Ray Bourque the Boston Bruins bulwark: SI Vault feature 1987 - Sports Illustrated Vault | SI.com

Though they are happily married, Ray and Christiane Bourque are embroiled in a custody battle. The object of contention is not their three-year-old daughter, Melissa, their infant son, Christopher, or even their new cherry-red BMW. It's a lumpy, yellowing pillow that leaks foam rubber the way a torn feed bag spills oats.

"I can't sleep right unless I'm hugging my pillow," says Ray. "I like to squeeze it in a headlock."

"I like to hug it. too," counters Chris. ""The smell reminds me of you."

Boston's 26-year-old defenseman has had the pillow since he was old enough to tell a puck from a pacifier. It was his bunky when he was a little Termite League winger in the Montreal suburbs; it accompanied him through his apprentice years in the Canadian junior leagues; and it went up to the bigs with him in 1979, when he became the first rookie—other than a goaltender—to win the Calder Trophy and make the NHL All-Star first-team. Bourque won't give up the pillow now, even though he's all grown up and a favorite to win the Norris Trophy this season as the league's premier defenseman.

With or without his pillow, Bourque is the kind of player who inspires Stanley Cup dreams. He has been an All-Star in each of his eight pro seasons. Bourque has 58 assists this season—second in the league—and his 72 points are tops on the Bruins and best among NHL defensemen. "I finished second to Bourque in the 1980 Calder voting," says Buffalo forward Mike Foligno, "and over the years he's showed me why." Before playing the Bruins, Foligno's team devises strategies to keep Bourque locked up in his zone. Nothing has worked yet.

"He sneaks up on us and always gets off six or seven shots," Foligno says. "Afterward we look at each other and say 'How'd he get so many?'"

Despite playing half his games in the Boston Garden, a teacup-sized rink that minimizes his mobility. Bourque is second in the NHL in shots, with 252. "Bourque controls so much of the game that he draws all the attention," says Foligno. "He causes opponents to react [to him], and in the course of that reaction his teammates are left open."

Bourque is particularly effective at the point on power plays, and nobody can check him head-to-head. "Most players skim over the ice like a Hovercraft," observes Bruin coach Terry O'Reilly. "Ray plows through it like a deep-V hull. You need a windshield to protect you from the spray of snow."

Until recently, Bourque often bolted up the ice in length-of-the-rink scoring rushes reminiscent of Edmonton's Paul Coffey, who won the Norris Trophy the last two seasons. Rather than skate with Bourque, defenders learned to lie back and try to angle him into the boards. Now he's just as likely to flip a lazy pass across the blue line to a forward, then rush to the net in time to snare the return pass and slap it in. "Ray has kicked his game up a beat," says fellow Bruin backliner Mike Milbury. "He has always been great, but now he's using the whole ice surface."

Sophisticated scouting doesn't help that much. "You can chart Bourque all you want," says Lou Nanne. Minnesota's general manager. "But what good is it going to get you? He just reacts to what he sees. The great players are all like that."

Bourque is a 5' 11", 210-pounder who seems more concerned with his plus-minus rating (+33, tops on the Bruins) than the fact that his five-year. $2.5 million contract makes him the NHL's highest-paid defenseman His value to the Bruins deters him from entering brawls. "If I'm not on the ice, I'm not helping the team," he reasons, and he holds to the theory by averaging only 56 penalty minutes a season. "Anyway, I don't have to fight to prove myself."

This doesn't mean Bourque is in imminent danger of winning the Lady Byng Trophy for gentlemanly play. "Ray's not a dirty player," says his father. Raymond Sr., "but I never saw him back away from anybody." True enough. It's a character trait that took him off the ice for seven weeks in 1980 when Dennis Polonich of Detroit busted him in the chops during a brief tussle. "'Polonich only got one punch in. but it was a good one," Bourque recalls. 'It's tough to convince people you won a fight when the other guy breaks your jaw."

Bourque left home at 15 to play for the Trois-Rivières Draveurs in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. The next night, he called his father at home in St. Laurent, Quebec, 85 miles away. "Ray asked me to make a special delivery," says Raymond Sr. "He said he couldn't sleep without his pillow."

The pillow has done more than just soften blows to Bourque's psyche. When Bourque was a kid, his father would discipline the pillow instead of him, slapping it whenever he misbehaved. The pillow was also an essential part of the improvised equipment Bourque and his younger brother Ricky used in hockey games on their bedroom floor. They got on their knees and batted around a pair of rolled-up socks. Their doorway was one goal, a pair of ski boots the other. And Ricky provided the necessary sound effects: the horn, the organ music, the crowd noise. He even imitated Claude Mouton, the Montreal Forum's stentorian P.A. announcer. Ocassionally the brothers wrapped pillows over their fists and pretended to brawl.

"If it was 'pretend.' how come there was so much blood?" asks Edna, the boys' stepmother.

The Bourque boys inherited their hockey sense from a grandfather, Adelard Bourque, who played competitively in New Brunswick until his mid-50's. Their father was less skilled as a player, but he was a formidable hockey disciplinarian. He would wake up at 5 a.m. to get Ray and Ricky out on the rink for a couple of hours of practice before school. A retired electrician, Raymond Sr. now works in St. Laurent as superintendent of an apartment building across the street from Saint Laurent Municipal Arena, where Bourque buzzed around in the Mosquito League at age six.

"Little Ray was lazy, for sure," says Edna, who married Raymond Sr. in 1972 after his first wife died of cancer. "He'd never pick up anything he dropped." Little has changed. Today on road trips Bourque spends afternoons in his hotel room catching up on his soaps. He watches Loving, All My Children,One Life To Live and General Hospital in succession because he doesn't have to change the channel.

It may also be that Bourque is just a creature of habit. For example, take the matter of his hair, which he wears in a style that might best be described as neo-hedgehog. Each individual lock seems to have been wired to pick up UHF, VHF and radio signals from distant galaxies. The only barber Bourque trusts to trim his tresses is a fellow named Michel at Salon Le Scalp in St. Laurent. Michel serves him coffee laced with cognac. "At Christmas," Bourque says, "I tell him to leave out the coffee."

Ray, Melissa, Christopher and Christiane

Ray, Melissa, Christopher and Christiane

Bourque's formal education ended at 15 when he dropped out of high school to devote all his time to his junior team, the Verdun Black Hawks. He was the eighth player taken in the 1979 NHL draft, having scored 22 goals and assisted on 71 others in 63 games in his final season with Verdun.

After Bourque signed his contract, his first move was to buy Dad a brand new car. a Chevrolet Caprice Classic. Raymond Sr. had been clocking 30,000 miles a year on his 10-year-old Buick Skylark following his sons through the hockey provinces. Ray Sr. still gets weepy recalling his son's gift. "I'll tell you one thing," he says. "The NHL didn't swell Ray's head. He comes home every summer wearing shorts and driving his MVW ..."

"That's BMW." corrects Ricky.

"Right. Every week of the summer, Ray comes over to help me take out the tenants' garbage."

When Bourque arrived in Boston the Bruins were down in the dumps. They were eliminated in the quarterfinals of the playoffs in his rookie year and then were bounced out of the first round of the playoffs in his sophomore season. The drought continued, Boston losing to Montreal in the opening round the last three years. This season, after the Bruins won just five of their first 13 games, Butch Goring was fired as coach. His successor, O'Reilly, is a hard-nosed alumnus of the Bruins; his 2.095 career penalty minutes accrued between 1972 and '83 still is a team record.

O'Reilly has dragged the Bruins back to respectability. Since he took over, Boston has gone 26-20-4 and at week's end was only six points behind first-place Hartford in the Adams Division. "I love playing for the guy," Bourque says. "There's more intensity, more excitement. Terry has simplified the game and made it fun. He has given some of the older guys their roles back and made them feel important again. He has great respect for everybody." Especially Bourque. "Without Ray," says O'Reilly flatly, "we wouldn't be a contender for the Stanley Cup."

All offense-minded defensemen inevitably are compared with Orr, but because he plays for Orr's old team Bourque has been scrutinized more closely than most. Bruin general manager Harry Sinden outraged the Boston press last month just by suggesting that Bourque is playing at "an Orr level." Sinden's judgment may be a bit premature. Orr won eight Norris Trophies, three MVP awards and led Boston to two Stanley Cup championships.

"Bourque is certainly the best defenseman in the league this season," says Nanne. "But he's no Orr. He's not as physical or as mean and he doesn't have Orr's uncanny sense of anticipation." Even Bourque resists the idea. "I'm not Bobby Orr, that's for sure." he says. "Nobody playing defense will ever control the game as well as he did. I'd be happy just to be half the player he was. People will look at me for who I am, and I think I'm finally approaching my potential. Great players need skill and talent, but more important, they've got to have the confidence that comes from consistency and hard work."

"When Ray first got here he was just a shy French-Canadian kid who only loosened up on the ice," says Milbury, a veteran of 11 Bruin campaigns. "But when he was named co-captain [in 1985] he took the role to heart. He has become a leader who takes young players aside, gives hell to older ones and never lets the locker room get too tight. I asked him what he wanted to do after he was out of hockey, and he said he was thinking of working for the Department of Public Works. I think Ray just wants to be together with a group of other guys. He thrives in that sort of atmosphere."

In the rumpus room of Bourque's home on Boston's North Shore, one-year-old Christopher toddles around, brandishing the plastic hockey stick he always carries. He slashes the couch, pokes the rocking horse and swats his pacifier across the carpet. When he nearly decapitates his sister, Bourque shouts, "High-sticking! That's two minutes in the crib."

Christopher accepts the penalty without complaint. He lies down and falls asleep hugging his pillow, like any great hockey player.