With nearly every sports organization on the planet on pause at the moment as the world deals with the COVID-19 pandemic, we feel it’s an opportune time to reminisce about some special moments in sports history.
On this day in 2001, Hall of Fame defenceman Ray Bourque capped his career by lifting the Stanley Cup after the Colorado Avalanche defeated the New Jersey Devils 3-1 in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Bourque, 40, had to wait 22 seasons and 1,826 games to finally win hockey’s ultimate prize. No other player who’s won the Stanley Cup has had to wait longer.
The Montreal native broke into the NHL with the Boston Bruins as a 19-year-old in 1979-80 and hit his stride right away, winning the Calder Trophy after scoring 65 points.
Over his 20 years in Boston — 15 as captain — Bourque would win the Norris Trophy five times and appear in 18 all-star games. But the closest he would get to winning the Cup were two losses to the Edmonton Oilers in the 1988 and 1990 finals.
By the time the 1999-2000 season rolled around, Bourque was 39 and the Bruins were on pace to miss the playoffs. Sensing his window to win was almost closed, Bourque requested a trade and on March 6, 2000, the Bruins sent him and forward Dave Andreychuk to the Avalanche for forward Brian Rolston, defenceman Martin Grenier, centre Sami Pahlsson and a first-round pick.
The Avalanche would lose in seven games to the Dallas Stars in the 2000 Western Conference Final but Bourque opted to return for one more season — and one more chance to win the Cup.
In his final season Bourque scored 59 points, was selected to a 19th all-star game and finished runner-up to Nicklas Lidstrom for the Norris. The Avalanche added another future Hall of Fame defenceman, Rob Blake, in a mid-season trade and the club finished first in the NHL with a 52-16-10 record.
After dispatching the Canucks, Kings and Blues, the Avalanche found themselves facing the defending Cup champion Devils in the Final. The clubs split the first four games, with Bourque’s only goal of the series being the winner in Game 3. The Devils then won Game 5 in Denver and headed home with a chance to win a second-consecutive title.
“The guys were really down on themselves. You could hear a pin drop in the dressing room,” Bob Hartley, then the Avalanche head coach, said of the mood after the Game 5 loss. “Ray, with a tear in his eye, spoke briefly, basically to tell the guys he had one or two games left to play before retiring and all he wanted was to win the Cup. I really had nothing to add. The guys were pumped after that.”
The Avalanche won 4-0 in Game 6 to force the deciding game back home and by that point, anyone who wasn’t a Devils fan was rooting for Bourque to go out a champion. Bourque skated more than any other player in Game 7 — just under 30 minutes — and as the clock counted down in the third period he was overcome with emotion.
“Over the final few minutes, I had trouble breathing. I thought I was going to pass out,” he told NHL.com in 2016.
When the final horn sounded everyone knew who should get the Cup first. But no one knew exactly what captain Joe Sakic had planned.
“There’s one player who’s waited a long time to hoist this,” commissioner Gary Bettman said during the trophy presentation. “Joe Sakic, come get the Cup so he and the rest of your teammates can hoist it.”
Sakic skated over and grabbed the trophy, almost forgetting to pose for a picture with Bettman. Then, instead of lifting it first, the way captains have for decades, Sakic immediately gave the Cup to Bourque.
“Without a doubt the easiest pass I’ve ever made,” Sakic said.
“A lot of things going through your mind at that point,” Bourque said of the moment. “About family, there are a lot of ex-teammates that I played with that you wish you could share it with.”
“A name was missing from that thing,” Patrick Roy, who won his third Conn Smythe Trophy, said in his post-game press conference. “And today it is back to normal.”
Days after winning the Cup, Bourque brought it back to Boston for a rally with thousands of Bruins fans who hadn’t tasted victory since 1972.
“[Last year], we felt there was a move that had to be made and it was a tough one,” Bourque told the crowd, according to the Hartford Courant. “The support that you’re showing today certainly shows me that you guys understand what it’s all about. Over the years, you’ve known me not to be a guy to express my feelings as much as some people… but I am here today to say thank you to all of you.”
Bourque officially retired on June 26, 2001 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004. He remains the only defenceman to score 400 goals (he finished with 410) and also is the all-time defencemen leader in assists (1,169) and points (1,579).
Still, despite all of his accomplishments, Bourque entered that Game 7 on June 9, 2001 with one achievement left to cross off his list. That long wait made finally winning even sweeter.
“When we won, it was a huge relief for me,” he said years later. “Not only that, but I finally knew how it really felt to be a champion.”