TORONTO -- For 22 years, Ray Bourque had been preparing for last night. As he played each game of his National Hockey League career, he wasn't cognizant of how special he was, didn't want to think about it, didn't want to dwell on his talent and dominance as a defenseman. As he won each of his five Norris Trophies, he said he'd appreciate them most when his career was over.
Last night, Bourque assumed his distinguished place in history with his official enshrinement into the Hockey Hall of Fame, joining fellow blue liners Paul Coffey and Larry Murphy in the players category and Phoenix Coyotes executive Cliff Fletcher in the builders category.
The most nervous Bourque had ever been in his playing days was as a rookie when he returned home to Montreal to face the Canadiens in the old Forum. Last night, he said, there were butterflies of a different kind.
"It's the pinnacle, it just wraps everything up, and it's the final closure," said Bourque, 43. "This whole weekend has been incredible. You come in as a rookie and you just want to play in the NHL. The next thing you know, 23 years later, you're here as part of a special fraternity, and it's an honor and a privilege to be here."
What drove him to play 1,612 regular-season games, during which he recorded 410 goals and 1,169 assists, and 214 playoff contests (another 180 points) was a desire to make a contribution every single night. He said it was never about the individual accolades.
"For me, it was never in my mind," he said. "I never liked to look too far ahead and I never liked to take myself too seriously regardless of the success I was having, because I knew regardless of what I accomplished that day that I had to wake up the next day and do it again and again and again. By looking at it that way, it kept me hungry and consistent.
"You don't worry about things you can't control, and that's awards or stuff like this. You do your job, and when you're called or invited somewhere to accept something, it's an honor and a privilege because there are so many great players who have played and accomplished so much. When you're spoken with some of these names and guys who are in the Hall of Fame, it's an unbelievable feeling."
Not even the lockout that threatens the entire 2004-05 season could put a damper on the festivities for Bourque.
"This has been all sweet," he said. "It's been a lot of fun, it's been a great weekend. The Bruins would've been playing the Maple Leafs [in the Hall of Fame game]. I didn't even think about the NHL and the lockout, other than when you're asked about it. Yes, I am concerned in some ways, because it doesn't sound like there's going to be a hockey season, and that would be too bad."
For a night, anyway, there was plenty of hockey to celebrate. Bourque said it was very gratifying to enter the Hall with such accomplished colleagues.
"It's a really special group, and that makes it real sweet," he said. "Paul and Larry, I have a lot of respect for them and their games. Paul was a very exciting player and Larry was a very solid, all-around defenseman and we all were offensive kind of guys where we put up some good numbers. We were very similar when you look at our careers in terms of longevity and numbers.
"I made a connection with Paul at the Canada Cups. It was not a competition, but we were up there all the time in terms of points and going for the Norris Trophy. "Murph is so calm and collected. I loved watching him on the point, knocking pucks down, looking people off, he was so patient with the puck. He had a phenomenal career.
"I have a lot of respect for both guys, not only as players but as guys as well. And Cliff, what a super job he did coming in with an expansion team and becoming Stanley Cup champion [with the Flames in 1989]."
As much as Bourque is associated with the Bruins, considering the two decades he spent with the club, he also has a great deal of affection for the Colorado Avalanche, with whom he won his only Stanley Cup in his final season in 2001.
"It was really a first-class organization," he said. "The city accepted me with open arms and really treated me great. I got the opportunity to play with an incredible team and with a handful of guys who will probably end up in the Hall of Fame here as well. I went to Colorado to try to win a Cup and it all worked out. I really owe a lot to the Colorado Avalanche and [general manager] Pierre Lacroix and how they handled everything and helped me live a dream.
"It's the one thing I didn't have in my career. A lot of people would talk about Ray Bourque, `Yeah, he's a great player, he's this and that, but he's never won a Cup.' That `but' was something that was burning whenever I heard it and one I wanted to try to eliminate and that's why I went to Colorado. To be able to go there and get it done, knowing I didn't have much time left, was an incredible experience."
During the formal portion of the program last night, held in the majestic Grand Hall, Bourque thanked his family, his friends (lauding some in French), his teammates, and many others. "When I look back on all I have accomplished, I just go, `Wow, what a ride,' " he said. "No one makes it to this podium, to this place of honor, without the help and support of a lot of people. I lost my mom when I was 12 and I wish she could have seen all of this. But I know she's looking down on me tonight and is very proud."
In his career, Bourque played with 313 teammates, logging the most games (757) with Don Sweeney. He thanked all of his ex-teammates, including the 12 guys with whom he played only one game, as well as his 11 head coaches, many assistants, and trainers.
"Since I retired, people often ask me what I miss most, and the answer is easy," he said. "I miss the guys. I miss the anticipation of the games. I miss the feeling of going into battle with teammates I truly care about. I miss driving to work with a big smile on my face and, once you get there, acting like a 15-year-old kid or younger.
"Hockey has given me everything I have in life. I owe hockey a lot more than it will ever owe me. Hockey has taken me to places I only dreamed of as a young boy. Hockey taught me lessons of winning and losing and it taught me to stand up for my teammates and for myself. Hockey has been my life.
"To me, this night, having the Hockey Hall of Fame honor me by making me part of this special fraternity is just beyond my wildest dreams and I will remember this night forever."