By Phil Stacey
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.
And those numbers have been impressive. After being lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins on waivers at the start of the 2009-10 season and spending 20 games in the NHL, he was re-claimed on waivers by Washington and spent 49 games in the AHL, piling up 22 goals and 70 points.
He's carried that over into Hershey's playoff run. Now regarded as one of the team's veteran leaders, Bourque is just one point off the AHL playoff scoring lead with seven goals, 16 assists and 23 points in just 15 games as the Bears have ripped off 12 postseason wins thus far.
Should his team win it all, Bourque could be in line for playoff MVP honors.
"It's definitely been a crazy ride this year, a little bit of a learning process," admitted Bourque, who has won two previous Calder Cups with Hershey (2006 and 2009). "It was a bit of a whirlwind getting used to new places and all. It wasn't the easiest thing to go through, but I'm a pro athlete and it's part of the game.
"I had a blast while I was in Pittsburgh, but I was happy to get back with Washington. It's been an unbelievable season so far, and I hope we can end it on a good note."
In hindsight, his time with the Penguins — where he sat and watched from the stands for the first time as a pro before being inserted into the lineup regularly — was a big step in Bourque's development. He adjusted to the speed and level of play in the world's greatest hockey league, so much so that he's used it as fuel in his quest to return to the bigs.
"I wasn't going to sulk (when he returned to the AHL). I knew I had to just get my nose to the grindstone and put up good numbers, and I'd get another chance sometime," said Bourque, who has been skating with center Mathieu Perreault and right wing Jay Beagle. "I try to use that to my advantage down here and really help out the team."
In his Hershey career, Bourque has scored an even 300 points in 319 games.
As Hershey guns for its 11th Calder Cup title in the AHL's 72-year history, they've been going over the Stars' game films and video in preparation for the series that begins tomorrow. Bourque expects a tough series, what with Texas having two hot goalies (Brent Krahn and Matt Climie), some big, physical defensemen and skilled forwards.
"They're in the finals for a reason; I definitely expect a tough series," said Bourque. "I feel like we haven't played a month (May 22, to be exact), so I'm really looking forward for the series to start."
Chris Bourque's career scoring stats with the Hershey Bears:
* Calder Cup finals still to be played