Anyone who's kept even half an eye on hockey here the last 25 years could not have been surprised at the news yesterday that Ray Bourque was voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Some things are good bets, and some things, like Bourque's induction, are mere formalities that await official rubber stamps or phone calls.
The formality became official yesterday afternoon, when the 43-year-old Bourque learned that he would have his own etching placed in perpetuity in Toronto, along with two of the game's other greatest defensemen, Paul Coffey and Larry Murphy.
Combined, those three put up enough goals, assists, and points for the Elias Sports Bureau to hire a five-man lobster shift just to keep the NHL books in order for the better part of two-plus decades.
All three had special skills, bountiful talents.
Bourque was the consummate two-way backliner, with an extra emphasis on making certain matters were always right in his own end of the ice.
By no means was he defense first, last, and always. But he was defense first.
Coffey, in his prime, was a magnificently fluid skater, his strides so clean and crisp and balanced that there were times he looked like an Ice Capades escapee. He was often a defensive liability, but his skate-pass-and-shoot skills were so otheworldly that most of his coaches ignored the debit side of his game.
Murphy, like Coffey, finished his career with his name on four Stanley Cups, and his game was a virtual Bourque-Coffey hybrid. He wasn't as strong as Bourque, or as stylish as Coffey, but that really didn't matter. He was enough of both to be the best player on the ice most every night he played. Got a better standard for Hall worthiness?
We can be well assured, especially with hockey now in a protracted dead puck era, that we will never again see three defensemen dominate the game like Bourque, Coffey, and Murphy. As true as that seemed three years ago when they retired, it's even more a certainty in 2004, when the main role of mobile defensemen is to advance the puck to center ice, dish it off and pray to the hockey gods for a breakdown in the mind-numbing trap that spreads like an oozing tar pit between the blue lines.
At their peaks, Bourque, Coffey, and Murphy all could carry the mail, and deliver that puck virtually to wherever they wanted on the ice.
But they also spent the better part of their careers ahead of the trap-happy tactics that the likes of the Devils and even the Red Wings perfected.
If dropped back into today's Original 30, even if they could return at their mid- or late-20s prime, all three would no doubt be frustrated by the game's end-to-end lack of flow. They would still be effective, and their skills abundant, but their beauty would be somewhat lost, like three roses blooming amid a bed of tomato plants.
Bourque, to be inducted Nov. 8, was golfing when he learned the news. Murphy was working outside, building a horse farm. Coffey, back in Toronto after last week attending the funeral of Michael Fogolin, son of former Edmonton teammate Lee Fogolin, got the call from the Hall as he made his away around town, running errands.
During a mid-afternoon conference call, Bourque provided some perspective on his career, and how fulfilled he felt three years ago when he finally won his lone Stanley Cup at the end of a 15-month tour with the Colorado Avalanche. Being named to the Hall, he said later in the day, provided a sense of satisfaction and completion to his career.
But it was clear, by his remarks earlier, how much that Cup run meant to him.
"When people would talk to me," he recalled, "there was always a `but' at the end. You know, `He's a great player, but . . .' `He's a great player, but he's never won a Stanley Cup.' "
Long before he finally hoisted the Cup over his head in '01, and only days later brought it to Boston for all to see in a City Hall celebration, Bourque already had the express lane pass to the Hall in his hand.
In the eight seasons from 1987-'94, he won five Norris Trophies as the league's top defenseman. Only Bobby Orr (eight) and Doug Harvey (seven) won more. The Cup didn't validate his Hall credentials as much as it polished them, provided a fitting and deserved frame. In fact, his defensive game was so complete and overpowering, his career point total (1,579) could have been trimmed back by about a one-third and he still would have been a slam dunk for enshrinement.
A lasting memory of Bourque, from someone who was there for the opening week of his rookie training camp in 1979: 20 training camps later, in a routine September drill at the end of a practice in Wilmington, the aged Boston captain was pitted against Sergei Samsonov in a one-on-one drill at the Ristuccia Arena.
For all speed and flash and trickery, Samsonov, some 18 years younger, could not race past Bourque -- amazing in itself, but even more astounding in that Samsonov was barreling straight ahead with the puck, while Bourque battled him the length of the ice while skating backward.
"You could see what made him so good," Coffey mused yesterday, reminiscing about the first time he ever saw Bourque play. "He was so competitive."
So competitive, and so complete. We knew all that for 20 years here in the Hub of Hockey. Now the Hall's letting the rest of the hockey universe know it, too.