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Book review: Phil Bourque’s endured a lot, and his stories show it

A bunch of colorful tales from one of the most interesting personalities around the Penguins

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Pittsburgh Penguins v Washington Capitals - Game One Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

We had the pleasure of getting to talk to Phil Bourque on the PensBurgh podcast last week, and now have a formal review of his book. If These Walls Could Talk: Pittsburgh Penguins: Stories from the Pittsburgh Penguins Ice, Locker Room, and Press Box is a fun read, and a definite recommend. The Old 2-9’er talks about his life from the very beginning, going from growing up outside Boston to escape to Canada to play junior hockey and get away from an abusive father, going undrafted but persevering to make it to the NHL. It’s a whirlwind journey and he doesn’t sugarcoat anything.

Naturally, the book heats up as Bourque gets to what he openly calls “the best times of my life” in the early 1990s when the Penguins were competing for Stanley Cup. Colorful characters like Mario Lemieux, Kevin Stevens, Jaromir Jagr and Bryan Trottier come to life through Bourque’s perspective on the journey they all took to the top of the mountain together.

But then, from the top of the mountain, there’s only one way down. Literally in Bourque’s case as he details an accident he had in Utah where he was climbing a mountain (alone no less, though with friends nearby) and fell, breaking his neck in five places, both cheekbones and his forehead among other injuries suffered.

Again though, Bourque would persevere and make it back to the NHL again, but his playing days were numbered. He would yet again have to re-invent himself, becoming a radio announcer with the Pens, a position he’s held since 2003. Like the franchise itself, Bourque has had a crazy journey that’s endured the highest of highs and some really challenging, difficult times as well. This book is a good reminder of that and the endurance needed in life, if you’re a Pens’ fan put it on your list to read. You will be entertained and enjoy it, I assure you!

With the publisher’s permission, here’s an excerpt from the book. I chose to make it about the 1991 Stanley Cup Final, one of the coolest passages around.

Heading into the 1991 Stanley Cup Final, we respected the North Stars but definitely felt like we were the better team. They made the playoffs with a sub-.500 record and, somehow, got hotter than hell and pulled off a bunch of upsets in the playoffs. When the series began on May 15, we were feeling good about ourselves. Really good.

Then, of course, we lose Game 1. Our fans were upset, but we really weren’t. Honestly, we were so comfortable in that position. We probably wouldn’t have known what to do if we had won the first game of a series. But we had an issue in all those Game 1 losses: we gave up a ton of goals. We played a loose game defensively and lost 5–4. We fell into bad habits early in all those series. It was our instinct just to see how many goals we could score and, quite hon­estly, that was good enough on a lot of nights. There’s firepower, and then there’s the kind of firepower we could produce. Only when we got in trouble did we really start to bear down defensively.

Game 2 was a different story and gave us the greatest goal of Mario’s career. I’m proud to say I assisted on it, even if I made the degree of difficulty a little greater. We were up 2–1 in the second period, but the North Stars were starting to press us. We weren’t comfortable just yet. And even though we absolutely thought we were the better team, we couldn’t lose that game. Fall down 2–0 with the first two games at home and you’re pretty much screwed.

Tommy made a save and the puck caromed off his pads, like always. You always had to be aware of that with Tommy. His pads were a little different, and off them, it was like the puck was pretty much bouncing off boards. So, I corralled the rebound. Then, I heard a noise. I knew exactly what that noise meant. The big guy wanted the puck.

Mario had different kinds of yells, and we all knew them. Normally, he would give you a certain yell. It was his way of telling you, “You have time, just give me a crisp pass.” That was the ordinary Mario yell. But every now and then, you’d get a different one. It was more of a loud yip. Short. Loud. More direct. That’s when you knew to get him the fucking puck. So, I heard this noise, and, even though we were in our own territory, I knew to give him the puck as quickly as possible. I only needed to hear it once. It was different than any noise I had ever heard him make on the ice. He really, really wanted this puck. So, what did I do? I got him the puck. It wasn’t a good pass. In fact, I never looked at him. I had a feel for where he was, so I just delivered it in his direction. Remember, Mario had the longest reach of just about anyone who ever played, so I knew if I got the puck somewhere in the 412 area code, he was going to be fine. I just threw it in his direction. The pass was well behind him, but it didn’t matter. He never even broke stride. He reached back and gathered the puck. It didn’t matter that the pass I threw him was a grenade that was almost out of reach. What happened next was hockey history. I was on my way to the bench after I made the pass, but I paused for a second and got a good look at what hap­pened, because I knew he was about to do something special. He never disappointed you in that way. I don’t know what it was, and I actually don’t think he could even tell you why those moments popped up. But every now and then, Mario just felt like putting on a show. I truly believe he had no control over it. For whatever reason, it just happened organically. That was one of those moments. He was absolutely flying through the neutral zone and two defensemen were left in his way, Neil Wilkinson and Shawn Chambers. Those poor bastards never had a chance. Earlier in the game, Mario had a similar rush and they shut him down. It wasn’t about to happen twice. He put the puck right between Chambers’ legs and blew through both of them. Then, for reasons I’ll never understand, Jon Casey tried to poke check Mario. He kept trying to do it all series. Good luck. Mario went to the backhand and that was that. Never

in my life have I, nor will I ever again, see a goal like that. Time stood still for just a moment. On the bench, all we could do was laugh and say, “Holy shit.” That’s it. We had nothing else to say.

Everyone has their favorite Mario goal, and there have been so many:

• The day in Quebec when he carried players on his back and scored

• The day he saved our season in overtime in Washington in 1988

• Going between Ray Bourque’s legs and beating Andy Moog

• The Game 1 winner in 1992 against the Hawks

• His breakaway against the Flyers in 1997 in what we thought was his last home shift

• The Canada Cup clincher in 1987

Hell, there are hundreds of others to pick from, because no one scored highlight-reel goals like the big guy. Not even close. But that goal was special, both for the remarkable athleticism it required and because of the timing. Game 2, Stanley Cup Final. It’s a close game, we’re in a little bit of trouble, and we desperately need to win. And he pulls off a goal like that. Give me a break.

At that moment, I truly believed we were going to win that series, and I wasn’t alone. We all believed it. If we were playing a powerful team from the Campbell Conference like the Blackhawks or Oilers, it would have been a different story. But we knew we were better than Minnesota.

Of course, there was always some drama associated with us. Game 3 was back in Minnesota, and Mario wasn’t on the bench when the game started. His back had gone out on him. Now, this was pretty typical. It happened all the time, in fact. His back was always a problem, and, on many occasions, he didn’t take the morning skate or the pregame skate. But more often than not, the trainers would get him loosened up to the point that he could play. Mario at 50 percent was still better than anyone else, so we weren’t so worried. About five minutes into the game, there was still no Mario. We kind of looked and said, “Oh shit. He’s not coming out tonight.” And he didn’t. We lost the game 3–1. We didn’t play poorly, but it wasn’t in the cards on that night. No big deal, though. I wouldn’t say we were rattled or anything like that. We knew Mario would probably be good for Game 4 and we had been down like this before. But then we got pissed.

The next day, all these stories come out about the North Stars planning their parade route in the Twin Cities. Seriously. The Twins had won the World Series in 1987 and they were talking having about a similar parade. Chris Dahlquist was a very humble guy and a former Penguin. He was on the North Stars then, and even he made some comments about the parade route. I couldn’t believe it. I was totally stunned. We weren’t the kind of group who was impacted very often by a little trash talk. Whatever. We really didn’t mind that kind of stuff. But I can honestly tell you that this situ­ation totally offended us. It really did. So, after practice the next day, what happens? Bryan Trottier literally takes the article about the parade and tapes it on the wall in our locker room. Guys were talking about their championship rings and all this crap. You want to anger Mario Lemieux? Ron Francis? Paul Coffey? Kevin Stevens? Mark Recchi? Joey Mullen? Larry Murphy? Jaromir Jagr? Tommy Barrasso? Come on. Be smarter than that.