ALLENTOWN, Pa. – Chris Bourque was a young man in a hurry.
A second-round pick who turned pro after one year at Boston University, the eldest son of Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman Ray Bourque piled up goals at the world juniors and looked to be on the path to NHL stardom.
But the 5-foot-8 forward never could produce in the top league in the world during stints with the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins or Boston Bruins, where his father thrived. Bourque has just two goals and six assists for eight points in 51 NHL games and hasn’t been up since 2013.
In the American Hockey League, however, Bourque is like the “Bull Durham” character Crash Davis, a star on pace to be one of the all-time greats, get his jersey retired and make the Hall of Fame. With 213 goals and 402 assists in 626 games, he’s a point-a-game player for the Hershey Bears, with two scoring titles and three Calder Cup championship rings.
“You always look at him and you think, `OK, he’s a bona fide NHLer. He’s got all these points and he’s played 50 (NHL) games or whatever, why is the next step pretty tough?“’ former Hershey general manager Doug Yingst said. “Certainly some of it has to do with size. He’s an in-betweener. He’s right there.”
Bourque, who appeared in his fifth AHL All-Star Game on Monday, has explored every avenue, acknowledging when he first got to the minors at 19 he was “trying to get to the NHL as fast as possible.” Four points in his first 33 frustrating NHL games took him to Switzerland and Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, a dead-end journey that made Bourque appreciate the comforts of minor pro hockey in North America.
Returning home to sign a deal worth $300,000 in the AHL with the Capitals, Bourque also married his longtime girlfriend in the summer of 2011. The couple now has two children, and former teammate Bryan Helmer sees Bourque as a more mature family man.
“You’ve got to grow up sometime and he obviously has,” said Helmer, now the Bears’ vice president of hockey operations. “That’s why he’s accepted that this is a great league.”
Removed from an 18-game stop with Boston in 2013 and another voyage to Europe, Bourque gets it. Now 31, he’s still 15th in the AHL in scoring and knows it’s a good league and a great way to make a living.
He hasn’t given up on getting back to the show.
“For every guy it’s the ultimate goal to play in the NHL, and I don’t think anybody really gives up on that dream `til the day they retire,” Bourque said. “There’s always a chance. It’s just about getting opportunity, about (other players) having injuries and playing well and that kind of stuff needs to kind of happen at the right time. I’m going to keep grinding away and hopefully I do get another opportunity.”
Until that opportunity comes, Bourque handles the bus rides and cozier barns of the AHL like a veteran. Helmer calls Bourque one of the hardest workers in practice who shows teammates every day how to win, while Yingst asserts he “can do things that other people can’t do” and might be the best power-play specialist of this era.
“It’s just setting an example on how it’s done and how to be a good pro and how to have a long career,” Hershey teammate and fellow All-Star Travis Boyd said. “Sure, he’s getting a little older, but he still comes out every day and I don’t think there’s a guy on the ice who wants to score more in practice than he does.”
Bourque would love to score in the NHL like he has in the AHL. It would take the right set of circumstances, not to mention a big-minute skill role, for one last kick at the can.
“For some guys they get that right opportunity at the right time and they cash in on it and they stay up for the rest of their careers, and other guys just kind of wait for that opportunity and it never comes,” Bourque said. “Luck has a lot to do with it, but being at the right place at the right time has a lot to do with it. I’d like to think I would cash in on an opportunity like that.”
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