hil Bourque improvised near the conclusion of a 45-minute Q&A session in front of 100 fans gathered in the Stars and Stripes Room at 1st Summit Arena on Friday.
Better known as “The Ol’ Two-Niner” because of his Pittsburgh Penguins jersey number, Bourque had brought all five of his Stanley Cup championship rings to Johnstown.
Two of those he earned as a gritty and popular forward on the 1991 and 1992 Stanley Cup-winning Penguins squads.
The other three were the product of Bourque’s lengthy tenure as part of the Penguins broadcast team.
“Do you guys want to try on my rings?” Bourque asked the crowd.
“How are we for time?” he asked.
Bourque had the fans line up and encouraged them to quickly put on and take off all five rings while posing for photographs with him.
Surprisingly, the line filed through in orderly fashion, pleasing the fans and bringing a smile to Bourque’s face as he joked with people and patiently waited for smartphone photos to be snapped.
Then, “The Ol’ Two-Niner” was off to center ice to drop the ceremonial first puck before the Johnstown Tomahawks’ home-opening 5-2 victory over the New Jersey Titans.
After that, Bourque went to the Party Pit under Section 9 and signed autographs well into the third period.
‘I feel a connection’
Bourque looked right at home in Johnstown, even though he’s a Boston native.
“When I come to Johnstown, I feel a connection,” said Bourque, who made an appearance at the Tomahawks’ first welcome event in 2012, supported the Kraft Hockeyville campaign in 2015, and played in a Penguins Alumni event here in 2018.
“I’m not blowing smoke up your backside. I love how real you are, how passionate you are about what you do and the job that you do, and your hockey.”
Of course, there is a good reason Bourque feels so strongly about Johnstown.
As mentioned in earlier interviews and in his soon-to-be released book – “If These Walls Could Talk: Stories from the Pittsburgh Penguins Ice, Locker Room and Press Box,” written with sports writer Josh Yohe – Bourque signed his first professional contract in the corner office of the War Memorial made famous in scenes from the movie “Slap Shot.”
The Penguins held their preseason training camp in Johnstown for several years in the 1980s, including 1982, when Bourque was a free agent hoping to latch on with the club.
“Training camp was here in Johnstown. I remember it like it was yesterday,” Bourque said. “I have such good memories of that.”
At the time, Bourque wasn’t sure he’d be on the regular-season roster.
“I was one of the last players left in training camp. I didn’t have a contract,” he told the crowd Friday. “They were about to break camp and go to Pittsburgh. I get the tap on the shoulder. Baz Bastien was the general manager at the time. He had the corner office upstairs (in the War Memorial).
“The trainer says, ‘Hey, Baz wants to see you.’ That could mean a good thing or it could mean a bad thing.”
‘Let’s make a deal’
Bourque climbed the stairs near Section 21.
“Baz called me into the office and looked me in the face and said, ‘I like you kid. I’m going to give you a three-year contract,’ ” Bourque said, showing the same excitement he experienced 37 years ago. “My dream is coming true here.”
The news got even better.
“‘Because I like you so much, I’m going to give you a $5,000 signing bonus,’” Bourque said of the conversation. “Baz said, ‘I’m going to give you $60,000 if you play in the NHL. I’m going to give you $18,500 to play in the American Hockey League, where I’m sending you to Baltimore right now.’”
Bourque said he used the bonus money to purchase a new Corvette.
He then was asked about a postgame meal at Johnnies Lounge on Main Street. Bourque laughed, perhaps not expecting people to know the story.
“After my first preseason game, I think it was against Detroit, I had one suit, a three-piece suit,” Bourque said. “When I got to Johnstown in the Penguins training camp, I didn’t know one person. Not one person knew me.
“So, after the preseason game was over, I asked the trainer, ‘Hey, where is everybody going?’ He said, ‘Johnnies bar is where everyone is going.’ I make my way over there in my three-piece suit after the game.”
‘Make it to go’
Bourque said the stop at the lounge started out much the same as a normal postgame meal.
“I’m starving, I want a bite to eat and a cold beer,” he said. “I belly up to the bar and order a club sandwich. My club sandwich comes with fries. I don’t know if someone was playing a joke on me but the lid on the ketchup bottle was loose. When I shook that bottle, the whole thing emptied in my face – with my three-piece suit on, at the bar, the bar packed after the preseason game.
“When I opened my eyes, I couldn’t even see because they were covered in ketchup. I wiped my eyes. The waitress comes over. I say, ‘Check please. Can I get this to go?’ ”
The hockey fans in the Stars and Stripes Room erupted in laughter.
The tale ended well. Bourque made the team, played on a couple Stanley Cup winners with the likes of Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Ron Francis as his teammates, and now continues to work in the broadcast booth alongside another legend, Mike Lange.
Not a bad ride for a once unknown free agent who signed his first contract in the War Memorial.