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A MATTER OF TIME : It's Catching Up With Boston Defenseman Bourque, Who Gets Less of It on the Ice

November 04, 1996|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOSTON — Spikes of gray bristle in the brown thicket of Ray Bourque's hair, an unsettling sight because it seems impossible that Bourque could grow old or infirm and not be part of the Boston Bruins' defense.

Since his debut in 1979 as a shy 18-year-old, Bourque has become as much a fixture in Boston's sports landscape as Fenway Park. He has endured eight Bruin coaching regimes and 17 years of playoff disappointment, playing 33 to 35 minutes a game with unparalleled calm, skill and intelligence.

Second in career scoring among defensemen only to Paul Coffey with 1,317 points, Bourque has been a constant presence in an ever-changing league. He was always on the ice for the Bruins in key situations, always on the post-season All-Star team--with 17 first- or second-team selections, he's the only player in NHL history honored every season of his career--always a candidate for the Norris Trophy and a five-time winner of the award.

This season, however, his presence has been less constant--and when he has been on the ice, he hasn't controlled play with his old assurance.

Even before he bruised his right shoulder and sat out five games--he had hoped to return tonight against the Kings at the FleetCenter but is doubtful--the Bruins were cutting his ice time so they could distribute it among several young defensemen. Coach Steve Kasper played Barry Richter and Mattias Timander on the first power-play unit instead of Bourque, and if the Bruins had to kill a penalty after Bourque had taken his regular turn, Kasper would bring Bourque off for a rest instead of leaving him out for two minutes or more.

On another team, with another player, the loss of a minute here or 45 seconds there might go unnoticed. Not with Bourque. Kasper, who last season was roasted for benching fan favorite Cam Neely, came under fire again for supposedly not respecting Bourque. Kasper, though, considers his strategy the ultimate respect because he believes it will prolong Bourque's career.

"I get a kick out of people asking [about Bourque's reduced ice time] because we're still talking 27, 29 minutes and for most guys that's a lot," Kasper said. "This is certainly not because his play has tailed off, but because we're a little deeper and that gives us the chance to do this. When we have to shorten the bench, it gives us a little more confidence knowing the other guys have some experience.

"He knows he's our go-to guy and that this will benefit him and the team in the long run."

Those benefits have been slow to materialize. The adjustment has been toughest on the offensive side, as evidenced by Bourque's lack of goals and his mere four assists in nine games. "I don't think he's jumped the way he has at some times," said Kasper, who was Bourque's teammate and is nearly a year younger than Bourque. "To me, sometimes he talks about not having the jump he's used to having. But now if he's not playing quite as much, there's a longer layoff [between shifts] so it may take him longer to get going."

It's a delicate and difficult transition, but Bourque is handling it with his usual grace.

"I'm still trying to get where I want to be. I've actually felt a lot better in the third periods of games, so I don't know exactly why I'm not where I want to be," he said before his injury. "I'm used to playing so much that this is an adjustment. All in all, we should be using six defensemen when we can. We're going to cut that to four when crunch time comes or when we have to play catch-up.

"I like seeing more guys share the load. It's time to give certain other guys the experience. Who knows how long I'm going to be around? The day will come when I won't be around. I don't think that's going to happen any time soon, but it is going to happen. I don't think I have as much left as I did a few years ago."

To those who don't see him every day, time's toll is obvious only in his hair color. But Bourque feels his age in the quicker onset of boredom when he's on the road and in subtle physical changes.

"I'd love to have those first couple of steps that I had, but those will never come back," he said. "The quickness you need to have is just not there. But you learn, through experience, how to compensate in a lot of ways.

"I know there's some things I don't do as well as I did in my 20s, late 20s. That's when you feel your strongest, at about 26, when every day you just want to get out there and go. Just being around so long and having experience, just knowing how to play the game, you can do other things that maybe you couldn't do when you were younger."

At his peak, he was one of the best ever to lace up skates. Blessed with a sure sense of balance and a blistering shot, Bourque scored 20 goals nine times and ranks second among defensemen only to Coffey in goals (343 to 373) and assists (1,039 to 974).

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