Bourque savors NHL opportunity

Former Wisconsin men's hockey star has opened the 2005 season with the Chicago Blackhawks

CHICAGO — The last memory most Badger fans have of Rene Bourque was seeing him on one knee after a heart-breaking overtime loss to Maine kept Wisconsin from reaching the 2004 NCAA Frozen Four.

Fellow captain Dan Boeser had an arm around the senior as the two consoled each other after their last game in Badger uniforms. (See image)

Bourque, who scored 57 goals and 97 points in 153 games with UW from 2000-04, was a free agent. With his time wearing cardinal and white over, who could have known where his life would lead him?

Two years later, Bourque still remembers that loss to Maine as one of the toughest moments of his hockey career.

"We lost to Maine in overtime and that hurt — it's probably the worst loss I have ever suffered because my four years at Wisconsin were all over in a flash," Bourque said. "But I just worked really hard after that."

The 23-year-old worked hard enough, in fact, to find himself on the Chicago Blackhawks' roster to open the 2005-06 NHL season last week.

"It's been really exciting. I'm living my dream," Bourque said after Chicago's 3-2 loss to Columbus Sunday night at the United Center here. "I've worked really hard to get here and now I'm here and it's kind of surreal."

Bourque was signed by the Blackhawks in July of 2004, but with the NHL season cancelled, he went to work with the Norfolk Admirals of the American Hockey League. But that suited him just fine. Actually, the lockout was probably to his benefit.

"I think that, with no NHL last year … I wasn't thinking about getting called up or anything like that," Bourque said. "I was just focusing on playing hard and playing good in the American Hockey League. We had a good team and it was a really good league last year with all the NHL players down there too."

All that Bourque did in his time with Norfolk was score 33 goals and notch 60 points in 78 games, earning the AHL Rookie of the Year award. He also earned a spot in the league's All-Star game and won the hardest shot contest, blazing a shot just .2 ticks shy of 100 miles per hour.

So when Trent Yawney — Norfolk's head coach last year — was named the Blackhawks' head coach to start this season, Bourque received an opportunity to make the NHL roster and took advantage of it.

"I just had a really good year [in Norfolk]. Trent Yawney coached down there and really gave me confidence," Bourque said. "Then he ended up getting the job up here so it worked out well."

The Lac La Biche, Alberta, Canada native picked up right where he had left off in the AHL. After a strong preseason, including a two-goal effort in the first exhibition of the season, Bourque had earned his chance in the big league.

"It's definitely a lot faster and there are better players here than in the AHL, but I [had] six games in exhibition to try and get used to it," Bourque said.

He did get used to the faster pace — scoring his first NHL goal in his debut game, a power play score in a 5-3 loss to the Mighty Ducks. Making it even more special, his parents were there to witness his achievement.

"It was pretty nice to score a goal in my first game with my parents in the crowd," Bourque said. "They're really proud of me and they've supported me throughout my career so it was really nice to get my first one in front of them. Now I'll just try to keep it rolling."

He got his first regular-season start Sunday night and embarked on his first road trip the following morning.

Bourque credits his time at UW and head coach Mike Eaves for helping him get where he is today.

"Mike Eaves really helped me more than you could imagine, especially with work ethic," Bourque said. "We worked a lot one-on-one and he just gave me a lot of tips to be a better hockey player. I owe a lot to him and the Badgers."

With that Eaves-instilled work ethic, Bourque will continue to try and make the most of his rookie season.

"I just want to stick up here for the whole year — play in the NHL for a full year and just contribute in my own end and put some pucks in the back of the net."

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