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BSN Exclusive: An oral history of the trade that sent Ray Bourque to Colorado

Adrian Dater Avatar
March 19, 2018

In early March of 2000, it was no secret in the hockey world that legendary, future Hall-of-Fame defenseman Ray Bourque wanted, albeit reluctantly, to be traded from his team of 20-plus seasons, the Boston Bruins. In a Bruins career that spanned the end of the Carter Administration to the end of Bill Clinton’s, Bourque performed brilliantly for Boston in the succession of other Hall-of-Fame Bruins defensemen such as Bobby Orr and Brad Park. 

A five-time Norris Trophy winner and 12-time first-team NHL all-star, the only thing missing from Bourque’s trophy case was hockey’s ultimate prize, the Stanley Cup, and time was running out. At 39, Bourque knew he only had one or two good years left, and he knew it would be well beyond that before the Bruins had any chance of seriously competing for a Cup.

The Bruins started the 1999-2000 season at 0-5-4 and, despite a solid run after that had them above .500 for a while, by February things were falling apart again and Bourque wanted a chance to play meaningful, playoff hockey again. He also knew that the bounty he could bring the Bruins in trade could benefit their future, so it was during the NHL’s leaguewide general managers’ meetings on Feb. 27-28 in Palm Springs, Calif., that Bourque formally asked his longtime boss, Bruins general manager Harry Sinden, for a trade. 

Bourque had two conditions for Sinden: He wanted to go to a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, and he wanted to stay relatively close to his home of Boxford, Mass., primarily because he had three teenage children and didn’t want to uproot their school lives. Bourque, and Sinden, thought he would be going to either one of two teams: the New Jersey Devils or the Philadelphia Flyers. 

As we all know now, Bourque somehow, on March 6th, wound up 2,000 miles from Boxford, with the Colorado Avalanche. We all know how the story finished, as one of hockey’s most iconic moments, with Bourque lifting the Stanley Cup over his head after the final game of his career, Game 7 of the 2001 Stanley Cup Finals against one of the teams he thought he’d have played for instead, the Devils.

This is the story of how the trade happened, as told to BSN Denver by the principals themselves: Ray Bourque, Harry Sinden and former Avalanche GM Pierre Lacroix. 

Bourque: I knew Harry was at the GM meetings, and I’d called him and asked him if he could call me back. I left him a message. And he called me, and I remember exactly where I was when he called me. My son, Christopher, was interviewing to get into (Byfield, Mass., private school) Governor Dummer. We were in there with the people talking about him going to Governor Dummer, because my daughter was also going there. And then Harry called, and I said, ‘I gotta take this call’ and I stepped out. And that’s when I told him that I wanted to go somewhere to a team that could compete and have a good run in the playoffs. I told him why and what I was thinking, and he was good about it.

Bourque, at first, actually requested one team, in particular, to be traded: the Philadelphia Flyers, who would go on to win the Atlantic Division, a team loaded with offensive talent but missing a guy from the blueline like Bourque who might make a championship difference.

Bourque: We were building a big house on a golf course at the time, and I thought Philly at that time was probably the best team in the East. We were looking at them as a team that had a really good shot to get somewhere, and so Harry said, ‘Yeah, I’ll try to accommodate you.’ And I knew what was going on, on the other side, because (former Bruins teammate) Reggie Lemelin was (the Flyers’) goalie coach and I was hearing everything that was going on with the Philly side, and I thought it was a done deal.

The Bruins played the Flyers on March 4, a 3-0 Philly win in Boston. Bourque legitimately thought he’d be leaving with the Flyers on their flight out as the team’s newest member.

Bourque: It was a Saturday afternoon I remember. After the game, Reggie said, ‘It’s done.’ But then nothing happened. I went looking for Harry and asked him what was going on. This had been dragging on for about 10 days now and I was like, ‘come on, let’s get something done.’ But then he says, ‘well, there’s more teams involved.’

Sinden: I did think it would be relatively straightforward to make a deal with Philly, and I knew that’s where Ray wanted to go. But the truth is we couldn’t really get very far at all. They didn’t want to give up anyone of quality from their current roster. And I think they thought Ray might retire when the season was over. I went to New Jersey after that, but it was pretty much the same thing. And I wasn’t going to just give him away. He was Ray Bourque, still a hell of a player.

During the week prior, at those GM meetings in Palm Springs, at the La Quinta Resort and Club, Avs GM Pierre Lacroix, known already for pulling off a big trade or two, put a bug in Sinden’s ear. 

Lacroix: It was a long meeting, and I remember we took a break and we’re standing around by some garden at the La Quinta and I see Harry. So I say, ‘Hey Harry, the rumor around is that you’re gonna move Ray?’ He immediately said ‘yes, we’re not gonna make the playoffs, and I talked with Ray.’ The back end of this is: He knows I know Ray. But Harry says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve already had discussions with teams in the East’ and that he’s got kids in school and I’ve agreed with Ray to move him to a place so that the kids won’t be hurt with their move from school, and his wife – they want to stay in the East, and this is what I’ve agreed to do with Ray and his family.’ He gives me the whole spiel.

I said to him, ‘Listen, I could bullshit you and just say I’m going to stay quiet and not say anything, but you know that I have a relationship with Ray, we’re from the same hometown, we’re friends.’ I said, ‘I know there are rules of (the trade) but I’d rather play it fair with you. I know that I am short on my potential to make a trade with you, and if I didn’t know him I would probably do like everybody and try to get to the agent (Steve Freyer) and try to sell ourselves.’ I said, ‘But because I know him, I’m not going to do this, I’m gonna play it fair with you, but you’re telling me I have no shot’ and I said ‘Can I ask you one thing?’ and he goes ‘Yeah, go ahead’ and I said ‘Can you promise me you’re gonna talk to Ray about us? You’re saying that he doesn’t want to go West, but if you mention to him that he’ll allow you to talk to me, instead of me trying to play the bad game, you know? I said, ‘Harry, get back to me.’ And he said, ‘You know what? That’s fair enough. Let’s do our meeting and when I get back I’ll talk to Ray and get back to you.’

Sinden: After that (March 4 game with the Flyers) I remember telling Ray that Colorado was one of the teams I was talking to. He wanted to stay East, but I told him I was having trouble getting the right deal. I think he seemed a little intrigued all of a sudden when Colorado was mentioned to him.

The Avalanche, though, was struggling at the time. While still a star-studded team only four years removed from winning a Stanley Cup and a Western Conference finalist the year before, the Avs had a record of just 28-26-10-1 after a 3-1 loss to Edmonton on Feb. 29, 2000. With the NHL trade deadline set for March 14, Lacroix knew he had to do something to light a fire under a team that was in real danger of missing the playoffs. Sinden, too, knew he had to do something soon and on the weekend of March 4-6, with talks between Philly and New Jersey going nowhere, he called Lacroix to inquire just how serious the Avs might be in acquiring him.

Lacroix (laughing): He did call me, but at first he said there was no chance, that he’d talked to Ray and no chance was he going out West. Now I’m thinking, ‘Now he’s playing Harry, the business guy.’ But he knows I’m not going to ask Ray that myself, and by saying that he probably is increasing whatever he could get. I’m thinking, ‘It’s either-or. I’m not saying he’s lying, but he’s playing the game.’ So I say, ‘So Harry, you’re telling me Ray has no interest?’ He goes, ‘Aw, I’m not saying that. But I’ve already had serious discussions with others. I’m really gonna move him, and I’ve talked with two teams already (Philly and the Devils) back East. So I said, ‘Well, if you change your mind, I’m interested, and I know I could fulfill your needs and whatever I can do, I’ll do. But I said I wasn’t going to negotiate a deal against myself, so I said ‘whatever is interesting for you, let me know.’ And then I waited a little bit.

Lou Capozzola/Sports Illustrated

Sinden: I called him again. They had a guy in Brian Rolston who I had seen a lot with New Jersey and liked him as a player, so I asked about him and Pierre said that could work with him, but I also wanted a good prospect and a pick or two. Lacroix said he could give me the first-round pick, but the question was who would be the good prospect. That’s where we went back and forth a little bit. There was a guy in their system our scouts liked named Sam Pahlsson. A big, two-way centerman with some potential. He became kind of the make-or-break focus of the deal.

Pahlsson, who was drafted 176th overall by the Avs in 1996, had yet to play in the NHL but was becoming a star in the Swedish League for Peter Forsberg’s former team, MoDo. He would go on to play 798 games in the NHL and won a Stanley Cup in 2007 with Anaheim.

Lacroix: Harry said, ‘If we put Pahlsson in the deal, this could work.’ So I put him on hold and I called the league. I didn’t want him to change his mind! Pahlsson was an asset, but he’d never played in the league, only played in Europe. So, at the end of the day, the impact that Ray Bourque could have on our club, in our opinion, was big.

There was some added horse-trading to the deal before it was consummated, on the afternoon of March 6. The Avalanche would add another prospect defenseman named Martin Grenier to the deal, but Lacroix wanted one more asset to come back with Bourque, now that he was throwing in Pahlsson, Grenier and a first-round pick in either 2000 or 2001 (it would be in 2000, at 27th overall, a player named Martin Samuelsson) along with Rolston. Wanting to shed some additional salary from his playing-out-the-string roster, Sinden agreed to throw in veteran forward Dave Andreychuk to the deal. As the Avalanche team was on a plane en route to Calgary for a game the next night against the Flames, Lacroix stayed in his office and finalized the deal: Rolston, Pahlsson, Grenier and a first-round pick for Bourque and Andreychuk.

Sinden: I called Ray right away, and I’ll never forget this: He put his hand on the receiver, but I could hear him tell his wife (Christiane) in a French-Canadian accent ‘It’s Colo-rah-dough.’

Bourque: It’s funny, a few days before the trade happened, I was having dinner with my wife, my agent and (friend, former teammate and former Bruins coach) Steve Kasper and his wife and I get this call and it’s Rene Angelil (the late husband of singer Celine Dion and best friend of Lacroix). He says, and this is so funny, he says in his french accent ‘Do you remember me?’ and I go ‘Yeah, I remember you Rene, we’ve played golf together before.’ And Rene goes ‘Well, I hear you might get traded. Colorado is really a good place, you’d really like it there’ and he goes ‘Pierre doesn’t know I’m calling you.’ And I’m like, ‘OK Rene.’

After that game with Philly on that Saturday, Harry told me not to come to the rink on Sunday for practice and told me I wouldn’t be playing Monday. We had a game that night against Ottawa. Harry told me something would be done by then. So, I stayed away. I’d gotten a call from (former Bruins teammate, now with St. Louis) Dave Ellett a few days before asking if I might come to St. Louis and I said ‘No, Dave, I don’t want to go there.’ But on the actual day of the trade, I got another call from Dave (Andreychuk) and he said ‘Something’s going down. They just called me off the ice during the pregame skate. I think wherever you’re going, I’m going with you.’ But then Harry called me during the game with Ottawa and said I was going to Colorado, along with Dave. And then Pierre called me, and then Patrick (Roy) called me, from his room in Calgary. Then, Dave Reid, Adam Foote, Shjon Podein and Joe Sakic all called me.

Bourque got a fitful night’s sleep in Boston, then boarded an early chartered flight from Boston to Calgary, with a stop in Kansas City to refuel. He would get in to the Westin hotel in Calgary in the early afternoon, but wanted to make his debut with the Avs that night at the Saddledome. 

Bourque: It was such a messed up day. Me and Dave are in the plane, with all our (stuff) and, I mean, there was no room. Dave is 6-4 and I’ve got 31-inch inseams, and we’re all crunched up and we have to stop in Kansas City, then we get to Calgary and go right to a press conference. Then we had our little meal and I laid down in the room for a couple hours and then I got to the rink real early. I think I was the first one there. I walk into the dressing room and the first thing I see is the No. 77 with my name on the back, but in Avalanche colors. It was pretty weird.

Tim DeFrisco/Sports Illustrated

Despite no sleep and a transcontinental flight, Bourque and Andreychuk played, and played well. Bourque notched two assists in an 8-3 Avs victory.

Bourque: I remember my first assist. I hit (Milan) Hejduk with a pass at the blue line, and then he hits Joe for a breakaway and he scores and I remember thinking, ‘Yeah, this might work, this might be fun.’ I actually pulled my groin in the game, though, and didn’t play in the third period. I was real worried. But the next day it felt better and I was able keep playing. The next night, I remember, we had a game in Edmonton and we won that too, and we won a lot more games after that.

Indeed, they would. The Avalanche would go 12-2-1-1 with Bourque the rest of the regular season, before losing in seven games to the Dallas Stars in the Western final, with Bourque hitting the post (on a shot that was deflected by Adam Deadmarsh) at the end of regulation in Game 7 of a 3-2 loss.

After the season, Bourque told his wife he wanted to play one more year, with the Avalanche, and he signed a one-year, $5 million contract with a mutual option for a second (but with an agreement with Lacroix that there never would be the second year, and that Bourque would get a $1 million buyout bonus, to keep costs down for the 2000-01 payroll.

The following season, the Avs put it all together, winning the President’s Trophy with a 52-16-10-4 record, then winning the Cup in the iconic seventh game at home, 3-1 over the Devils. In the final game of his 22-year career, Bourque went out the way every player dreams, in a city he never thought possible he’d play. Later that night, at the Bourques’ rented house in Littleton, the Stanley Cup was paraded up and down the street by his family, friends and neighbors.

Bourque: I mean, what can you say? We had a great team. It just all worked out so perfect. You have to give Pierre credit. He was such a gunslinger. He just wanted to win, that was it. With the salary cap the way it is today, you don’t really see that kind of guy around anymore. I’m grateful for all that happened in Colorado.

The Bruins? It would be several years before they would get back to respectability. The trade never brouqht the kinds of benefits to the team that Sinden hoped. In 2006, he stepped down as chief executive of the Bruins, but, at 85, remains a senior adviser to Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs. The Bruins won the Cup 10 years later, in 2011.

Sinden: I made the best deal I felt I could make at the time. I have no regrets about it. I was happy for Ray. I think everyone in Boston was happy for Ray. Of course, we all wished it was in a Bruins sweater when he lifted the Stanley Cup. It was very emotional trading Ray. I drafted him, he was like a son to me. But it unfolded the way it did, and the bottom line is that Ray is a class man who did all he could for the Boston Bruins organization, and, in a way, it feels good that myself and the team were able to give him something back in a way.

Lacroix would step away from the Avs for good in 2013. At 69, he is retired, living in Nevada.

Lacroix: Things may have changed some now, but with us in Denver, it was always based on needs and wants to immediately win. It was not about our needs in five years. It was always, ‘If we can win now, let’s do it.’ We always believed that the reasoning behind making any trade was meeting immediate winning goals. When we believed our core was so good, we were fortunate to have been proven right on that. We won nine straight division titles and the (two) Cups. That second Cup was a total team effort, from players to coaches to management to scouts, all the way down the list.

But I know one thing: We would not have won that Cup without Ray Bourque.

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