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ON HOCKEY

The feeling, then and now, is unbeatable

TORONTO -- The memory isn't so much one game, a victory or a loss, or a moment in time marked by the game clock or the scoreboard. After a while, especially after 22 seasons, the games had a way of blending together in a career continuum that delivered Ray Bourque to his Hockey Hall of Fame induction last night.

"You come in as a rookie," he said late yesterday morning, a few hours before he was formally enshrined, "and you just want to play in the NHL."

And a lifetime later, Bourque slipped the Hall of Fame ring on his right hand around 10:40 a.m., posed for pictures, and awaited the official ceremony.

Now 43 years old, a quarter-century removed from his first Boston training camp, Bourque is a bigger, stronger -- and, yes, slightly grayer -- version of the bright-eyed kid who reported to that Fitchburg, Mass., camp in the fall of 1979. For two decades-plus, Bruins fans watched his game mature and his resume fill out, to the point where he retired three years ago as the No. 1 scoring defenseman -- first in goals, assists, and points -- in the history of the NHL.

What we didn't see, what we never see as fans in the stands or critics in the press box, is what went on in Bourque's head as those years played out, how he felt about his work and shift-to-shift effectiveness as the games went by. Well, for the better part of 15 years, into his early 30s, recalled Bourque, there were shifts and bursts of speed that made him think, "incredibly, I could have done anything."

Imagine what that must have been like. It's perhaps no surprise that Bourque felt invincible, because, as he grew bigger and stronger, he also began to pile up his Norris Trophies (five total) as the league's best defenseman. Heck, on any given Sunday, there must be 20-30 players on every NFL field who feel they can do anything, a feeling of physical superiority that some learn instantly turns into fool's gold when they're smacked to the turf. Invincibility, in any sport, is in the eye of the beholder, and eventually, sometimes instantly, that eye gets shut for good.

But Bourque knew that feeling -- along with his passion for the game and his dedication to it -- for at least 15 years. When he talks about it now, as a man 10 years beyond that high, there is still an energy and enthusiasm that courses through his body.

"I can't remember one game, in particular, but it was in those games when my legs were flying," he recalled. "It just gave you such a feeling of, `OK, bring it on -- bring it on -- because no one is getting by me tonight.'

"I'll tell you, that's a scary feeling."

Even scarier, it lasted for 15 years, which is approximately 150 percent longer than the average NHL career. It wasn't every night, and it wasn't every shift in his nightly heap of 25, 28, or 30 minutes of ice time, but it was a regular occurrence for Bourque through his 20s and into his thirtysomethings, for virtually all the days he played at Boston Garden.

"I can tell you it wasn't that way at the end, not nearly as often," he recalled, laughing at the aging process that catches up to everyone. "I mean, late in my career, say after a third game in four nights, I'd be saying to myself, `Oh boy, I've got to work hard tonight.' "

Even then, something would happen, a little bit of the fountain of youth spilling back into his game. From somewhere, perhaps a place he knew as a kid playing on the corner rinks of his St. Laurent neighborhood, the energy burst would return to his legs.

"And then it would be like, `Oh my God, hey, a couple of steps there really felt good,' " said Bourque. "But even that, I'm talking about as good as you can feel when you're up there in age. I felt that way all the time until I was about 33-34 years old, and that's where the dropoff starts. Maybe it's not noticed, at least to the point where people can see it happening. But it is how you feel. It's there at times, in bits and pieces, but those first three steps . . . that's where you get all your energy, and that's where the big difference is."

No matter how big the icon, how great the player, the clock catches everyone. In the Hub of Hockey, we saw it beat down Bobby Orr, take him out at the knees. Brad Park exited on the same battered shield, holding on admirably at the point, not so much on his legs, but by his brain.

"The mind takes over for you," acknowledged Bourque. "The older you get, it's not about being the fastest out there anymore. It's knowing what to do in certain situations with the puck, anticipating how a play's going to go."

There were no unexpected wrinkles in the arena for Bourque last night. To no one's surprise, he was prepared, his speech refined and rehearsed. Surrounded by family and friends, including his lifelong trainer/conditioning guru/golf pal Benoit Leduc, he said farewell to the game he lived and loved.

Upon returning to Boston, he'll resume his new life, which includes his work as a Banknorth pitchman, his duties as a FleetCenter meeter-greeter in the Premium Club, time spent at Via Valverde, the restaurant he co-owns in the North End. His wife Christiane soon will open a 7,500-square-foot spa in Danvers, and he'll help manage that, too. And then there is the endless string of hockey and lacrosse games, the passions of his three children, that keeps the former Bruins captain calling on the energy boosts from his legs.

Decades more to go, but as of last night, a career officially called quits.

"I wouldn't say it's a sense of loss," he said. "Yeah, hockeywise, for me it's over. But the game . . . the game has given me so much more than I ever thought I'd get."

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