If you're going to play minor league hockey, said Chris Bourque, Hershey, Pa., is the place to be. The fans are loyal and passionate; the team's arena, Giant Center, is among the best in the league; and both the organization and its players expect excellence.
The 24-year-old Bourque loves all of those things about playing for the Hershey Bears.
But he'd rather be playing in the National Hockey League.
For the fourth time in his five-year pro hockey career, Bourque and the Bears are back in the Calder Cup finals. As the top minor league affiliate of the NHL's Washington Capitals, they'll face the Texas Stars for the American Hockey League crown in a best-of-7 series that begins tomorrow night in Hershey.
The left winger from Boxford is hoping, however, that this will be his last go-round with the Bears and that he can land himself a full-time gig somewhere in the NHL for the 2010-11 season — and beyond.
"I try to worry about what I can control, and that's playing good hockey," said Bourque. "I really hope to get a shot (in the NHL) next season; if not with Washington, then with another team.
"That doesn't mean I don't want to be here; I love the organization and the guys here. But if I want to play in the NHL and if that means moving to another city and starting over, so be it."
As a restricted free agent at season's end — meaning the Capitals will make Bourque a "qualifying offer" so as to retain its negotiating rights with him — Bourque doesn't have much leverage. Short of another NHL team signing him to an offer sheet (which Washington can choose to match and keep him, or not match and lose him), the 5-foot-8, 180-pound speedster has to hope his performance on the ice and leadership skills have done enough to merit a full-time NHL job.