April 15, 2012

From NEHJ: Brothers Bourque

By Adam Kaufman

“My dad raised us as our own individuals. I’m Ryan, Chris is Chris and my dad is who he is. Realistically, me and my brother both know we’re never gonna touch anything that my dad’s done in the game, but we respect that and we honor that. I don’t think it’s fair to hold over anyone’s head, to try to make two young kids growing up playing the game try to be one of the best ever.” 

Chris Bourque (left), in his seventh pro season, plays for AHL power Hershey, while younger brother Ryan (right) is in his first pro season with the Connecticut Whale. (Chris Rutsch/Connecticut Whale)

Ryan’s a 21-year-old forward in his first professional season for the AHL’s Connecticut Whale. Chris is five years older, also enjoys a regular shift on the wing, and he’s in his seventh pro season, a career spent largely with the perennial AHL favorites in Hershey.

Their last name is Bourque. Yeah, that Bourque.

Maybe you’ve heard of their father, Ray? He’s the owner of 22 seasons in the NHL — nearly all spent in Boston — a 2004 Hall of Fame inductee, and he’s one of the greatest defensemen to ever play the game. No blueliner has ever scored more points.

Now, though, more than a decade after his 2001 retirement, Ray’s just playing the role of dad to two kids inspired by their countless adolescent trips to visit him at work.

For the first time that it’s held any real meaning in their lives, the brothers — who grew up in Boxford, Mass. — are opponents, just one level below the sport’s biggest stage. Chris has had a few chances in “The Show” — 20 games with Pittsburgh in 2009 and another 13 for Washington from 2007-10 — while Ryan’s still getting his feet wet at the pro ranks as a prospect in the Rangers’ system.

Ray continues to make his home right outside of Boston, allowing him the chance to watch about half of Ryan’s games in Hartford or against the other New England-based teams, plus there’s an annual trip or two to Pennsylvania to see Chris play when his club’s not facing off against the Northeast.

Needless to say, Dad’s still very involved in his kids’ careers.

“I talk to him after every game,” Chris said. “He listens. If he’s there, he’ll watch the game, take some notes and tell me what I need to work on.”

“He’s been amazing with me,” Ryan agreed. “If I need anything, he’ll give me advice or support. At the same time, if I need some space or some confidence, he’s there to back off or give me the confidence I need.” 

Chris Bourque, Hershey Bears (JustSports Photography)

“I used to take more notes,” Ray admitted. “I’m taking fewer notes now just because I want to be a dad. They’ve got their coaches and all that stuff. Talking to them, I want to more or less just encourage them more than calling them out on stuff. If I see something that continually is happening that isn’t being done right or should be done different, I’ll mention it, but I usually wait until they ask.”

They usually inquire.

“He’s a consummate professional,” said Ryan, who welcomes suggestions on such topics as system play or positioning. “He knows how to handle things.”

“It’s great to have a hockey mind available like that,” Chris said. “Not too many guys in this profession have that; so it’s a definite benefit for us.

“Everything we’ve learned, pretty much, is from him,” he added. “It’s great to have him as a resource to bounce things off of or to go to with any advice he may have because he’s definitely been through everything possible in this game with the long career that he had, and he’s seen everything. He’ll give me a straight answer and he won’t beat around the bush. He doesn’t always give you the answer that you want, but it’s usually the right one and you can’t really argue with him.”

It’d be natural to wonder what it’s like to glide in dad’s old skates, but it’s not easy. You see, in hockey circles, “Bourque” isn’t just a name, it’s an expectation.

“Obviously, I have that over my head and that’s something I’m going to have to live with my whole life,” Ryan said. “If me and Chris can accomplish even a quarter or half of what my dad accomplished in the game, we’d be pretty proud of ourselves. At the same time, we like to be our own person and make our own goals, and try to accomplish the things we’ve set out for ourselves in the game. I don’t feel as though it’s held over my head.”

“There’s gonna be that pressure where people want to see what Ray Bourque’s son has to offer or what kind of player he’s gonna be,” Chris said. “We’ve both been dealing with that since we were at the rink, whether it was peewees, high school, college, juniors and now pro hockey, so it’s something that we kind of got used to.

“It’s always there, people comparing you,” he continued. “And now we’re starting to get compared to each other. We’re trying to make our own identity. I’m very proud of my last name. I’m proud of what my dad did as a hockey player and I’m proud of what my brother’s doing, but I’m trying to make a name for myself. That’s all I can focus on.”

Chris has made a pretty good name for himself in the minors. With multiple 20-goal, 70-point seasons to his credit, the 2004 second-round pick of the Capitals is just a few short months away from unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career, and his dad’s ready to see his hard work rewarded at the next level. 

Ryan Bourque, Connecticut Whale (Chris Rutsch/Connecticut Whale)

“He’s looking for an opportunity,” Ray said. “The chances of him going somewhere else are probably very, very high, so it’s going to be a matter of picking the right spot. But, once you get that opportunity, it’s up to you to make it happen and he’s anxious for that to happen. Once July 1 comes around, we’ll see where he goes with it, but I think he’s put himself in a pretty good position to hopefully get a pretty good opportunity he can take advantage of.”

As for Ryan, the 2009 third-rounder is just getting started after two seasons in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

“Ryan had a really good camp this year and was at a good place coming out of camp and then he went to Hartford, got hurt a little bit and never really found himself back where he was,” Ray observed. “With Ryan, it’s a matter of establishing himself as a solid, consistent player. He’s got great speed, good ability, and he’ll probably tell you himself that he thought he’d be doing a little more this year.

“It’s just a matter of getting himself in the right frame of mind and thinking the right way, and that takes a little time,” he continued. “It’s a different league — the adjustment and the confidence that he needs to play at his level is sometimes not always there and, for him, it’s a matter of working on those things, more the mental game. If that’s in the right place, Ryan will do very good and do a lot of different things for Hartford and hopefully for the Rangers someday.”

In the meantime, Ray’s just enjoying being a spectator as both Chris and Ryan diagram their own skating lanes.

“For a dad to watch your two sons play against each other in professional hockey is pretty amazing,” Ray said, “and it’s a proud moment.”

It all started with Dad. Now, one name and a close-knit bond that stretches far beyond what happens on the ice tie these three men together. When it comes to their careers, though, it’s not the name on the backs of their jerseys that they want to be remembered for, but rather the one that comes in front of it.

This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Adam Kaufman can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com. Follow Adam on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman.