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Was Ray Bourque a generational talent?

Friday 1/26/24

The above was the discussion prompt--or words to that effect--that I saw last night on a hockey history forum, and I thought that was a great topic.

It's so rare now that we see anyone use but the most basic of words--"hi," for instance--correctly. People just say things. No one knows what anything means, or what most words actually mean, so language itself is becoming increasingly useless. Very little has any actual meaning. Language is now sounds. Open and empty sounds. The world is faltering in large part to the degree that it is because we cannot communicate. That makes people alone, too. Cut off from one another, even within relationships. The person on the street can't communicate, the political leader can't communicate, writers can't communicate. We have a din. A migraine-inducing din.

But back to hockey and sports and this idea of someone being "generational." The way almost everyone uses the word--which is to say, misuses the word--is as this synonym for "really good at that sport."

That's not what it means. "Generational" means that one has a talent that occurs but once in a generation. Where we get into some nebulosity is in trying to determine whether this is a strictly calendrical thing, or an indication as to degree of talent.

For instance, Wayne Gretzky was generational. We could say that his talent was multi-generational. Mario Lemieux came along and played while Gretzky played. Does their overlap prevent us from saying that Lemieux--one of the four best hockey players ever--was generational?

I think that's really all that's open to interpretation with the word in the context of a discussion like this.

Bourque and Gretzky played during the same time period. Bobby Orr preceded Bourque, and his career would have overlapped with his had he not retired early on account of his knee problems.

I suppose what interests me is not this label of generational, so much as Bourque's level of greatness, which I think has been lost on some, or never noted sufficiently. He's kind of this name now--a guy that one has to mention when speaking about the best defensemen the sport has known.

That doesn't get the job done, though. Ray Bourque is the second best defenseman in the game's history. You could argue--as I did in a Sports Illustrated piece--that no other defenseman has the career value of Bourque. For what he gave you, for how long he gave it to you, he stands apart among players at his position and really only Gordie Howe is similar to him in that way.

Here's another thing one might say: Ray Bourque is the best three-zone player in hockey history, in terms of career value.

These are big things, no? He's one of the best passers the game has ever known, which is also often overlooked. We think of passers as centers, don't we? Watch an old Bruins game on YouTube, and note the passes Bourque makes time and again in his own zone to forwards up ahead of him. Paul Coffey was very good at this as well. Perfect passes, on the tape, to spring players. Passes over distance.

No one was ever better at getting shots through from the point than Bourque. He was asked to be the Bruins best defender and their best offensive player. Not always--but regularly enough. He played half the game. For almost every year of his career, he was recognized at the end of each season as one of the top four--and usually top two--defensemen in the league, with a postseason All-Star nod. He was elite in his final year, finishing near the top of Norris trophy voting.

There were no weaknesses in his game. He did everything at a high level. He took the body, was an exceptional skater, great slap shot, great snap and wrist shots and with a fine backhand, a master at keeping the puck in the zone. He could play forward if needed. I've never seen anyone better at radial turns or who used radial turns more to an advantage. Bourque could shake a forechecker with one of these turns, come out of the turn with an explosive first-stride burst, then hit a winger in stride near the red line on the other side of the ice.

It's one thing not to have weaknesses, but to be so very good at everything?

Now, is this generational? It does feel strange to say that Bobby Orr was the only defenseman who was a generational talent in hockey history, and all of the others were forwards.

I kind of don't like what's happened with defensemen, where it's almost as if people think the better players play forward. You see it in the Hart trophy results. One might say that that's because defensemen have their own award with the Norris, but I'm not convinced that's why the award almost always goes to a forward (and goalies fare better with the Hart than defensemen).

I can see why someone who was the best player would want to play defense. You're out there more than anyone. That's fun, right? Hard, yes. But some guys are just able to do that. Cale Makar is that way. Ice time totals weren't kept back for a lot of Bourque's career like they are now, but I bet he was around thirty minutes each night. If the Bruins didn't have him--and if they weren't riding him hard--they would usually be in trouble.

Bourque is one of the ten best players of all-time. He has to be in that top ten, and that goes if Connor McDavid is already there taking up one of these spots.

As for the generational thing, strictly speaking, I don't know. But I do know this is the second best defenseman to play the game, and the one with the greatest career value, and arguably the best three-zone player, value-wise, in the sport's history. It's almost as if Bourque isn't generational, but something more than that, while being technically less than it.


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