Christopher Bourque, No. 56 on the Washington roster, made his NHL debut Tuesday night, and when Capitals coach Glen Hanlon told him his linemates, the son of Bruins icon Ray Bourque was knocked off his skates for a second or two.
"I couldn't believe it," said the 21-year-old forward, "when he said I'd be skating with Michael Nylander and Alexander Ovechkin. I was like, 'Wow, this is unbelievable!' It made the whole night even more exciting, and this is something I've waited for for a long time."
Had he stuck with his initial plan, Bourque would be in the midst of his senior season on Commonwealth Avenue, playing for Jack Parker's BU Terriers in Hockey East and looking forward to his 2008 commencement ceremony. But by the end of his freshman season, 2004-05, Bourque was convinced that school was a roadblock, rather than a fast track to the big time.
"No regrets, I think it was a good decision for me," he said, reflecting on his choice to turn pro in the spring of '05, in time to join the Portland Pirates for a half-dozen AHL games. "My game has developed so much the last two years in Hershey [AHL], and all I've ever wanted to be is a hockey player. That's always been 100 percent my goal.
"With school, there were other things I had to concentrate on, so for me, I think this was the best way to go."
So there he was Tuesday night in Atlanta, paired with Nylander, an ex-Bruin and one of the game's most clever and effective pivots, and Ovechkin, perhaps the most feared right winger in the game. What was a kid to think?
"Well, it made things easier to be with such skilled guys, that's for sure," said Bourque, whose parents made it to Philips Arena in time to see his debut. "I just took the approach, do what I can do to get the puck to them, and then just go to the net. I got a few shots, but most of what I tried to do was cause a few turnovers and create some energy out there."
These are not the best of times for the Capitals. Owner Ted Leonsis finally loosened the purse strings a little bit over the summer, leading general manager George McPhee to make a couple of key free agent hires, including defenseman Tom Poti and Nylander. But thus far, in part because of a rash of injuries, the expected bump in the standings hasn't taken place. Entering yesterday's games, despite a surprise victory in Ottawa Thursday night, the Capitals were tied with Buffalo for last in the Eastern Conference standings. By and large, more of the same for a squad that has missed the playoffs for three straight seasons.
A left winger, Bourque landed two shots on net in his debut, and played a total of 11:58 vs. the Thrashers. Two nights later, Hanlon had him back with Nylander and Ovechkin against the Senators, but the ex-goalie also shuffled lines throughout the night. Bourque's time was cut back to 5:33, and he did not land a shot on net.
Bourque's dad couldn't make it Ottawa, but the Hall of Fame backliner had time to visit with his son briefly after the game in Atlanta.
"He thought I played really well, and just told me to keep up the good work," said Christopher, whose speech pattern and accent are virtually identical to his dad's. "He just wants me to make it a hard decision for them to send me down, and, hey, obviously this is where I want to stay. I've been dreaming about this my whole life."
A decade ago, it might have been impossible for the younger Bourque, only 5 feet 7 inches, 173 pounds, to make it to the NHL. It is still a very difficult place for small players to shine, but at least they have the chance now that much of the clutch-and-grab has been weeded out of the game. Strong skating and determination will give a small player a realistic chance now.
"I feel really good at this weight, I feel quick out there," said Bourque. "I've never looked at my size as something that held me back, really. I look at it as an asset. I've got a low center of gravity, and that makes it hard for me to get thrown off the puck. So, it's an advantage for me - not a negative."
An Otter job for Ftorek
When his cellphone rang with the job offer, Robbie Ftorek was driving through Vermont, en route to Middlebury College to see his son, Casey, play soccer. Less than 24 hours later, he was in Erie, Pa., shaking hands as the new head coach of the Erie Otters in the Ontario Hockey League.
"Yeah, picked up a rental car in Manchester [N.H.] after the game, and drove all night to get there," Ftorek said Friday afternoon, just hours before his Otters took on the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. "That's how fast it all came together. And so, here I am, back at it."
Ftorek, 55, is now in his 21st year of coaching, which, for the record, is seven more years than the former Needham High star played professionally. After being abruptly dismissed as the Bruins bench boss late in the 2002-03 season, he spent 2 1/2 seasons behind the bench for Albany (AHL).
He spent all of last season scouting for the Devils, often spotted in the Garden's ninth-floor press box as he reviewed NHL talent.
"All last year, I was hoping to get back to coaching, and for months I kept hearing that something was on the horizon, something was coming, a job somewhere in the American League . . . but in the end, nothing materialized," said Ftorek.
"And when this came up, my wife said to me, 'You know, maybe you're in for the same thing this year, waiting. Is that what you want?'
"So when this happened, I said, 'Hey, why not, let's go.' I figured I better get back to coaching."
Where does the Otter man go from here? Ideally, said Ftorek, he wants to be back behind an NHL bench.
"And if someone calls, I've got an out in my contract that will let me go," said Ftorek, who replaced former Whalers goalie Peter Sidorkiewicz as Otters coach. "I'm always ready."
Enlarging nets is no solution to shrinking scoring
A pair of free NHL passes for life, says Anaheim general manager Brian Burke, to anyone who can figure out an effective way of penalizing zone defenses - a.k.a. "traps" - in the NHL.
"It's been discussed, plenty," said Burke, formerly the NHL's head of discipline. "But no one's come up with the answer."
Meanwhile, two-plus seasons after the lockout, the "New" NHL has clearly lost the scoring momentum it enjoyed almost immediately after everyone got back to work in October 2005. It has been agonizing of late to watch the Bruins try to score, but the problem is leaguewide. Consider:
Brace yourself, traditionalists, the dimming of red lights is certain to rekindle the discussion about making the nets bigger. During the lockout, league execs looked at a number of variations, the most popular being a modest upward bowing of the crossbar, and similar outward bowing of the posts - as if the three pipes had been microwaved.
Will bigger nets mitigate the trapping that has sucked the action out of the game? No. Will bigger nets also force goalies to surrender a few inches off of their still grossly oversized equipment? Uh-uh.
Bigger nets will likely bring, at most, a teeny-weeny uptick in scoring. Focusing on bigger nets, in many ways, is hockey's version of cutting taxes - eye-catching, but ineffective.
This year's Hockey Hall of Fame festivities began Friday in Toronto and will conclude tomorrow evening with the formal inductions of Messrs. Scott Stevens, Al MacInnis, Ron Francis, and Mark Messier (no fewer than 6,538 regular-season games among them). Jim Gregory, the NHL's senior vice president of hockey operations, finally slips on his own blue jacket (as a builder) after a couple of decades as chairman of the Hall's selection committee. On the media side, the late Dave Fay, whose work graced the Washington Times pages for nearly a quarter-century, will be honored as the Elmer Ferguson Award winner. Bill Hewitt, ex- of "Hockey Night in Canada," will be the posthumous honoree with the Foster Hewitt Award, named after his father.
Coming this way
Carl Soderberg, the 6-foot-3-inch Swedish center whom the Bruins obtained in July when they sent Hannu Toivonen to St. Louis, likely will be in Boston's training camp next September, according to general manager Peter Chiarelli. "Hey, I have to get some ammo for JD," said Chiarelli, noting that Blues president John Davidson suggested in this space recently that Soderberg could opt never to play in North America. "He's playing over there [Malmo], and he picked up a couple of assists in his first game. He's a big, strong forward, and I'm sure he'll challenge for a spot here next year."
Starry presence in goal
Veteran goalie Eddie Belfour, last seen puckstopping for the Florida Panthers, signed with Leksand late in the summer and recently won his Swedish Elite League debut, after giving up a goal on the first shot he faced. According to Bruins forward P.J. Axelsson, a favorite son of Kungalv, Sweden, the Leksand population is some 6,500, and the Leksand Stars' rink has a capacity of about 7,500. "But it's a very old club, and they draw from all over," noted Axelsson. Imagine how Leksand's finest will respond if Belfour offers them a billion bucks, as he did when Texas police hauled him in after a late-night scuffle with a hotel security guard during his Dallas Stars days.
Au revoir, l'enfant
Eric Lindros hung up his skates last week and is a lock to become part of the NHLPA's new guard, acting as the No. 1 liaison between the players and new union boss Paul Kelly. Asked what he might have done differently over the years, L'enfant Terrible noted, "I might have practiced stickhandling with my head up a little more." No. 88 suffered multiple concussions over his 13 years, leading to a shortened career (760 games/865 points). Hall of Fame material? His former boss in Philadelphia, Bob Clarke, believes so. But it's very debatable, simply because he fulfilled about 75 percent of his potential, in large part because of his laundry list of injuries. As a retirement gift of his own, Lindros gave $5 million to the London (Ontario) Health Sciences Foundation. Still reviled in Quebec for refusing to go there after being selected first overall by the Nordiques in 1991, the big fella said that he should have done a better job explaining why he didn't want to go there (he liked the city, he said, but not the club management). As proof of his affection for all things Francais, Lindros noted that he now dates a woman by the name of Monique Paris. "And her dad's name is Jacques," he said. Lindros also owns a fishing club in Quebec. Ah, la dolce vita.
Agitator supreme Sean Avery potted a goal for the Rangers Thursday in a 4-2 win over the Penguins. A call home, said Avery, motivated him, because his mother told him in blunt terms that he had been playing poorly. Now there's good familial support. According to a New York Daily News report, Avery had black nail polish on his fingernails after the victory . . . Onetime Bruins draft pick Wes Walz (No. 57 in 1989) was granted a formal leave of absence from the Wild last week, but did not make himself available - to media or teammates - to explain the respite. Assistant GM Tom Lynn would say only that it was not for health or family reasons. The suspicion around the team is that Walz, age 37 and making $900,000 this season, likely will retire . . . Scott Niedermayer, still trying to decide whether he wants to keep playing, has started to skate in Southern California, along with ex-Ducks Travis Green and Jeff Friesen, neither of whom could find a taker in the free agent market . . . Another ex-Bruins draft pick, Kevyn Adams, ripped up a knee last week and likely will not return to the Chicago lineup this weekend. "Can you replace [his leadership]?" said Hawks coach Denis Savard in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. "Probably not, to tell you the truth - he's that important to us." Savard figures the astute Adams could be a coach one day, and wants him to stay around the club, even attend road games, while recovering. The Adams injury brought the return of the enigmatic Sergei Samsonov to the Hawks lineup. Sammy sat for five straight games (coach's decision) before finally being asked to pull on the Indian Head. "You have to keep telling yourself you're going to be back," said Samsonov, who is making $3.525 million this season, the end of a two-year deal he signed in summer '06 with the Canadiens . . . Islanders owner Charles Wang remains impressed with his coach, Ted Nolan, who was out of NHL work for nearly 10 seasons before he was handed the bench in Uniondale. "Teddy is a guy who was beaten down," Wang noted to Newsday. "And not being accepted, I probably understand that better than most owners, what it is sort of not to belong." Wang was born in Shanghai and moved to Long Island at age 8.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.