It is 1990, and the Canucks are about to begin their twentieth NHL season. After being drafted by the Canucks in 1989, Bure’s eventual arrival becomes a test of patience and loyalty. It is just as well that Pavel Bure is not a member of the team which, once again or, perhaps, as always is mired in the middle of rebuilding for the future. Gone are ties to the 80’s legends. Names like Tony Tanti, Stan Smyl, Harold Snepsts, Garth Butcher, Richie Sutter, Paul Reinhart and Petri Skriko are absent from the lineup now. The team sports a younger, faster and tougher group led by the team’s youngest star, Trevor Linden, who wears the mantle of “league’s youngest captain” with the poise of a 35 year-old veteran.
Pat Quinn has been a busy man. In the last two years he has turned the roster over by replacing nearly eighty percent of the players from 1989’s woeful lineup. Quinn’s aggressive trade policy, has yielded important pieces in every area on the ice, seemingly in anticipation of the biggest star the market will ever know.
On defence, Jyrki Lumme shows a puck possession and flair which the Habs have seemingly given up on too soon. The Canucks’ long-considered “worst trade ever” of Cam Neely for Barry Pederson has yielded, among others, Dan Quinn. In a fitting twist of fate, Dan Quinn is later traded in a package for Sergio Momesso, Robert Dirk, Geoff Courtnall and Cliff Ronning in what still stands as the greatest trade in Canucks history. Pat Quinn shores up the blueline by stealing tough defenders Gerald Diduck from Montreal and Dana Murzyn, formerly of the cup-winning Flames.
Veteran Russian draft picks, Igor Larionov and Vladimir Krutov have joined the team, but after one season only Larionov remains while Krutov shows up ill-equipped for the speed and grind of the NHL. Two rookies, Petr Nedved and Gino Odjick also play full seasons for the club. One is labeled an underachiever, while the other, Odjick, an instant fan favourite for his courage. Two other Quinn additions from three seasons ago, winger, Greg Adams and goaltender Kirk McClean round out the roster, and are both much improved from their previous seasons.
Still, Quinn is not satisfied. His roster feels right, but the players are not winning games. Thus, 54 games into the 1990-91 season and the team sporting a record of 19-30-5, third year coach Bob McCammon is replaced by the cigar-chomping Irishman to the glee of fans everywhere in Vancouver who were calling for McCammon’s head.
The team responds by going on a modest run and sneaking into the Stanley Cup playoffs only to be eliminated, again, in the first round. This time the defeat comes at the hands of the Gretzky-led L.A. Kings. It was bad enough when the Canucks were routinely drubbed at the hands of the Gretzky-led Oilers, but the inability to defeat the Kings, once an even more prolific doormat of the league than the Canucks themselves, is insufferable for fans.
The end of the season sees to another draft wherein the Canucks draft for size. With talents like Alexei Kovalev and Swedish star, Markus Naslund still available, the team drafts goon, Alex Stojanov after just missing out on Peter Forsberg. Stojanov, ironically would be traded much later for Naslund but, for now, he represents what the team feels it needs. Protection for Pavel Bure.
Quinn and Brian Burke feel it now. Russians are flooding the NHL. Over 20 Russians are drafted in 1990. Alex Mogilny and Sergei Fedorov are already starring for their respective teams. Larionov has played well. Bure is coming.
The fans sense it too. The growth of communication between Russia and the west is beginning to open. Bure has been spotted playing for a gold winning junior team, and world championship teams. He now has accomplished a rookie record-shattering season in the Soviet Championship League, playing for CSKA Moscow. His team has already won a championship with Bure in the lineup. But there are still hurdles to clear.
Fearing for the safety of his family in Russia, Bure cannot leave without the proper clearance. Sovintersport, long linked with ties to Russian mafia wants money for his transfer—a lot of it. The season begins in 1991 with the Canucks bartering for an appropriate transfer fee. The team agrees to pay a previously unheard of amount of $200,000 to transfer Bure, but Bure and the Soviet officials seem reluctant. Bure stands up in court and offers $50,000 out of his own pocket to appease the Russians, but demands that his family must also be allowed to come with him to North America.
The terms are agreed upon, and on November 3, 1991 Bure joins the Canucks for their first practice at Britannia rink in East Vancouver. Two thousand fans would attend the practice.
On November 5, 1991 the Pacific Coliseum is so packed full of fans there isn’t even room for the pigeons roosting in the rafters of the 17,500 seat arena. Long time Smythe division rivals, the Winnipeg Jets, are visiting the Canucks for what will be the last time the teams are on a level ice surface.
Bure never scores a goal in this 3-3 tie, but his talent is obvious. Where most players take three strides before coasting with the puck, Bure’s legs never stop moving. He is fearless, and relentless. On several occasions he splits defenders and has numerous chances to score. People are standing and cheering in anticipation of his every move on the ice. Long time Canucks broadcasters Jim Robson and Tom Larscheid are euphoric every time he steps on the ice. On numerous plays it seems that everyone is standing still watching Bure dance around defenders at full speed.
There is something different the next day. Everyone is talking about the Canucks and Bure. Vancouver Sun columnist Iain MacIntyre writes “If Winnipeg are the Jets, then what do you call Pavel Bure? How about the Rocket?” It is, as Kerry Banks notes in Pavel Bure: The Riddle of the Russian Rocket, “a moniker with irresistible appeal”. Even TSN is paying attention.
Jim Robson and Tommy Larscheid’s voices, truly the narrators of Bure’s career in Vancouver, resonate in every fan’s head upon every occasion related to Bure. With the “Russian Rocket” nickname still incubating in our collective consciousness, the call on his first goal against the L.A. Kings’ hapless netminder, Daniel Berthiaume on November 12th, 1991 is no different.
Jim Robson’s call is a matter-of-fact observation — a seeming awareness of not only Bure’s magnificence on the ice, but his effect off of it too:
“Bure has just scored his first NHL goal… and that’s what a lot of the fans… have come to see!”
“Did they ever,” chimes Larscheid in his giddy I-told-you-so, “This is what they wanted to see… Pavel Bure, the Soviet Rocket gets the first one… and he got it tonight!”
It is the first of so many and the birth of a legend in Vancouver. 61 games later, Pasha has 30 goals and is voted as the Rookie of the Year, the first and only league honour any Canuck will receive until a young American by the name of Ryan Kesler wins Frank J. Selke Trophy some twenty years later. Bure is awarded the honour over a then unknown Swedish rookie defenceman playing for the Detroit Red Wings by the name of Nicklas Lidstrom.
He is the last piece to the puzzle of a team which, for twenty years, has sought after an identity and credibility amid the NHL. After years of turmoil, Quinn makes no trades the following season. In 1991-92, his team wins a team record 42 times, and is not eliminated in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in nearly twenty years. The season, despite an early round exit, is a wild success.
For his part, Bure scores six goals and registers four assists in the 13 playoff games the Canucks play.
Not only does the team have its best season in the team’s history, but perhaps more importantly,the Vancouver Canucks have arrived. Once the little brother of the league, giving way to the wills of its established siblings, The Canucks, with Bure in the lineup force the national eye to turn, begrudgingly, to a team and a time zone long considered irrelevant.
The sea change has begun. The Russian Rocket has arrived.
Next…. the Golden Years of Bure….
 Dan Weekes, The Biggest Book of Hockey Trivia, 2009