pavel Bure was adored in Vancouver, but Russian Rocket was reluctant to return the love
Fans adored the speedy sniper, but Pavel Bure never really connected with Vancouver
There was an almighty battle on the part of aggrieved NHL teams after they thought the Vancouver Canucks had broke the rules by drafting Pavel Bure in the 1989 lottery. The Canucks, with the help of veteran Igor Larionov, managed to get the paperwork to prove Bure qualified to be theirs, and the rest was history for a buffed-up Bure and the Canucks.
Photograph by: Ralph Bower, Vancouver Sun files
VANCOUVER — The problem with Pavel is really our problem. He was just being himself. We wanted him to be more.
Fourteen years after holding out on the Vancouver Canucks to force a trade, Pavel Bure’s impact here is reflected by his first-name recognition. Say "Pavel" on Canada’s West Coast and everyone knows who you mean.
The Russian Rocket. Fabulous player. Shame about the person. Wish he’d stayed longer. Or not.
One of the most prolific goal-scorers in National Hockey League history, Bure will be inducted Monday into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto despite a career shortened by knee injuries.
Bure failed a physical in 2003 and retired as a New York Ranger at age 32. He finished with 437 goals in 702 games for a strike rate of .623 that is third all-time behind only Mike Bossy’s .762 and Mario Lemieux’s .754.
Bure played 24 fewer NHL games than Cam Neely and 45 more than Bobby Orr — other Hall-of-Famers whose careers were halted by injuries. Bure’s elevation to official hockey immortality was purely a statistical argument. Did he play enough games and score enough goals to qualify for the Hall of Fame? The selection committee, co-chaired by former Canuck coach and general manager Pat Quinn, decided Bure deserved induction this year alongside Joe Sakic, Mats Sundin and Adam Oates.
It’s a sparkling class.
Bure’s story is being retold in various places: the Canucks’ heist of Bure in the sixth round of the 1989 draft (after the team picked Brett Hauer, before they chose Jim Revenberg) due to head scout Mike Penny’s savvy homework; Bure’s electric debut after showing up on the Canucks’ doorstep in 1991; his explosive speed and five 50-goal seasons and his debilitating battle against injuries.
It’s a nice story, a simple one.
But it’s a little more complicated out here where Bure spent seven seasons, grudgingly as it turned out, and never returned the love and adoration showered upon him in a city where fans have not seen another Canuck like him, before or since.
When the franchise celebrated its 40th anniversary a couple of years ago, they retired Markus Naslund’s jersey and christened a "Ring of Honour" by celebrating four other famous Canucks. Bure was not among them.
Canucks management, led by Bure’s former agent, Mike Gillis, asked the Russian over dinner in Miami if he was interested in being honoured in Vancouver. Bure said no.
You may recall that he once claimed to a reporter, while walking out on the final year of his Canucks’ contract: "I love the fans here and I love the city. I want to spend some time here in the summer. It’s a beautiful place and the fans have treated me really well. I really want to thank them for the seven years they supported me."
But Bure never returned to Vancouver, except as a visiting player. He said this week he hasn’t been to Vancouver in a decade. This isn’t surprising because he spent his summers as a Canuck in Los Angeles. And as for thanking the fans, his reluctance to be honoured by the organization shouts volumes. Given what we know, it would embarrassing to phone Bure now and coax from him a repeat of that expedient pledge from 14 years ago.
Bure had one close friend on the Canucks, Gino Odjick, never invested emotionally in the community and, according to The Province, first asked for a trade in 1993 because the team wouldn’t renegotiate his rookie contract.
He was upset about false reports that he threatened to hold out before the 1994 Stanley Cup Final, was understandably angry the Canucks tried to pay him in Canadian dollars instead of American ones, was frustrated by the team’s refusal to adhere to a lockout clause in his contract, and upset that Quinn wasn’t present when Bure showed up to sign a $24.5-million US, five-year contract that made him one of the five highest-paid hockey players in the world.
And, of course, the team kept promising to trade him and wouldn’t.
"Every time I asked to be traded, they always agreed to," Bure complained to a reporter after his February 1999 move to the Florida Panthers. "Nobody ever said: ‘We’re not going to trade you.’ But they always lied."
Yes, shame on the Canucks.
While adored by fans as he became one of the richest players in hockey, Bure had to suffer through a four-year stretch that saw the Canucks play 10 rounds of playoffs and get within one win of the Stanley Cup. Bure played four playoff games after he left Vancouver.
It was just business to Bure, numbers. Fair enough. But shame on us, then, for loving him and expecting anything more from what turned out to be a one-way relationship.
There was never an issue about Bure’s breathtaking speed and talent and hunger to score goals.
No one who saw him rocket through the Winnipeg Jets on his debut at the Pacific Coliseum on Nov. 5, 1991 will forget it.
"If everybody I’ve met since that game who said they were there were actually in the building, the crowd would have been 250,000," Quinn said this week. "He was lightning in a bottle. He just seemed to have fun out there. He was a hard worker. His training was second to no one. He wanted to be the best scorer and certainly was the best we had on our team."
It seems ironic that Quinn, cast by some as the miserly villain who victimized Bure and helped drive him away, strongly supports the player’s inclusion in the Hall of Fame. He believes Bure wanted out of Vancouver because he was private person who didn’t like the spotlight and wanted to be able to "disappear" when he left the rink.
"I don’t know that he had an affinity for any organization," Quinn said. "I always liked Pavel. I liked his attitude and I liked the way he played. I wish he had opened up a little more (for the public) but that was not who he was. I can’t blame him for that."
Maybe we should all strive to be so generous. The same, of course, could be said for Bure, who has never expressed regret about how things ended in Vancouver nor even hinted at a desire for reconciliation. He seems content with the way things stand.
Bure is the most exciting player and most divisive player in Canucks history. He scored enough goals to earn a place in the Hall of Fame. In Toronto.
But to be honoured here, numbers aren’t enough. When the Canucks retired jerseys belonging to Stan Smyl, Trevor Linden and Markus Naslund — all of them selfless captains — it was the bonds between franchise and player, between player and town, that were as celebrated as lofty statistics.
Bure showed up when he had to, left when he could. He always played hard for his team. But 14 years after Bure left and never looked back, what is there to celebrate about his relationship with the Canucks or the community?
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