Ray Bourque going to work, every day

This is a man at work. The beard indicates that, in this moment, the guy hopping over the boards is probably in pursuit of the Stanley Cup and in the midst of a particularly stressful day at the office. There’s a couple of week’s worth of growth or so, which indicates that we’re maybe in the mid-stages of the playoffs, perhaps the Adams Division tilt with the Montreal Canadiens.

The guy jumping onto the ice with such cold jubilation is Ray Bourque, of course. He broke into the NHL with the Bruins in the fall of 1979 and spent the next 22 seasons hopping the boards as often as possible. He never played fewer than 60 games in a full season and logged 1,826 games between regular seasons and the playoffs.

This image has lived in my collection for years, and it’s one of my favorites. It’s a unique action shot of no. 77 doing a job he seemed to quietly relish, and a job that he did more often and for longer than most. It was another day, and there was work to do.

Determination aside, playing hockey for 22 years at the highest level is a daunting notion. The conditioning required alone would drive most from the game, either voluntarily or not. But it’s not just that he was able to eke his way through all those seasons — it’s that he did it while reaching and remaining at the highest level of the game for that amount of time.

The accolades themselves speak to that. He shot out of the gate by winning the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, and 19 times out of 22, he was a first- or second-team All Star at the end of the year, including first team honors in in his final run in 2000-01. He won the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman five times and finished in the top three 15 times. He also finished in the top 10 in the Hart Trophy voting seven times, twice finishing second to some notable Edmonton Oilers — Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier.

But that doesn’t speak to the entire picture of Bourque’s determination or singular focus. The stories of him skating for 30 or 40 minutes a game are legend — announcers constantly bring it up during all these archival games I’ve been watching — and those numbers escalated whenever playoff hockey began. Hockey-Reference doesn’t include his time on ice numbers until the 1998-99 season, but even then, as a a 38-year-old, he averaged 29:31 a night, still logging half the game and playing in every scenario possible. And with only 34 penalty minutes over 81 games, he essentially maximized the time he could physically spend, grinding through opponents, cutting down on scoring chances for opponents and rushing up to flip the ice where possible.

All this goes a short way to explaining why he was named captain of the Bruins in his seventh season and why he remained so until his 2000 trade to the Colorado Avalanche. It’s why he, and not the starting goaltender as tradition states, would lead the Bruins onto the ice every game. There are a number of indelible images associated with his career — giving up his number to Phil Esposito, going four-for-four at the skills competition, winning the All-Star Game MVP in Boston, pumping his fist after a goal, lifting the Stanley Cup. But this one is usually the first that comes to mind for me. His ceaseless presence on the ice is what I remember most.

★ ★ ★

In a related and obviously correlated note, this is my 77th day working from home since the coronavirus derailed normal life.

I hit the ground running on this entire quarantine cards project, but the actual writing part of it wound down after about a month. It’s not that I stopped passing the time with bygone eras of hockey (I’ve been watching old games and sorting, organizing and filling in gaps with my Bruins card binder this entire time, whenever I’ve had the time), but rather the space that seemed so gaping eventually filled in with new routines, chores and tasks. It’s hard to say how much longer this will last, but this version of life settled in more quickly than I’d imagined.

Think about the longevity, then, and the discipline required to do the same things, day in and day out, for more than 20 years. It helps that there was the singular goal of the Stanley Cup towards the end, but I’m not sure that was the initial fuel. I believe that the routine itself and the maintenance therein was as much a motivation as anything. Working and preparing for the opportunity to work and prepare, to stay on skates long enough to get through and win the game and make the possibility of the next one a reality. Bourque said on more than one occasion that he’d never won his final game until lifting the Cup in 2001, and that that was the carrot on the end of the stick every night. We continue to battle so that we can have another opportunity. There’s work to do. We keep going to keep going.

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