Pavel Bure's skating, speed and goal-scoring IQ separated him from the rest in his rookie class. So, too, did his experience.
By the time Bure got to the National Hockey League in 1991 he had already won gold for the Soviet Union in both the World Junior Championship (1989) and the World Championship (1990), and had played three full professional seasons for his Central Red Army team -- scoring 35 goals as a 19-year-old.
"At the World Juniors I was voted the best forward and some guys that participated in the World Juniors, they already played and played well in the NHL," Bure told NHL.com from Moscow. "I thought to myself, 'I can score more goals than those guys so I should be OK.'"
Bure needed just one NHL season to prove he was better than that. He won the Calder Trophy in 1992 after scoring 60 points in 65 games for the Vancouver Canucks.
If it weren't for chronic knee injuries that forced him into early retirement, Bure may have reached milestones that transform players into legends.
Turns out, he didn't have to. He will earn his legendary status Monday night at the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Seven years after calling it a career at 34, Bure, a three-time NHL single-season goal-scoring champion, will get his day in Toronto -- and bring to an end the raging debates about his Hall of Fame credentials -- when he gets enshrined with fellow Class of 2012 inductees Joe Sakic, Mats Sundin and Adam Oates.
To many, Bure's induction was simply a matter of time. He scored 437 goals and had 779 points in 702 career NHL games.
"Pavel sold the game just on his skill set alone," Mike Keenan, who coached Bure in Vancouver and Florida, told NHL.com. "People would come to watch just him play. I have coached a lot of great players and Pavel was my wife's favorite player. She would say, 'Every time he gets the puck I have to stand up.' I said, 'Well, you're not alone.'
"He would have scored 600 goals easy."
Bure scored 254 goals in parts of seven seasons with the Canucks. He reached 60 goals in both 1992-93 and 1993-94 and came back from a pair of injury-ravaged seasons to score 51 goals in 1997-98, his final season in the Pacific Northwest.
He quickly earned the nickname "The Russian Rocket."
"There were smoother skaters … but Pavel just had this burst of speed that was just so quick," former Canucks captain Trevor Linden told NHL.com. "It was almost like he could fly, it was incredible. Some guys are fast and some guys are explosive -- Pavel was explosive and fast. He chopped at the ice a bit, but he just exploded out of the blocks. It was just so powerful."
"Pavel was the game-breaker," former Canucks goalie Kay Whitmore told NHL.com. "His goals were just huge."
"I had a great time there," he said. "It was my first NHL game, my first NHL goal and I played seven years there. I feel great about it now. It was a great time for me. We went to the Cup Final [in 1994], I met lots of good guys. The fans and the guys I played with, I only have good things to remember."
Whitmore, who played with Bure from 1992-95, said the Russian star never brought his off-ice issues into the dressing room or onto the ice.
"I think it was separated," Whitmore said. "Either that or I was really out to lunch. He was a good teammate. He didn't socialize a lot all the time, but he was never a distraction. All the guys liked him."
And they all marveled at his talent, because Bure was arguably the best player in Canucks history by the time he left Vancouver.
"I think he was a lot of things in Canucks history," Linden said. "He was the most dynamic. It seemed when he was at the top of his game here in Vancouver that he almost scored at will. The back-to-back 60-goal seasons were just incredible. He just made it look so easy at times."
Keenan said the only reason his Rangers were able to contain Bure just enough in the 1994 Stanley Cup Final was because of defenseman Brian Leetch. Bure still had three goals and five assists in the seven-game series, and he missed most of Game 3 after getting kicked out due to a high hit on Jay Wells.
"It wasn't a great deal of strategy," Keenan said. "We knew he was a threat every time and we adjusted our game plan every time he was on the ice."
Calgary, Dallas and Toronto didn't have Leetch -- so they couldn't contain Bure, who torched the Flames, Stars and Maple Leafs for a combined 13 goals and 10 assists in the Canucks' run to the '94 Cup Final. He had six goals and two assists in five games against Dallas and four goals and three assists in five games against Toronto.
Bure's most memorable goal, and one of the most memorable in Canucks history, was his double-overtime winner in Game 7 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals at Calgary. He beat Mike Vernon on a breakaway, using the same move that didn't work earlier in the game.
"A lot gets lost before the Final -- how he ran roughshod over Dallas, and with Toronto, I would guess Felix Potvin still has nightmares from that series because Pavel was just ridiculous," Whitmore said. "You get to that Final series, it took the thoroughbreds to slow him."
The first sign of the knee problems that led to Bure's early retirement happened early in the 1995-96 season. He tore the ACL in his right knee on Nov. 9 and was done for the season.
Bure was debilitated by a neck injury the following season, but scored 51 goals in 1997-98. However, he suffered another right knee injury shortly after being dealt to Florida, missed another three weeks and would later be lost for the season due to more surgery.
"At that point it was just another surgery, but I had to get over it," Bure said. "I knew I had to do what I can to come back as soon as I can, through the rehab, and we'd see what happened."
What happened was Bure came back and won the Rocket Richard Trophy in both 1999-2000 and 2000-01 with a combined 117 goals.
"I didn't expect to score so many goals, especially those days," Bure said. "Impressive? It is, yeah, I guess."
It was also Bure's last real hurrah.
Bure was dealt to the Rangers on March 18, 2002, a victim of the Panthers' cost-cutting measures. He was in the third year of a five-year, $47.5 million contract and Florida was one of the worst teams in the NHL.
"You can't replace a player like that," said Keenan, Florida's coach at the time. "I remember going to Florida and the owners said, 'We have to trade Pavel.' I was like, 'Trade Pavel? What? He is our best player.' The owner said it was for economic reasons, and I was like, 'Oh my god.' I mean, he was our centerpiece. You can't replace a guy like that. You can't."
Bure was ecstatic to escape to New York. He compared the popularity and the history of the Rangers to that of the Central Red Army team.
It just didn't work out for him in the Big Apple.
Bure suffered another knee injury during a preseason game in 2002 and later needed another knee surgery that forced him to sit out the entire 2003-04 season.
He never played again.
"When I got to the Rangers I hurt my knee a couple of times and I did a couple of little surgeries and they basically told me I had no more ACL," Bure said. "To do another surgery, 20 percent I would get better, 30 the same and the rest worse. I love hockey but there was stuff to do after hockey. I don't want to be in a wheelchair. I wanted to be able to walk."
Bure will walk up to the podium at the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday night and give a speech at his own induction ceremony.
Turns out, he's a legend after all -- milestones aren't necessary.
"I think what you have to do with players that get cut short due to injury, you have to look at what their body of work would have been like if they had been healthy because their time was so short when they were brilliant," Linden said. "Pavel was one of those guys that had Hall of Fame skills. His career got cut short, but people remember him being a Hall of Fame player."
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