‘Do it for Luc’: How Luc Bourdon’s legacy left an impact on the greatest team in Canucks history
6 months ago
The Canucks found themselves at the centre of another PR snafu earlier this month when they announced the jersey numbers for the three players they signed on July 1st. Among those players was former Pittsburgh Penguin Ian Cole, who had unknowingly selected a number last worn by the late Luc Bourdon.
Cole quickly issued a statement through the team explaining that he was not aware of the number’s significance, and had simply chosen to wear 28 because it was the number he had carried with him throughout his NHL career.
The Canucks, as is the case for many other teams, have generally kept the numbers of players who died tragically while on the team’s roster out of circulation. No Canuck has worn Bourdon’s #28 since his passing, nor that of Rick Rypien, who was technically a Winnipeg Jet at the time of his death, but played his final NHL game as a Canuck before tragically taking his own life in the summer of 2011. Wayne Maki’s #11 was also never issued again after he succumbed to brain cancer in 1974 until Mark Messier joined the team in 1997. Messier’s decision to sport #11 against the protest of Maki’s family kicked off his infamous tenure as the team’s captain.
The team’s decision to issue the number was clearly an honest mistake, by the organization more so than the player. While it’s fair to say it was an obvious blunder on their part, it was clearly one borne out of carelessness rather than malice.
The same cannot be said of the scores of fans who flooded the internet this week with statements implying Cole’s decision was an overreaction, or worse, that Bourdon’s brief hockey career did not meet the necessary standard of quality for his passing at the age of 21 to merit acknowledgement.
Time passes, and people forget. The 15th anniversary of Bourdon’s passing came on May 29th of this year and there is now an entire generation of Canucks fans who never watched Bourdon play and don’t understand his importance to the history of hockey in New Brunswick and of the most successful era in team history.
It can be easy to forget that Luc was more than just a hockey player. He was a human being with a doting mother, loving girlfriend, a community full of admirers back in his home province, and countless friends and teammates across the NHL whose lives he impacted.
At first, Bourdon’s death drew international headlines. Then a year or two went by, and his name would only come up on the anniversary of his passing, or occasionally when the team had a run of success. Until eventually most of the players who had skated alongside Bourdon had retired and he became just another piece of Canucks ephemera.
With the years that have passed, Bourdon’s significance has retreated from the minds of hockey fans, and the full story of his life and place in Canucks history has never been fully recounted.
The perseverance and character of NHL players are so often lauded that these descriptors have become clichés in the eyes of hockey fans, but in the process of conducting the research for this article I was able to learn just how much they applied to Bourdon during his brief time on earth. He was a truly special young man with an inspiring story, one that I am honoured to share with all of you.
Bourdon was born on February 16th, 1987, in Lameque, New Brunswick, to parents Suzanne Boucher and Luc Bourdon, Sr. Raised by a single mother in the nearby fishing of Shippagan, New Brunswick, Bourdon’s path to the NHL was met with adversity from an early age.
Shippagan is a small community of about 3000 residents, roughly 99% of whom are francophone, and had produced only one other NHL draft pick before Bourdon was selected by the Canucks in 2005. Yanick Degrace was taken in the fifth round of the 1991 NHL Entry Draft by the Philadelphia Flyers, and also died tragically in a motor vehicle accident in 2001.
At the age of nine, Bourdon was confined to a wheelchair as a result of juvenile arthritis, which kept him off the ice for an entire season. Just a few years later, he had overcome the affliction with the right combination of drugs and physiotherapy and was playing high-level minor hockey in New Brunswick. His skill, size, and physical tools were enough to catch the eye of the QMJHL’s Val-d’Or Foreurs, who selected him third overall in 2003 QMJHL draft.
The selection prompted the 16-year old to move to Val-D’Or, away from the mother that agent Kent Hughes would later describe as the “guiding light” of his life. Up until that point, Suzanne had attended every single one of her son’s games. Keeping that up would be impossible now, but she still used up all her vacation time to travel and watch Luc compete for the Foreurs.
Botchford, Jason. The Province. 06/30/2008.
After a promising start with the Foreurs as a 16-year-old, Bourdon finished his draft-eligible season tied with teammate Kris Letang for second in scoring among first-time draft-eligible QMJHL defencemen, just ahead of future Olympic gold medal-winner Marc-Édouard Vlasic.
After an appearance in the CHL Top Prospects Game, Bourdon entered the 2005 NHL Entry Draft as the 6th-ranked North American skater by NHL Central Scouting. With all five players ranked ahead of him off the board, Bourdon’s selection by the Vancouver Canucks at 10th overall was considered good value at the time, though it came with some controversy. The Los Angeles Kings nabbed future two-time Selke winner Anze Kopitar with the following pick, who was an immediate difference-maker for the Kings in his rookie season. The stigma of being selected with the pick before such an elite talent would follow Bourdon for the rest of his brief career.
It’s easy to forget now that Bourdon looked poised to make a similar impact as an 18-year-old. After nearly making the Canucks out of training camp, Bourdon returned to the Foreurs before being traded to the Moncton Wildcats. He kept up a similar pace after the trade, but was sidelined ten games into his stint with the Wildcats by a severe ankle injury.
Doctors told him it would take him two years to fully recover. Once again facing the prospect of missing significant time due to health issues, Bourdon was back to 100-% in only half that time. He returned in time for the 2006 QMJHL playoffs to help the Wildcats finish as runner-up in the Memorial Cup.
Upon completing the 2005-06 regular season, Bourdon signed his first pro contract, a three-year deal worth $850,000. After a strong training camp, he earned a spot on the team’s opening roster for the following season, but returned to the QMJHL after nine games.
It was something of an inauspicious start, as Bourdon was held pointless across those nine games. But he did manage to make a noticeable impact at least once, stopping Alex Ovechkin on a breakaway in an eventual 3-2 shootout win against the Capitals on October 26, 2006. You can watch the video here, in all its first-year-of-YouTube glory. Ovi is the blob skating towards the blob in front of the net, Canucks starter Roberto Luongo. Bourdon is, of course, the other notable blob, who dives to knock the puck away.
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The 2006-07 season would prove chaotic for Bourdon, who would play for five different teams over the span of just six months. After returning to Moncton to begin his QMJHL season, he was selected to represent Canada at the 2007 IIHF World Junior Championships, where he won a second consecutive gold medal. He was promptly traded to Cape Breton in January, where he was relegated to a lesser role on a deep Screaming Eagles blue line. Upon completing the season, the Canucks sent him to the AHL to play 5 playoff games with the Manitoba Moose.
Bourdon began the following season with the Moose, but earned several call-ups over the course of his first full season of professional hockey. He scored his first NHL goal on November 16, 2007, against the Minnesota Wild. It can be seen here, in quality that somehow makes the last video look like 4K HD:
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He finished the 2007-08 campaign with 27 appearances for the Canucks, and another 41 with the Moose. While he finished the season with modest point totals, Bourdon had adjusted rapidly to the pro game and looked ready to take another step towards becoming an impact, everyday NHLer.
In the early afternoon of May 29, 2008, on a remote stretch of Highway 113, Luc Bourdon was riding his motorcycle towards his hometown of Shippagan, N.B, when a 70 km/h gust of wind caused him to lose control of the vehicle. His longtime girlfriend, Charlene Ward, followed behind him in her car, and watched helplessly as he veered over the center line and collided head-on with an oncoming tractor-trailer. He died instantly.
Reckless driving was not considered to be a factor in the crash. Bourdon was newly licensed to operate a motorcycle, and had purchased the brand new Suzuki GSX-R1000 only three weeks earlier. Police speculated that Bourdon’s inexperience may have played a role in his death, and the incident prompted then-Canucks general manager Mike Gillis to announce new policies and educational programs regarding motorcycle riding and other risky endeavours.
A pair of makeshift memorials were erected in the immediate aftermath of Bourdon’s death: one outside GM Place and another at the crash site, where mourners placed a single red rose, a yellow cloth butterfly, and a photo with the inscription, “Au revoir, Luc.”
Tributes poured in from across the NHL as players, teammates, executives, and fans expressed their sadness at the news of Bourdon’s death. Just hours after the crash, the AHL observed a moment of silence prior to a Calder Cup Final game between the Chicago Wolves and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Two nights later, the NHL also observed a moment of silence ahead of Game 4 of the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals between the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins.
Bourdon’s friend and teammate Kris Letang and Penguins’ captain Sidney Crosby on Bourdon’s death, Vancouver Sun. 05/31/2008.
On Monday, June 2, over 2000 mourners packed into Rhéal-Cormier Centre in Shippagan for Bourdon’s memorial.
Canucks players Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler, Kevin Bieksa, Jeff Cowan, Curtis Sanford, and Taylor Pyatt were all in attendance, as were coach Alain Vigneault, general manager Mike Gillis, and assistant general manager Steve Tambellini, who gave the eulogy. Canucks captain Markus Naslund was unable to attend, but wrote a statement that was delivered by Tambellini in which he discussed Bourdon’s growth as a player and as a person.
Brach, Bal. Vancouver Sun. 06/03/2008
Back in Vancouver, fans had already raised over $12,000 for Canuck Place thanks in large part to an online campaign encouraging fans to donate $28 as a tribute to the late defenceman.
During one of the last games of the 2007-08 season, fans Candice McFarlane and Tommy Deranja won Bourdon’s jersey as part of the team’s “sweater off my back” night. Upon the news of Bourdon’s death, they returned the jersey to the Canucks, so that it could be given to his mother.
She draped it over his coffin at the memorial, underneath a stuffed toy monkey given to him by Charlene to keep him company while on the road.
The two had met in high school, and had plans to marry. Bourdon was an avid guitar player, and a song he had written and recorded for Charlene about the monkey was played during the service. He also wrote love poems to Charlene, one of which she read aloud as part of the memorial.
Botchford, Jason. The Province. June 3, 2008.
While Bourdon’s tragic death left his NHL potential unrealized, back home in Shippagan, he was already a superstar.
The late Jason Botchford discussed Bourdon’s impact with several of Shippagan’s residents in a May 30, 2008 article for The Province:
He came home to a hero’s welcome when he brought his gold medal to Shippagan after the 2006 world junior hockey championship. Crowds of people came out to the local arena on one day to see the medal and on another day just to see Bourdon skate.
He had lived in Shippagan with his mom during the offseason since he first left home at age 16. Playing in the NHL hadn’t changed that. He is part of the local folklore, a legend.
“The town is in shock,” said Shippagan mayor Jonathan Roch Noel. “Everyone knew him. Everyone was a fan of his. People were so excited when he first made the NHL. It was incredible.
Bourdon had a deep connection to his hometown, and made an effort to leave a material impact on the community as well as cultural one. Upon signing his first pro contract, Bourdon made an anonymous $10,000 donation to the local minor hockey association to buy equipment for kids whose families had been priced out of an increasingly expensive sport.
Several tributes to Bourdon continued to pour out, even several years after his death. He was inducted into the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame in 2011, and In December of 2012, the community of Shippagan erected a statue of Bourdon outside his childhood arena. He was also honoured by the Midget AAA league of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, where the Luc Bourdon Trophy is awarded every year to the league’s best defenseman.
Bourdon also played an indirect but important role in ushering in the greatest era in franchise history. Bourdon’s death came just at the cusp of the Canucks’ transition from the disappointment of the early post-West Coast Express years into a powerhouse that won back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies and reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2011.
That era began with a 6-0 blowout against the Calgary Flames on opening night, after the Canucks honoured Bourdon in a pre-game ceremony. Roberto Luongo and Alex Burrows presented Bourdon’s family with the jersey he wore in his final game, and musician Tom Cochrane delivered a performance of his song “Big League” which tells the eerily similar fictional story of a young hockey player lost to a car accident.
As the team’s most prominent francophone, Bourdon was immediately drawn to Burrows at his first camp and the two became close friends. Burrows’ wife Nancy was also close with Charlene Ward, who moved into their house for a time after Bourdon’s death. The two remained in touch, and Charlene was a bridesmaid at their wedding in 2010.
Burrows scored twice that night, miming a bow-and-arrow in celebration after each goal.
The celebration was a favourite of Bourdon’s during his time in junior and with the Moose, and Burrows began using it after his death as a tribute to his fallen friend.
It has since become an enduring symbol of that era of Canucks hockey, as Burrows continued to do the celebration after a number of key goals, including the one that sent the Canucks to round 2 of the 2009 playoffs.
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Burrows would also do the celebration one last time during the festivities surrounding his induction into the Ring of Honour in 2019.
He would later tell NHL.com in the lead-up to the 2011 Stanley Cup Final that he thought about Bourdon before every game, during the national anthems. He also stated that he had intended to mime the bow-and-arrow after scoring the legendary “dragon slayer” goal in Game 7 of the first round of the 2011 playoffs against the Chicago Blackhawks, but was mobbed by teammates before he could get the opportunity.
“I wanted to get past the first guy and maybe shoot a couple into the upper deck, but I got clotheslined by the guys and couldn’t.”
Bourdon would have been 35 this year, a grizzled veteran, assuming he remained in the NHL.
Under different circumstances, he could have been gearing up for his own induction into the Ring of Honour.
Or perhaps he would have been traded elsewhere as the Canucks loaded up for a playoff run, and left to grow into a top-4 role with another franchise.
Either way, Bourdon seemed destined for an NHL career, and a long one at that.
He was the kind of sweet, small-town superstar from a humble background that the NHL has consistently constructed its self-image around, but seldom actually produces. He was a man who had already overcome great hardships through perseverance even at his young age. But his life and career were cut tragically short, and we’re left wondering what could have been.
In the aftermath of the 2011 Western Conference Final, Ben Kuzma caught up with then-Canucks assistant coach Rick Bowness for an article inspired by a homemade sign a fan had brought with them. The broadcast had lingered on it for just a moment, before cutting away. It said, “Do it for Luc”.
“It brought a tear to my eye,” said Bowness. “Luc was a wonderful kid. Rollie [Melanson] and I are from the Maritimes and we understand his upbringing in the neighbourhood and the tight family atmosphere. It showed itself. A wonderful character kid with a tremendous work ethic. Would he have been good enough to play on this team today? In my estimation, definitely. He had made huge strides.
“He was growing up as a man and as a hockey player.”
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