Glen Ringdal's job suddenly got much easier on Oct. 31, 1991. That was the day the Vancouver Canucks signed Pavel Bure. At long last Ringdal, the Canucks' marketing director, had someone to market.
Asked to name the players who preceded Bure (rhymes with HOO-ray) on Vancouver's list of stars, Ringdal answers tactfully. "Harold Snepsts was very popular," he says, referring to the glowering, unibrowed defenseman who played 12 years for the Canucks. "The fans went crazy when he scored a goal."
And? "Stan Smyl was a crowd favorite." Smyl, a Canuck from 1978-79 to '90-91, was a bent-nosed forward from northern Alberta beloved for his work ethic and grit. "And of course Trevor is very popular." Trevor Linden, a more skilled version of Smyl, is Vancouver's current captain.
Finally, the tact gives way to candor. "I guess there were no real stars before Pavel, who holds the audience captive every time the puck is on his stick," says Ringdal. "The fans liked Harold. What you have with Pavel is more of an idolization, like you get with certain musical artists. Like you got with Elvis."
Hyperbole? Two thousand people attended Bure's first practice in Vancouver, on Nov. 3, 1991. The freebie 8-by 10-inch glossies of Bure that the Canucks once distributed before home games now sell for up to $25 on the memorabilia market. There was such a crush for the pictures, says Ringdal, that "the people handing them out were getting mauled."
Vancouverites could hardly be blamed for overreacting. They were superstar virgins. Citizens of this coniferous jewel of a city, which has a major league team only in hockey, had never seen Bure's like in a Canuck uniform: a game breaker, a dangerous, attacking player capable of scoring from anywhere without help from anyone. "He can take the puck from behind our net, carry it down the ice and score," says Linden. "That's rare."
That's Bure. With 24 goals at the end of last week, he was on a pace to score 81 this season. In their 22-year, Stanley Cup-less history, the Canucks have never had a 50-goal scorer. Until Bure won last year's Calder Trophy as the league's best rookie, no Vancouver player had ever won an NHL postseason award. Linden, the Canucks' former glamour-puss, now gets letters like this one:
You've always been my favorite Canuck, so could you get me Pavel's autograph?
"Humbling," says Linden. Overwhelming, admits Bure, who has hired someone to deal with the sacks of fan mail. The Russian Rocket, as Bure has been christened locally, is seen all over town. There he is, decked out to resemble James Dean, in a fashion spread in Western Living magazine, which gushed, "We think [Dean's] Little Boy Lost good looks have been reincarnated in Pavel Bure." And there he is in Canuck ads in bus shelters and on billboards: Where Linden's photo once appeared, there is now a picture of Bure, a rocket on his back, with a caption reading, WE HAVE LIFTOFF.