Ryan Bourque, Assistant Coach, NTDP
“ … All along, I was more meant to coach than I was even to play.”
Ryan Bourque – proud new dad (his youngest was born Aug. 16 at 7 pounds, 7 ounces) and a hockey player from the time of his youth, then at Cushing Academy, followed by USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, into professional hockey within the New York Rangers organization, and eventually into 2019-2020 with the Charlotte Checkers – will soon head to Plymouth, Mich., to take a new role as an assistant coach with the NTDP.
While it’s not quite coming home again considering his experience with the NTDP, as Bourque’s time was spent at the prestigious program’s previous headquarters in Ann Arbor, Mich., it certainly is something to which he wanted to return as his eyes turned to coaching.
‘’I think it was an unbelievable experience for me,” Bourque says of his two seasons in Ann Arbor. “It's a special place. For me to reunite with the National Program was something that I coveted. So, to have it come to fruition, it is really exciting for me. I'm just really looking forward to it. Counting down the days.”
There was a time, right around the beginning of Covid, though, that things weren’t so clear.
Bourque, who won gold and bronze medals for Team USA at the 2010 and 2011 IIHF World Junior Championships, adding three assists in each tournament, felt his playing career coming to an end. So he took a job outside of hockey that in some ways brought him back to the sport.
“I think the writing was on the wall, with the pandemic and being somewhat near the end of my career, and sort of feeling that,” says Bourque, who at the time had recently been married. “So I think it was a no-brainer to transition into a new opportunity that life presented – I stepped out of my comfort zone and got into a job in sales. It was a tremendous opportunity with a great company, it just wasn't for me. It was hard to wake up without that hunger and drive and validation every day that I had when I was involved in hockey. I think it was important that I stepped away for a good year and really didn't think about it or talk about it.”
It didn’t take long before the game came calling to Bourque, “just getting involved in youth hockey and camps and skills and clinics and tournaments here and there,” he says. “It just reinvigorated me, really brought me back. Taught me that, all along, I was more meant to coach than I was even to play, as enjoyable as it was. I think even when I was playing, I was coaching.”
He’s also quick to point out some of the people who have helped him along the way on his relatively short coaching journey.
“I've been lucky enough to work with unbelievable people so far,” says Bourque, who spent the past two seasons as an assistant with the South Carolina Stingrays in the ECHL. “From a start with Freddy Meyer here in Boston in doing youth skills and clinics with him, and then coaching girls at Rivers with Courtney Sheary, who I have known since I was a little kid. That was amazing. Then, going to South Carolina with the Stingrays and Rob Concannon, and Brenden Kotyk, and Travis Ward, and Jacqui Gutierrez. [The ECHL] really teaches you the ins and outs of the hockey business, not just hockey itself. I don't think there's a better way to figure out if it is for you.”
In terms of influences, there is also, of course, his father, the five-time Norris Trophy winner and Hockey Hall of Fame Member Ray Bourque. His brother, Chris, too, who played across more than 10 seasons in the National Hockey League.
“My dad had the career that he had, and it was unbelievable to be able to get just a little bit of a glimpse into it at the ages where you can remember some of it, and just to be able to experience that day-to-day, and kind of see how he carried himself,” Bourque says. “And then being fortunate enough to kind of have him 24/7 when he retired, that was really cool. And my brother, too, who has had a career that he has had. To be five years younger, always trying to try to compete with your brother, but you're also trying to kind of look up to him. Both those two have been extremely crucial to my development, not only as a hockey player and a coach now, but also as a father, as a brother. They have been instrumental in all facets of my life.”
Ryan Bourque, of course, had his own career, considering himself a versatile player.
“Kind of a 200-foot forward,” says Bourque. “Obviously, when you're growing up the level we all played, we were sometimes some of the better players on our team so we are able to do things offensively. What I carried into the professional level in comparison to my brother, I was a little bit more of a defensive-minded forward and tried to chip in offensively when I could. I brought a lot of energy. I think I played with a ton of speed and pace. When it came to playing, I tried to do anything I could for the team. I enjoyed those big-game moments and tried to be a leader on every team. I think that has kind of carried over into my coaching career, and it has been really fun to see the other side of the game.”
The other side this time around for Bourque, now more than a decade removed from his own stay at the NTDP, will include coaching some of the very best teenage hockey players in the United States. Part of the evolution of the sport’s future in this country will have the fingerprints of someone whose father played with the likes of Rick Middleton, Terry O’Reilly, Cam Neely, Adam Oates and Joe Thornton, not to mention, Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, and Patrick Roy.
“Every year it's improving,” Bourque says. “Whether it's 2023 back to 2019, or when I was there in 2008. It's changing so rapidly. You see the leagues are getting younger. You see guys coming out and being ready, whether it's the NCAA or major junior. They're more prepared and they're further along. And, obviously, they're able to jump in a lot sooner. And I think that's a credit to these development programs not only in the United States but all around the world. These kids are crazy nowadays.”
And part of that comes with how elite athletes train in the offseason.
“It's a little different than when I was coming up,” says Bourque. “These kids have access and resources in so many different ways – whether it's in the gym, on the ice or, even mental conditioning work, nutrition or health and all the research into that. Whatever they're doing, I think routine is very important. The accountability aspect, [to see] they are following a routine and that it's not kind of freestyling, they're not winging it in any way. Whether it is four or five days a week in the gym, I just think it's important that they get in and get moving.”
Still, all players can make some room for a summer.
“For me, I always stepped away in the summertime,” he says. “It was a little bit more difficult as I got older with all the summer cups and tournaments, even being in the Q because they start so early. But I liked to be off the ice for at least a month, potentially even deeper into the summer than that. I just think it's really important to find things outside of hockey that you're into and that you can kind of sharpen – whether it's golf or even hobbies away from sports. I think being versatile in that way, and not being just one-dimensional, to play as many sports as you can, but also being in the gym, under a certain routine and good direction is most important. And I think like any kid they need to have a social life. I think they need to be around the community and helping out. And just being with their friends. People forget that they are just 16 or 17 or 18 years old and moving away sometimes for the first time in their lives. I think in going back home you really need to spend time with your family and also friends. Get involved in that community that you're involved in.”
For Bourque, this summer means adding a second child to the family before making his way out to the next step in his coaching career. Boston, though, remains central to his family.
“When we come back here, it's kind of like a quick refresher,” says Bourque. “Boston is such a special place, where they care so much about their sports and their teams. I think my dad would be the first person to say that he was so lucky to have spent 18 or 19 years and raise his family here. He loves being back here and that's why it is our home base. We are super fortunate, mostly for the person and father and grandfather that he is. It has been a while since he was in the NHL, so he has pretty much transitioned into grandpa mode.”