Why Pavel Bure’s Number Deserves to be Retired by the Vancouver Canucks: We Wanted Forever (Part 1/4)


There was controversy about Markus Naslund’s jersey hanging in the rafters too. There’s plenty of space for Bure’s #10 alongside the Canucks’ greats. Image courtesy of: US PRESSWIRE Sports

Pavel Bure deserves this. For too long have Vancouver Canucks fans been convinced of a legacy which often receives  an unfair proportion of attention compared to what Bure meant to the franchise, and yes, the city of Vancouver itself.  He not only deserves his Hall of Fame Induction based on statistical and contributory merit, but Bure also deserves the local honour of his cult-classic #10 to hang among Canucks greats: Stan Smyl, Trevor Linden, and Markus Naslund.

Two other Canucks greats, Stan Smyl and Trevor Linden, are both sure to publicly endorse the retiring of Bure’s number with the Canucks alongside their own. Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-US PRESSWIRE

This is not to compare the contributions of those players, for each deserves the honor based upon his own merits and contributions to the franchise and city. Rather I’m writing this to, for some readers, exonerate Pavel Bure for the alleged crimes of dishonor he committed against the city of Vancouver and, for others, educate the legions of recent Canucks followers on the legend who built the capital dynasty we know as the Canucks, one of the hottest tickets in the league today.

With all due respect to the Florida Panthers and New York Rangers Pavel Bure is a Vancouver Canuck, and the most important Canuck ever to wear any of our thirteen jerseys.  But, as with every story, there needs to be some reference point.  Before Bure came to the NHL in Vancouver, things were different—very different.

The year is 1989.  The then-Soviet Union is suffering a period of economic and political instability.  Soviet political intervention in the affairs of eastern Soviet satellite countries is almost completely abandoned as foreign policy, largely on the backs of negotiations between Russian head of state Mikhail Gorbachev and United States President Ronald Reagan.

Ideologies, economies and politics as global are at their inceptive point in human history.  Everything in Russia is in a state of disrepair. Not immune to this effect of the ultimate failure of Soviet communism is the governing body related to sport in the country, Sovintersport.  On the other side of the coin, American business is booming, the dollar at an all-time high, and the world owes America a lot of money.

In May of the same year a young , talented superstar in waiting named Alexander Mogilny defects from the failing Soviet regime to join the eagerly awaiting Buffalo Sabres.  In a time before YouTube, internet and even something as simple as shared resources, Pavel Bure is a mere rumour.  He is the best young talent not currently in the NHL.  The  Canucks, along with the entire NHL have their eyes on him.

The Canucks, for their part, have wrapped up their season two months before the draft. They gave a good push to the eventual champion Calgary Flames before losing in the first round to a controversial “kicked goal” by Joel Otto in overtime of the seventh game.  The Flames, led by defensive specialist Otto and fellow Americans Joey Mullen and Gary Suter will eventually—as so many legends had done before them—pass a champagne-filled silver grail from arm to arm in the visitor’s dressing room of the hallowed Montreal Forum. While this was happening, the Canucks had already been doing homework and strategizing for the upcoming draft, which was set to occur in less than a month.

Wayne Gretzky may not have won the cup with L.A., but his legacy allowed hockey to flourish in California. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE

The NHL, meanwhile, is in its pre-expansion state with several marketable superstars who were thrusting the league into the American and global media spotlight.  The Hart Memorial Trophy goes to Wayne Gretzky, whose 168 points for the resurgent Los Angeles Kings is topped only by the 199 point season of a 23 year-old French-Canadian playing in Pittsburgh named Mario Lemieux.   The NHL awards both the Calder Memorial Trophy and the James Norris Memorial  Trophy to Americans Brian Leetch and Chris Chelios.  Hockey is relevant in America, and becoming increasingly lucrative for investors, owners and players, but it is still a league dominated by North American players.

Ever so quietly, draft strategies are undergoing a strategic change for years.  A mere fifteen years removed from the Summit Series, which showcased Russia’s finest talent competing against the NHL’s elite and altered how the league viewed hockey, interest in acquiring Russian skill is at an all-time high.

Even as early as 1983, several NHL teams were risking late round draft picks on CSKA Moscow and international legends like Alexei Kasatonov, Sergei Makarov, Viacheslav Fetisov, and the immortal goaltender—Vladislav Tretiak.  These were players who, as in Tretiak’s case, might never see a minute of NHL ice-time and were potentially wasted picks.  Even in 1985, the Canucks drafted the remaining two players from the fabled “KLM” line, Vladimir Krutov and future Hall-of-Famer, Igor Larionov to the interest of all Canucks fans alike.

But by 1989, all of the skilled veteran Russians have been drafted.  The NHL takes a new turn.  A young Russian star named Sergei Federov is being drafted by the last-place Detroit Red Wings in an unprecedented position — the fourth round.  In fact, no less than twelve young Russian players affiliated with teams governed by Sovintersport are drafted by NHL teams by the end of the ’89 draft.

Debates ensue.   Canadians feel threatened by the sea change.  The Soviet league becomes alarmed that they will lose their best players and become a minor league to the NHL.  However, no one can stop the decline of the Ruble and the transition from communism to capitalism in Soviet Russia.  No one can restrain a young man from his willingness to travel and experience the world outside of his homeland. No one in Russia can guarantee the kind of money the NHL is dangling.

The stage is set for the Canucks to accomplish not merely the shrewdest draft move of their team’s brief history, but perhaps the shrewdest draft move of any draft, any league, anytime.

Previously believed to be ineligible for the 1989 draft, legends of a powerful 18 year old Russian named Pavel Bure, has scouts anticipating his eligibility in next year’s draft.  Canucks’ chief scout Mike Penny believes otherwise.  He assures President and GM Pat Quinn and up and coming director of player operations, Brian Burke, that he has intelligence which suggests the late pick is a safe gamble.  He stakes his reputation on it.  His job.

With the 113th pick of the 1989 NHL draft, the Canucks select “Pasha”, Pavel Bure, amid a swirl of controversy.  The league’s GM’s are outraged and appeal the draft pick, an appeal which would later require a full season to clarify in tribunals.

By the summer of 1989, Sovintersport, patently aware of the collapse of their country’s socio-economic system, decide upon the unprecedented—to release their best players to the NHL in lieu of total implosion due to bankruptcy. The strategy is a mutually beneficial one since their best veterans are already drafted to NHL teams, and Sovintersport would draw portions of each player’s salary to boost their own suffering leagues and teams.  The players, meanwhile, are released from the constraints of a failed regime still mired in the former and oppressive belief systems.

When the season opens at the then home of the Canucks, the Pacific Coliseum, the NHL has changed irrevocably.  Former Soviet stars adorn a handful of rosters like new sports cars in the neighbours’ driveways.

The Flames weren’t always rebuilding. When the first wave of Russian stars came to the NHL, Calgary was winning cups. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

In Calgary, Sergei Makarov is beginning his season by joining the Stanley Cup Champion and perennial powerhouse Flames.  Slava Fetisov has joined the New Jersey Devils.  The Canucks are recipients of Igor Larionov and Vladimir Krutov.  Larionov seems to still have some game left in the tank.  Krutov appears lost, confused, overweight and despondent.  Even young defector Alexander Mogilny has a modest start to his career in Buffalo.  But there is the 31 year-old Makarov.

Makarov wins the Calder Memorial trophy for rookie of the year in what many consider to be a down year for rookies.  His 61 point season is good enough to make him the oldest player ever to be awarded the trophy.   The pioneer results seem tepid, at best but there are signs.

Meanwhile, the season has progressed and the Canucks are mired in another one of their lengthy losing streaks.  The season is a write-off.  It ranks with some of the worst in league history.  To make matters worse, then NHL president John Ziegler has, after a year of wrangling, ruled against the Canucks and Bure is to re-enter the NHL draft following season’s end.  As though to rub salt in the wounds, the draft is being held at the recently built BC Place stadium in Vancouver.

But perhaps the most important contribution of a Russian player to an NHL team is yet to come.

It is nearly draft day, and the city is abuzz with anticipation.  Though the Canucks hold the second overall pick in the draft, there is fear that Bure is lost to the Nordiques.  The irony is not lost on the city’s long-beleaguered fans.  Even from the point of the 1970 expansion draft, when the Canucks lost Gilbert Perreault on the spin of a roulette wheel like some carnival side show, the fans feel as though the team is cursed.  Nothing good ever seems to come their way, even if a young Trevor Linden is waiting.

Prior to Pavel’s arrival, BC place, now the home of the MLS Vancouver Whitecaps, and CFL’s Lions, had only just been built. There was no Rogers Arena. Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-US PRESSWIRE

Weeks before the 1990 draft, the phone boards to local talk shows light up about how the Quebec Nordiques will use their first overall pick to draft Pavel Bure.  It is a strong draft, so the team isn’t showing signs of concern—except for losing Pavel Bure in front of their home fans.

On the eve of the 1990  NHL draft, however, the Canucks drafting strategy changes along with the franchise’s and the city’s fortunes forever.  With the help of recent acquisition, Igor Larionov, Mike Penny has had a breakthrough.

With names like Jaromir Jagr, Keith Primeau, Mike Ricci, Derian Hatcher, and Martin Brodeur on the board, the Canucks draft Czech centre, Petr Nedved.  It is a mistake which the team can recover from in the jubilation of officially acquiring the most important player the franchise will ever know.

Larionov procures a faded carbon copy of a scoring sheet for a Central Red Army exhibition game.  It is likely scrawled by the hand of one of the old guard of the Russian Revolution.

On it is the name:  Па́вел Буре́.  Pasha.  Pavel Bure.  The requisite eleventh game, at the eleventh hour is found, and Pavel Bure is a Vancouver Canuck.

But what is he inheriting?

Next week…. Pavel Bure:   The Arrival