“Drafted here, spent seven years, maybe?” forward Chris Bourque said, his mind wandering. “I think that’s about right.”
He was correct. After signing a two-year, two-way deal at league minimum this summer, the only Hershey player ever with three Calder Cups returned for a seventh season with Washington and its American Hockey League affiliate. Bourque has spent the majority of his professional career in the minors, the 14th-leading scorer in Bears history at 393 points, just 51 career NHL games to his biography.
Now, poised for his preseason debut in Tuesday’s road trip to Boston, Bourque’s connections are scattered across the organization. He was there when Washington switched its AHL affiliation from the Portland Pirates to Chocolate Town. He skated on Hershey teams with Brooks Laich, Jay Beagle, Karl Alzner, John Carlson, Braden Holtby and Dmitry Orlov. He appeared in Washington alongside Olie Kolzig, currently the team’s professional development coach, and Matt Bradley, now a part-time scout, and Brent Johnson, a television analyst. After the Capitals put him on waivers before the 2009-10 season and Pittsburgh claimed him, Bourque was teammates with Brooks Orpik there, then later with fellow camp attendees Carter Camper and Max Sauve in Providence.
And that’s without mentioning two tours in the Swiss-A League, two more in the KHL and last season’s 66-point campaign with the Hartford Wolf Pack, who bounced Hershey from the postseason in the second round.
“I think everyone’s ultimate goal is to play in the NHL,” Bourque said. “My dream of being an NHL player isn’t over, whether that means I start in Hershey or play in Hershey, the ultimate goal is still to get to the NHL. Being in the American League, there’s probably not a better place to play than Hershey. If that happens, and I go down there, I’m real excited and real fortunate to be able to play for them again.”
If and when he does – a crowded top six in Washington likely tickets Bourque for the Bears’ top line – the 29-year-old should receive a hero’s welcome. Even when Giant Center booed his return with Hartford, Bourque jerseys reportedly dotted the stands. During their time together, Beagle recalled postgame auctions when Bourque’s sweater routinely sold “for $1,000, $1,500, and the rest of us [were] going for $500 or $300.”
“Probably the most popular [player in Hershey],” Beagle continued. “Most popular, I would say. Fans love him. He’s a fan favorite. It’s just exciting to watch.”
Projected to skate on the top line at TD Garden with NHL roster locks Justin Williams and Andre Burakovsky, the former second-round pick will certainly have the chance to prove himself. He’s never logged more than 20 NHL games in a single season and his career-high with Washington was a one-goal, eight-game tour in 2008-09. But like every pending free agent, he checked depth charts, weighed destinations and discussed fits with his family.
Eventually, the summer led him back to Washington.
“I’m not going to say I haven’t had great opportunities,” Bourque said. “I’ve played in three different organizations – here, Pittsburgh and Boston. For whatever reason it was, it never seemed to stick and work out. I take obviously the blame for a lot of that, but I think there’s areas I can contribute and help the team out where I wasn’t necessarily put in the best situation to do that.
“It just seems like, for me, it hasn’t all come together at the right time where I’m playing great hockey and in the perfect situation. Sometimes that’s what happens. It’s professional hockey. Everyone’s trying to stick at the NHL level, and it’s hard. It’s the greatest league in the world for a reason. I’m 29 here, and I’m still trying to get there. And I’ll still try to get there until the day I stop playing hockey.”