April 17, 2012

Bourque brothers stick together

By Adam Kaufman

As you might imagine, longtime Boston Bruins defenseman and Hockey Hall of Famer Ray Bourque has some pretty big shoes — err, skates — to fill. 

Chris Bourque (left) skates for the Hershey Bears, while younger brother Ryan (right) suits up for the Connecticut Whale. (Chris Rutsch/Connecticut Whale)

From a very young age, Ray’s sons, Chris and Ryan (Boxford, Mass.), started dealing with expectations based on little more than their family name. When questions of that magnitude start so early on, however, there’s a lot of waiting involved.

How good will they be when they get to college or juniors? Will they need to play in the minor leagues and, if so, for how long?

These were the concerns of pro teams, scouts, the media, maybe even friends and neighbors.

In the Bourque house, that’s not what the two brothers were waiting for at all, at least not in the short term.

They’d been waiting to go head-to-head.

“I was really excited when our season ended last year because I knew the upcoming season we’d have the chance to play against each other,” said 26-year-old Chris, who’s in his sixth year with the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears after a one-year hiatus to play overseas.

“The age difference that we have is five years,” Chris continued. “We always missed each other by that one year, whether it was playing in high school against each other or something like that, so we definitely had those games circled. To be able to finally have the chance to play each other, it was definitely quite an experience.”

“It was pretty weird at first,” recalled 21-year-old Ryan, a rookie with the Connecticut Whale. “Once we started doing it a little more, it got easier and easier.”

During the regular season, Hershey (38-26-4-8) and Connecticut (36-26-7-7) posted remarkably similar records and finished a mere two points apart in the Eastern Conference standings on the way to both clinching playoff berths. Among the jam-packed, 76-game schedule were four meetings between the brothers Bourque and, though Chris won out on the stat sheet, it was Ryan’s Whale that reigned supreme in three of the four matchups.

“It was fun to be able to play against a sibling in a competitive sport at such a high level,” said Ryan, who admitted to raising his play just a little when facing his brother so as to avoid any table talk in the summer. “I think we’re pretty lucky. We were fortunate enough to win some games, but I think my brother might have 10 points against us this year. He’s pretty good at that.”

In the four games, Chris actually had only four points (two goals, two assists) to Ryan’s lone helper, but it’s an understandable exaggeration. The elder Bourque scored 26 goals this season on the way to being named a First Team AHL All-Star, and he paced the league with a career-best 93 points in just 73 games.

Ryan, meanwhile, played less of a scorer’s role and more that of the speedy, energy guy. By season’s end, the rookie totaled six goals and 14 points in 69 games to finish fourth among first-year point-producers on the Whale.

“Me being the older brother, it’s amazing seeing how he’s developed as a player from when he was younger and all the way up,” Chris said. “I skate with him in the summer and work out with him and all that, but being able to be on the same ice with him was a definite pleasure. It was just so much fun.

“You don’t root for him,” he added with a laugh. “But you want to see him do good out there. At the same time, you’re playing against him, so it was definitely a bit weird for me. Those games were definitely the best games that I’ve played in a while, the most meaningful at least. It’s not just your average game when you suit up against your brother.”

Bigger than the games themselves, though, is the relationship between the two young men, which has certainly evolved a great deal over time.

“We’re best friends,” Ryan said. “We talk pretty much every day. It’s crazy growing up how you’re siblings, there’s a rivalry and you’re battling every day, but once you hit that certain age, the page kind of flips. Being apart now, we’re supporting each other and trying to help each other out.”

“We definitely have a lot of things in common,” Chris said. “We like the same sorts of things. Hockey’s such a small, tight-knit community that we kind of have the same friends as well. When we’re home in the summer, we’re hanging out with the same group of people.

“That doesn’t mean we don’t bump heads,” he confessed. “There’s the odd argument here and there, but we’re pretty close. It wasn’t always like that. I used to be on him a lot when I was younger so it’s nice to turn that relationship around into a good one.”

Calling it “a good one” doesn’t do it justice. The brothers rely on each other heavily as a support system, both when they’re together and when apart.

Chris calls Ryan one of the hardest workers he’s ever seen, an absolute beast in the gym who pushes him on a daily basis throughout the offseason. Ryan said he looks to Chris for advice and tutelage as an experienced pro just a few years ahead of him on the food chain, someone who can share insights on how to maintain consistency and intensity from game to game, not to mention deal with the burnouts that can manifest with a long first season. A few chats about doing laundry and preparing meals for the first time have come in handy as well.

Still, it’s not all hockey talk. In fact, they both prefer to discuss their worlds off the ice because it’s a good way to clear their minds.

Watching that bond evolve couldn’t make Ray any happier.

“I’m really proud of all my kids, including Melissa, my (28-year-old) daughter, that all three of them are very close,” Ray said. “That’s really neat and we have a lot of fun and spend a lot of time together. It’s pretty neat when your kids really enjoy being around you when you’re a parent, so we’re very lucky in that way.

“The kids have the same interests, the boys in terms of what they’re doing, so that allows them to spend a little extra time together, whether it be workouts or playing in a summer league or whatever it may be. It’s been fun to watch as a dad. They’re good kids.”

Those kids hope that time together is only just getting started.

“Even if it isn’t the American League, we still strive to play against each other in the NHL or maybe even on the same team,” Chris said. “I hope we can do this for a pretty long time.”

Adam Kaufman profiled the Bourque brothers in the April issue of New England Hockey Journal. He can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com