By Thomas Drance
Uploaded by: Martin Arnold
One-on-one with Pavel Bure: On his fans, the ’94 run and why Connor McDavid is faster than he was
By Thomas Drance
Oct 15, 2019
Pavel Bure, the Russian Rocket, is the most electrifying professional athlete ever to represent the city of Vancouver.
Mobbed by fans during the peak years of “Pavelmania” and shrouded by near-constant controversy, Bure, now 48, is still an enigma. He’s the most discussed, dissected and scrutinized player in the athletic history of Canada’s Pacific Northwest and still, he remains poorly understood.
Maybe it’s a result of the cultural differences and the language barrier. Maybe it’s because we don’t hear from him very often. Or maybe it’s because Bure is just wired differently from your average professional hockey player.
Where other former Canucks greats wear the disappointment of not winning a Stanley Cup heavily, for example, Bure doesn’t seem to.
Where his teammates can recall moment by moment the hour after Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final loss to the New York Rangers in 1994 — as if it was the worst moment of their lives — Bure recalls the ’94 run with a certain detached lightness. He’d played well and did his best, after all. And the Rangers really were the better team.
Bure is a cagey interview even all these years later, but as I went through an hour-long conversation with him last week to speak about, among other things, the Canucks’ 50th anniversary season, one thing became clear: He views himself in retrospect as an entertainer, not just an athlete.
Towards the end of our conversation, I asked Bure about what play or goal stood out to him as being particularly memorable. He didn’t mention the overtime game-winner against the Calgary Flames, or leaping through the air against the New York Islanders, or the skate-kick goal. Instead, he mentioned a play he tried against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 2 of the 1994 Conference Final — a play that didn’t work out because he whiffed on the shot:
In a game in which he opened the scoring with a trademark piece of hockey magic, this is the play that stands out to Bure as a point of pride. On the biggest stage, the hallowed grounds of Maple Leaf Gardens, he’d had the guts to try and do something that fans would always remember. Whether it was successful or not, to Bure, that meant something.
Perhaps that’s why the way Bure played seemed so joyful to observers, even if if the maelstrom that surrounded him suggested something altogether more complicated.
And perhaps that’s why Bure resonated with Vancouver’s usually fatalistic hockey fans in a way no other player ever has — or perhaps ever will.
What follows is a condensed version of our conversation.
Pavel, when you look back at 1994 and your time in Vancouver, what stands out to you?
It was a great time, the whole city was supporting us. It wasn’t an easy run through the playoffs for us. We were down 3-1 to Calgary and won three overtimes in a row. It was amazing especially because Calgary was favoured, but we played together — which was what was most important.
What did it mean to you to finally break through against Calgary?
It was unbelievable feeling. We went to three overtimes straight and especially game seven was double overtime. It was a 50-50 chance and Calgary, in my mind, they were a stronger team. But our guys played unbelievable.
When you look back at your time playing in Vancouver, at the old Pacific Coliseum, is there a moment you’d call your favourite?
All the games were really exciting because of how the fans supported me. They really supported me ever since I got to Vancouver, like when I went for my first practice there were so many people and I thought that was normal in the NHL. Afterwards guys explained to me, it’s not. That many people don’t usually come to watch practice. I had huge support from the fans and I really appreciated it.
Pretty much every time I stepped on the ice in front of the fans, I felt that support. I was 20 years old and I was excited to go on the ice and do something for the fans, and they paid me back with their huge support.
What did it mean to you to have a player who spoke your language, and was a Soviet hockey legend, in Igor Larionov on the same team as you when you first broke into the NHL?
Well, you know, I had played with him before!
I got lucky to play with him in the NHL too, and I got to play with him with the Red Army team, with the Russian national team, in Vancouver, in Florida. It was a huge privilege to be on so many teams with him.
You know, when I first came to Vancouver I didn’t have a place to stay. I was living in the hotel and then Igor took me to his house and the first two weeks I actually spent with him in his house with his family.
Most of the time we just spent time at the rink, but after that I’d go to his house and his wife would cook the dinner and he took me into his family. I was really appreciative of that
Going back to ’94, you lit up Dallas in the second round, but what most Vancouverites seem to remember from that series was the Shane Churla hit. How do you remember that play, and did the external pressure — from Don Cherry and the like — impact how you reacted in that series?
Look, Shane is a great player. He got a lot of respect from the guys because he was a tough player who played well.
I didn’t actually try to do something against Shane. I mean, Dallas team was really big and they were beating me up pretty badly. They were playing really tough against me. I saw somebody who was big, so I tried to make a hit — I can’t say it was a legal hit, maybe it’s not — but it was nothing personal against Shane. It was against Dallas, because they were playing really tight against me and beating me up badly too.
I didn’t think I had to do something special (to prove myself), it was just part of the game. We knew Dallas was a really good team and were really big and physical, so I guess I had to survive.
Do you ever think back to the penalty shot against Mike Richter and curse it?
No, not really. I had a pretty good move, I scored against Calgary in double overtime with the same move, but Mike Richter is a great goalie.
Usually when it’s like that it’s a 50-50 chance, but at that particular moment he did better than me.
Game 6 of the ’94 Stanley Cup Final. A lot of Canucks fans think it’s the best game ever played for the franchise. Do you remember that atmosphere, that energy?
I remember when we were down 3-1 and went to New York for game five and everyone thought we were going to lose. The Rangers were a better team, you know? They had so many superstars and we didn’t have too many superstars.
So we won in New York and it was a huge thing, and when we got back to Vancouver we said, “OK, let’s try to do something for our fans, let’s try to win.” And we did!
And then Game 7, Nathan LaFayette hits the post and you lose 3-2. Is that the greatest disappointment of your hockey career?
I scored 16 goals in the playoffs, not too many people have done that. Personally, I did my best. I played rough, I scored lots of goals, and the fans were unbelievable.
The guys, we were all together. All the guys who had played at a mediocre level, they stepped up and became superstars. It was probably the best time (of my career).
Do you remember the hour after the game ended and you had lost Game 7?
I just remember, for the first time in Vancouver, that we flew back and forth on the private jet. It was really exciting for me.
During that Final series and throughout the playoffs, there were the reports about the contract demands — since debunked. Was that frustrating for you to deal with, with all the pressure of the playoffs, to have all that noise?
Actually, I wasn’t thinking about it. We had a contract agreed before the playoff started. Me and Pat Quinn and Canucks ownership, we knew we had a deal before the first game against Calgary. It didn’t really bother me.
Obviously it wasn’t nice what some of the press was doing, but Pat Quinn went public and said, “Guys, stop this,” because we didn’t have any problems.
Obviously it didn’t end well in Vancouver for a variety of complicated reasons. What do you remember about that time and the lead-up to it in terms of the relationship souring?
One of my best times I spent in Vancouver. I always had a great relationship with the fans, sometimes I had differences with management and different people, but with the organization as a whole I never had problems.
Many years later, I came back and it was really nice. I was the first Russian player whose jersey they retired and there was huge respect both ways.
You and Gino Odjick famously forged a close relationship, what did he mean to your career?
We were both in our early 20s — he was 21 and I was 20 — and it was a great relationship.
He came from the reserve and I came from the Soviet Union. We both couldn’t speak English well, but we learned to understand each other, you know?
Gino is a great man, he was well respected. He was a tough guy and he stood up for the team and for the guys.
Do you have a great Gino story that you particularly hold dear?
Well, my best Gino story is when he came to Russia. He came to Moscow and wanted to surprise me, but nobody met him at the airport.
So he grabbed a cab and he went to KGB building. So he started knocking on the door of the KGB building, saying, “I’m Gino Odjick, I’m here to see Pavel!” One hour later they brought him to me. That was pretty funny.
Testing his luck a little there, huh?
Well, yeah. Those guys were surprised, because it’s like a 230-pound guy, scary, not shaved, with the scars — banging on the KGB’s door! Those guys came up with machine guns!
Will you be in Vancouver later this season for the club’s 50th anniversary festivities?
I will try. I can’t promise you.
I’m really good friends with Francesco Aquilini. I’ve talked to him a lot and we go for vacation together. So I will try to make it.
I assume for the Sedin brothers’ jersey retirement?
Well, we will see. I have three little kids, so it can be a bit difficult, but we will see.
What did it mean to you considering some of the issues you’d had with management over the years to see the franchise step up and retire your number?
For me, personally, it was a huge honour. I’m the first Russian whose jersey was retired. I can’t tell you that I was expecting it.
We had some problems with management, but we never had problems with the fans and the people I played for. I think they knew that I was playing from my heart and doing the best I could for them and they paid me back — same thing, always supporting me.
Sometimes there were different people in management, but I knew at the end we would resolve problems and 100 percent they would come up to me and say, “Sorry, we maybe didn’t do the right things at the time” … I always thought time would show, and time did show who was right and who was wrong.
There’s been reports over the years of you having a frosty relationship with Trevor Linden. How would you characterize it?
Trevor is a big part of the Vancouver community and he’s done so many good things outside of the ice rink, with charity. He’s an icon in Vancouver and I was lucky to play with him.
I never had problems with Trevor. We played on the same teams, we were about the same age. Trevor is a really good hockey player and especially the stuff he was doing away from the rink was impressive.
What’s your best Mike Keenan story?
Well, Mike and I became really good friends.
I remember when Mike got the job in Vancouver, and I started to respect him because we were out of the playoffs and he came up to me and said, “I know we’re not in the playoffs, but I want you to score 50 goals.” I think I had 45 or 46 goals, and he said, “Go out there and play as much as you want, because I want you to score 50 goals.” He let me do that and I did score 50 goals.
When you think about Pat Quinn and what he meant to your career, is there a moment or a piece of advice that stands out to you?
He was just a great man. Even after I left Vancouver and he left Vancouver, we still communicated and I had huge respect for him.
We never became friends like I did with Mike Keenan. I actually helped Keenan get the job in Florida and he actually was living in my house.
Mike Keenan was living at your house?
Yeah, Mike Keenan was living in my house. He got the job and was living at my house in Florida.
How was he as a houseguest?
He was good! We hung out, went for lunch and dinner. After practice I would pick him up and we’d go for lunch and dinner.
Then he came to Russia and he was named best coach and he won the Cup here, so I spent a lot of time here in Moscow. He became a really good friend of mine.
What do you think the future holds for Russian hockey? The Olympic win was big last year and the team tends to do well in the worlds, but it’s been a while since they won best-on-best. How much would it mean for you to see that change?
Well, it depends on the competition. It’s too bad we don’t have more tournaments where best play against best.
First time was in ’98 during the Olympic Games when the NHL stopped the regular season and sent all the best players to participate. It was an interesting tournament.
Hopefully they can come up with something similar. It could be a World Cup or an Olympic Games.
Fans want to see best against best, like in the World Cup of soccer.
You had five goals against Finland back in the ’98 Olympics. Do you remember that game? Was it a particularly memorable moment for you?
Yeah, it was pretty fun to score five goals in my first Olympic Games with professional players.
What else would you put up there in terms of your proudest hockey accomplishments?
It’s really hard to say. For me, the best compliment I ever had was from Wayne Gretzky when he said if I would come to the New York Rangers, he would play another year.
That was a best compliment I ever had from the best player in the world of all time, which is what I consider him. We tried to do it, but it didn’t happen. That’s the biggest compliment I ever had.
Have you seen much of Connor McDavid?
I see the highlights sometimes, yeah.
Does it look familiar to you at all?
Oh, no. I think he’s much faster and much stronger, you know?
I think so.
Does the way his speed plays and the way he can split defenders ever look familiar to you?
I think he’s stronger, bigger and much faster. All those guys right now, they’re bigger and stronger than normal. He looks like he’s a big guy and he can skate really fast.
In terms of your Vancouver career, what’s your greatest goal or your greatest moment in a Canucks sweater?
I can’t pick just one thing. I wasn’t surprised, but my time there took me to the Hall of Fame, made me one of the greatest 100 players ever in 100 years of the NHL. Those were huge honours for me.
But I never really thought about it like, what’s my greatest moment. Every time I stepped on the ice I was trying to do something special for the fans, and that’s why I had a good relationship with the fans. They knew I liked to score goals, but I also wanted to score, like, special goals -- do something that the fans would remember, you know?
Like the skate-kick goal?
Yeah, something like that. And that’s why the feeling was mutual. We really liked each other and supported each other and respected each other. It wasn’t that I’d do it every time, but they know I’d try to do something special for them.
So is there a play that you think back, or see a highlight and think, “That was one of the best ones I did”?
Actually yes, but it didn’t work out.
You know, I flipped the puck over the net and went around the net and tried to score the goal, but I missed. I don’t remember the game, but I was trying and I didn’t score.
Fair to say then that the play you’re proudest to have ever tried in a Canucks uniform was not a goal?
Yes! I flipped the puck, it went over the net, but I missed.
Did you think of yourself more as an entertainer in your playing career than anything?
I don’t know, but like, obviously I’m an athlete, but I was trying to bring people to the stands and do something nice for them. So they would come and say, “Oh, it was special, not just a regular game.”
Especially in the early 2000s there were a lot of boring games — a lot of 1-1 or 1-0, and there was too much hooking and grabbing.
I like what the NHL has done lately. They took the red line off and they play 3-on-3 overtime. It’s important to play for the fans.
How would you have done in 3-on-3 overtime?
I would have some chances, for sure.
So if you got a chance to play with Alex Mogilny you might have had some success?
Well, he’s a great player. I see him a couple times a week actually and sometimes we play. He’s still a great player and he can still score some goals.