I was missing from Vancouver during those pelvis-percolating daze when the Russian Rocket soared into the city’s hockey pantheon. The manner of his arrival likened by one scribe to “an Aeroflot ghost flight from Irkutsk”, Pavel Vladimorovich Bure was by far the most exciting player to don the blades of the mighty Canucks in the team’s up and down, 43-year history. He remains its only member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
But I do remember watching from afar, on my cheap TV set, the first time Bure carried the puck in the NHL. I gasped out loud. It was if there were rocket boosters on his skates, firing at warp speed. The other players seemed to be standing still. Nike’s Swoosh had come to life.
Sixty-goal seasons followed, topped by the 7th game, never-to-be-forgotten, breakaway goal in second overtime that eliminated the favoured Calgary Flames in the first round of the Canucks’ 1994 run to the Stanley Cup final.
Over time, however, for all sorts of reasons, the love affair between the city and its spectacular speedster slowly soured. Beset by injuries, Bure appeared to tire of the adulation and the pressure. Local sportswriters despaired of ever getting a decent quote from the stand-offish superstar.
(Some things don’t change. “Everybody’s happy. That’s the main thing” was about all Bure could muster, after the huge ovations and even a few, uncharacteristic Rocket tears that accompanied the ceremony retiring his No. 10 jersey at Rogers Arena on Saturday night.)
During my one brief encounter with Pavel Bure, I saw a different side of the astonishing Russian. It was the fall of 1997. Improbably, the NHL opened its season that year with two games in Tokyo, between the Canucks and the Anaheim Ducks. As the Globe’s Asian correspondent, I got the plum assignment. The Canucks came to me!
One morning, to give the Canuckleheads a dose of life in teeming Tokyo, the players rode to the rink on a packed commuter train. Most were no fans of the cramped quarters, swaying to and fro, cheek to jowl with other strap-hanging passengers. “It’s the team bus from here on in, guys,” groused Mark Messier.
But later, when I asked Bure about the ride, his face lit up. It reminded him of all the times he rode the Moscow subway, as a kid, he said. “When I was 10 years old, I used to get up early every day and take the subway, with all my equipment and a hockey stick,” Bure told me. “The old ladies would say, ‘Look out for that little boy.’ Sometimes, they would give me their seat.”
I then asked him about the coming Winter Olympics in Nagano, where NHL-ers would be playing for the first time. Once more, Bure beamed. Growing up in the then-Soviet Union, the Olympics were everything, he explained, and he still felt the same way. “The whole world is there. The Stanley Cup is just hockey. If you can win a medal at the Olympics, it’s really a big deal. It’s got nothing to do with money.”
After practice, I saw him in his gangster-like, pinstripe suit, hanging out beside the team bus with unlikely best buddy and team enforcer Gino Odjick, whose own cheer from the pumped crowd Saturday night almost matched the roar for the Russian Rocket. With his distinctive red lips and boyish good looks, he looked barely 21. His face was bursting with boredom.
Four months later, at Nagano, Bure scored five goals for Russia in the team’s semi-final match against the Finns, one of the best individual performances in Olympic hockey history. Three came on breakaways. Once he deked left. Once he shot. The third time, he deked right.
Love him or loathe him, we will never see his like again.