March 15, 2011
Pavel Bure was the Russian Rocket, and his career had the trajectory of one that soared into the sky and then exploded. He scored 60 goals in back-to-back seasons between the ages of 21-22. He scored 58 and then 59 for the Florida Panthers from 1999-2001, during the trap years. His last season in the NHL was when he was 31, as a right knee injury cut his career short.
He spends most of his time in Miami now, and still follows the NHL in general. It's a very different League than the one he played in, and many fans believe a player with his speed and scoring ability would have set records under the post-lockout rules.
We spoke with Bure recently about that theory; about the shootout; about his split from the Vancouver Canucks; about concussions and player safety; about that state of Russian hockey, from the NHL to the KHL to the Olympics; about who he sees as "today's Pavel Bure"; and about being snubbed, so far, for the Hockey Hall of Fame. Enjoy:
Q. How different this post-lockout hockey from the game you used to play?
PAVEL BURE: I think it is very different because players became a lot faster, a lot bigger. The overall speed of the game is a lot higher. I also really like some of the rule changes, like the removal of the red line from the play consideration. There are a lot more scoring chances in today's game, a lot more goals.
It's also very interesting that the League implemented shootouts at the end of games to decide them. I always said it would be different, but finally they made it happen. And overall the game of hockey became more dynamic. In the past we used to have a lot of 0-0 or 1-0 games that were just not interesting to watch for fans, and now because more goals are scored it's a lot more interesting. I personally enjoy watching hockey now because there are a lot more goals now. I think it's also appealing to a casual sports fan.
It's interesting you mentioned the shootout because there is a lot of negativity directed towards this element. Some fans really hate them. Some remember the game between the New York Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers when the last playoff spot was decided in the shootout. The issue of "3 point games" is also raised.
To be honest with you, I see absolutely nothing negative about the shootout.
There are 1-1 or 2-2 games that may be boring but fans will stay on to watch the last minutes, the overtime and the shootout to see who will be the winner. There are a lot of emotions during the shootout, there is a lot of adrenaline with every penalty shot. Some fans get upset, but others get happy after the outcome of each penalty shot. And these emotions are the reasons fans come to games in the first place. Hockey exists for fans, for every sports fan, so that they can come to a game a spill their emotions. And the last five minutes is when emotions are at its highest. Well, maybe someone doesn't like it.
Look at the world's most popular sporting evens — World Cup of soccer. And even such an event has a place for penalty shots. No one plays unlimited overtimes to decide a game.
I tell you more, I don't even like unlimited overtimes in the playoffs because some games finish at 2 a.m. Who would be interested in watching a hockey game from 7 p.m. until 2 a.m.? You see half-empty arenas with only friends and families of players still there, figuratively speaking, with children sleeping. Who needs that?
Hockey is there for a sports fan, and it's not a survival game, when spectators are there from 7 p.m. until 2 a.m. I am against that. And once again going back to the World Cup of soccer, it is run by people who know what they're doing since it's the biggest sporting event in the world, and they have penalty shots. You play extra time, and then you have penalty shots.
An interesting take. Going back to what you said about the rule changes. Wouldn't it be interesting for a player like you to play in today's NHL?
You know, every person has his time. But also look at other rule changes: a bit of a hook and a referee blows a whistle. Once again, it opened up the game a lot, which led to more scoring. The League management knew what they were doing.
Look, during the 1990s, with the red line and so many hooks, it just wasn't very interesting to play. It was also so tough to score, that's why you saw a lot of 0-0 and 1-1 games — soccer scores. And hockey should be more interesting than that with at least 5 goals per game. Hockey is just a different game.
So, did you ever think 'I'd love to know what it would be like for me to play in this NHL?'
No, to be honest, I don't have any of that. Everyone has his time. And I don't like talking about what could have been or would have been. I have what I have. And it goes to everything else, not just hockey. For example, before the rule changes, a set in ping-pong was played to 21 points. And now it's played to 11 points. The same is in volleyball when points are scored on every serve. Sport is becoming more dynamic. All these changes are made for fans to make it more interesting for them. An athlete performs for the spectator. If there are no spectators, it won't be a sport. It will be physical education.
The Canucks are the leaders in the NHL this season, a real contender. Just like the time when you were there and made it to the Stanley Cup Finals. Could you compare the two teams, or is it impossible?
It's so different now, as I mentioned. Everything changes and progresses. Back then there were guys who were as big as there are players today, but maybe their skating wasn't that good. And now you've got 220 lbs guys and they skate as fast as 170 lbs guys back when I played. And it's natural. Every player is big, every player can skate. Everything is evolving. In the past a runner would run 100m in 12 seconds, and now they do it in 9. It's normal.
You played for three teams in the NHL, but Vancouver was your first team. Do you have any special feelings towards them? Do you remember them as something special?
Well, I did play for three teams. And there are special memories for all of them -- Vancouver, Florida Panthers and the New York Rangers. There are special moments associated with all of them that I can remember.
How difficult was it for you to play in Canada? Media pressure, expectations. There were stories you were blackmailing the team asking for a new contract.
There is absolutely no truth to those allegations. So much was said about that and it's simply not true. It was alleged that I put forward an ultimatum to the team that I wouldn't play the last game, but at the time I had already had a contract. I had a ready contract before the playoffs even started. I didn't need to do any of those things like the ultimatum.
And as far as playing in Canada, the country is so different from America. Canada is a hockey country. Hockey is the number one sport. Everything revolves around hockey. And it's a bit different in the States with football, baseball. So a player is more in everyone's sight in Canada.
Why did you decide to leave Vancouver?
It was time to go. It was time to do something new. I spent a lot of time there. And as I mentioned I have a lot to remember from those times. But every person has to move forward.
Sergei Fedorov(notes) always said he wanted to play with his brother Fedor on the same team. He got his wish but only towards the end of his career in Russia. And you got to do it with Valeri in the NHL with Florida. What was it like? You even set an NHL record - 89 goals by a brother combination in a single season
He was playing for Calgary when we set the record. Unfortunately we didn't play together at the time of the record. And of course I always had a dream of us playing together. We had a chance at the beginning of my career when we both played for CSKA when he was called up to the first team a few times. It was in 1990, if I remember correctly. And then we played in Florida together, but not that long though. Of course it's very interesting playing with your brother on the same team. We were lucky to have played together for not two, but three teams — CSKA, Florida and Team Russia.
You now live in Miami and played for Florida. Do you follow the team? What are your thoughts about their problems?
Yes, I do follow them. And you're right, they have a very difficult existence. But the made some changes, they have a new general manager. Let's see what happened next. But as of today they just can't do what they want to do.
A popular opinion is that after the expansion southern teams just never got it working. Florida, Atlanta, Phoenix all have problems.
But I will give you another example. Look at the Tama Bay Lightning who won the Stanley Cup. Look at the Los Angeles Kings who made it to the Stanley Cup Finals. Florida also made it to the Finals. That's why I think it doesn't necessarily depend on where a team is placed, but depends on how that team is created and the management does to the team and what goals they set.
When you were traded to the New York Rangers, Wayne Gretzky said that is he had known that Bure was to join the Rangers he would have extended his career. Do you regret that you didn't play with Gretzky at the competitive level?
Yes, I had a dream to play with him. But it so happened that I did join the Rangers, but I was a little too late. And it just didn't happen. But yes, Gretzky did say that - there was an actual agreement that if I were to come to the Rangers he would have played one more year. But not always everything depends on you. There are always some people involved who make the ultimate decision. And unfortunately back then we weren't able to convince them to make the trade for me happen. It's a different question that all of them later lost their jobs, but this fact didn't make it any easier for us.
But your paths with Gretzky crossed quite a few times. For example, you beat him in Turin as the GM of the Russian Olympic Team.
Gretzky and I had a close relationship in the past, when he was playing for the Los Angeles Kings. I spent a lot of time during summers in Los Angeles and we spoke a lot. We also played together at an All Star Game, we were in the starting line-up. Even though it was just an All Star Game, but we did play together.
Did you call him to wish him a Happy 50th Birthday?
No. You know we don't see each other lately.
Who were the best linemates you played with in your career? Maybe you have a Dream Five?
No, I don't have anything like that. I played with so many wonderful players in my career. When you're playing at this high level that means you've got what it takes. And every player I played with had his strong points, and I tried to utilize that. One could pass really well, another one was better defensively, another one is better at physical play. So when I played with different people I tried to use their strongest skill.
Of today's players, who would you want to play with?
No. You know, I have played enough hockey in my life.
Who was the most difficult player for you to play against?
It's difficult to say, because when I was playing the other team would always put their best defensemen on the ice against me. It can only seem that you're playing against a certain team. But it reality you always play against certain individuals. Only certain players ever play against you. Every team has that one best defenseman who always plays against you personally. And just like I tried to utilize my partners' strongest points, I tried to use that defenseman's weakest points. But it was never easy.
I am often asked 'who is the most difficult goaltender you played against?' And I always say 'all of them.' That's because at the NHL level all goaltenders are very strong. It was difficult against everyone, whether goaltenders, defensemen or forwards.
The number of Russian players in the League is shrinking every year. Why do you think this is happening?
I think because the KHL was created and a lot of guys play in Russia.
Maybe the reason that the number of Russians in the NHL is small because Russia just isn't producing a lot of quality players?
Not at all. I don't think so. It's just in the past there was only one league in the world — the NHL — where you could make a living and it was interesting to play. But now the money in the KHL is great and it is also very interesting to play there. That's why some players pick the KHL instead of leaving for the NHL.
Who is the best Russian in the NHL right now?
The best? It's very difficult to say right now because there isn't one who has scored a lot of goals at this point. I don't even know how to answer that. Last season it was Ovechkin, who scored a lot of goals. But this year no one scores. The best player in the NHL this season was Crosby who scored a lot, led the League in goals, points, their team was really good. But then he also got injured.
There are a lot of injuries this season. A lot of attention is now paid to hits to the head, concussions. Why in your opinion there is a surge of injuries, especially concussions in today's NHL? Is it because players got bigger, or players just don't respect each other?
I don't know about respecting others less. It's difficult from me to comment on that from the side. Injuries were always there, there were always a lot of injuries. But going back to what I said in the beginning, players are just bigger nowadays, the speed of the game increased tremendously.
Because of that every hit is now stronger, and players have to risk more, because in order to skate where you want to you have to go that much closer to the edge [physically] more often. And it's natural that the body can't take it anymore at some point and a player gets injured.
Your career was also ended by an injury. Does it upset you?
Not at all. I have never had this feeling. I played professionally for 16 years and I think that it's quite a lot. I am happy with everything I had.
I had three injuries like the one he has now. I was never depressed about that. I just have a different view of life. It's not about what happened, but how you are going to react to what happened. If it happened, then it happened, you tore your ACL and MCL, so what?
You have to have the right mindset and do everything to recover quicker. And if you're depressed it is not going to help. You just have to react positively. You have to do everything that depends on you to come back faster. It will depend on how you're going to train, how much time you are going to spend in the gym, how you're going to get your muscle tone back.
Is there a player in the NHL that you would call a 'New Pavel Bure?'
It's very difficult for me to say anything regarding that. There are so many good players who can score a lot. And I like players who can do something others can't. The player who, when he comes out on the ice, everyone notices here he is. He is someone who scores a lot, who can show off some dekes.
There are quite a few of those in the NHL now. Players like Crosby, Ovechkin. There is a nice guy in Edmonton Taylor Hall(notes). It's too bad he is out with an injury now. But injuries happen to every hockey player. I have been in hockey since I was 6 years old, and I don't know one hockey player who has never been injured. Hockey is such a sport that injuries are a certainty. Some players get more, some less, but you can't ever go without an injury in hockey.
You were Team Russia's General Manager in Turin. What could you say about the team's performance in Vancouver?
Vancouver, yes… If you look at the performance in Vancouver you can say that we were beat in every component of the game, if we're talking about that quarterfinal game against Canada. From the very first minute Team Russia had no options, no chance. Team Canada was just so much stronger, even though our roster was not inferior. At that point in time Team Canada was head and shoulders above, stronger. I watched that game live on TV, and what I saw is that we were losing in every component of the game. I don't know why, because I wasn't there. You can lose sometimes when you're a bit unlucky playing an even game because this is sports. But that game was anything but even.
Were you ever called back to become a general manager of the national team?
No, I wasn't asked. You know, the rest of the world sees a general manager having certain functions, and in Russia a general manager is viewed as something else. I am not even interested in [being a Russian national team general manager].
General Managers of every other team, like Steve Yzerman in Canada, travel around scouting players, picking rosters, and it's different in Russia because coaches pick the roster. And no one knows exactly what the role of the general manager is. Should Team Russia change that philosophy and let the coaches coach and a general manager pick a team?
The rest of the world works that way, but our system. I also don't understand why that is. But it's not up to me to decide.
But overall, of course, when a general manager is appointed he is responsible for the team. When I was one, it was a lot of work to ensure that my word was the final one, because I was the one approving the team roster. And until then and after that no one did that. I actually don't understand what the general manager of Team Russia does, what his functions are. Yes, I couldn't pick the head coach, but at least I picked the roster. But even that wasn't right. In the rest of the civilized world a hockey federation appoints a general manager, and that general manager forms a team starting with the head coach, assistant personnel, the team. And in Russia we a diarchy, a triumvirate. And I don't understand who is responsible for what. And maybe that's the reason the national team is in the state it is.
No one is responsible for anything. It's like there is some sort of insurance — if the team won, then I won, and if the team lost then it's someone else's fault and he's responsible and not me. There is a lot of finger pointing. It's different when just one person accepts the responsibility of being a general manager, then he is accountable for everything."
When the KHL was founded some former NHL players went over to work for the League, like Alexander Mogilny, Igor Larionov. Were you asked to join to assist?
To be honest at this point in time I am not interested in anything there. If you work on something you have to like it. What would you do something for? Right now I just don't like anything. I don't want to coach at this point. I am not ready to be a general manager of a team over there simply because it's a lot of work and a lot of responsibility. For me it's not just a hollow title, it's a lot of work. Today I am just not ready for that.
How important is it for you and your legacy to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame?
You know, it doesn't depend on me. If it happens, it will be a huge honor for me. But it just doesn't depend on me. I did everything I could when I was playing, and now it's just up to someone's opinion.
Are you disappointed you haven't been inducted yet?
What was your favorite jersey that you wore in your hockey career?
Any that had the number 10 on it. As for which team's jersey in particular, it's difficult to say. When I was brought up through the CSKA system we were always taught that when you wear the jersey you represent that club, and you have to do everything for that club. The same goes when you play for your country. That's why I can't tell you what the favorite was. All of them — USSR, CSKA, Vancouver, Florida, Rangers, Russia — were dear on their own.
A lot of European players grow up dreaming of winning the Olympic gold, something for their country. That's why they are often blamed for not wanting to win the Cup really bad. Is it fair?
When a boy is growing up in North America, for him the Stanley Cup is the most important thing. For us in the past the Olympic Games and the World Championships were the most important. That's because we couldn't compete for the Stanley Cup and they didn't even participate in the Olympics and the Games weren't important to them. So, in the past as we were growing up in two different "hockey poles," it was understandable.
But at the same time every trophy you compete for is important. And I can tell you thin: I know a lot of Canadians, Americans, Swedes, Russians and others. And when these players come to a tournament, regardless of whether it is the Stanley Cup or the World Championships, these players give it their all to win. No one is going to participate in a tournament just to spend some time. It just doesn't exist. Everyone is a professional, and if he agrees to participate in the World Championships or the Olympics, for example, or if he is in the Stanley Cup playoffs, they don't just play for fun, they give everything they've got. That's because if you are playing at that high level, you are a very serious athlete. And every serious athlete tries to win every single game.
That's why I absolutely don't agree that a player doesn't care about a particular trophy like the Stanley Cup. If a player has this mindset he would have never made it this far. These types of players are weeded out at the earliest stages of the development. It's like a natural selection."
Your brother won the Battle of the Blades not long ago. Would you want to participate in a competition like that?
No [laughing]. Right now, to be honest, I am not interested in these types of projects.
A lot of players, even former players, are now active in various social networks. Can we find you in Facebook or Twitter?
As far as I know I am everywhere, but it's just not the real me. I was told that I was tweeting. I was told I am on Facebook, on Odnoklassniki. So yes, you can find "me" on all of those. But it's just not the real me.
The NHL and the NHLPA bring in former players to help them get the game more interesting for fans. Brendan Shanahan(notes) was the person behind this year's All Star Game. Were you ever asked by the League or the PA to get involved?
I am always open for a dialogue. I just have to get interested. I like doing something that has a purpose. You always have to have a purpose. You always have to be interested in what you do, you have to have that fire inside of you. If I am ever offered something I'd be interested in, then why not?