October 7, 2013

From NEHJ: B-lievin' in Bergy

By Jesse Connolly

Patrice Bergeron scored the winning goal in Game 7 to defeat the Canucks on June 15, 2011, as the Bruins won their first Stanley Cup championship since 1972. (Getty Images)

No matter how far-fetched a fantasy it might be, you’d be hard-pressed to find a sports fan who has never once pondered what it would be like to be a professional athlete.

The money. The mansions. The cars. The fame.

“Ka-ching! Ka-ching!” the cash registers in our heads exclaim as our eyes envision dollar signs and the ensuing sea of zeros and commas. It sure must be nice to play a game for a living.

While we all long to live their lucrative lifestyle, pro athletes go through a lot of the same work experiences as the 9-to-5ers who envy them so greatly. Take Patrice Bergeron, for example.

During his time with the Bruins, Bergeron has seen dozens of coworkers, many of whom became good friends, come and go. He had three head coaches in his first four years in the league, and that’s not counting playing under Rob Murray in Providence during the 2004-05 lockout. Management changed hands, as nearly the entire front office was retooled. Perhaps the biggest change was the organization’s culture underwent a massive overhaul after its product sunk to once-unthinkable lows.

Over the last decade of hirings and firings, a roster blowup and a rebuild that began with a once-proud franchise buried in rubble, Bergeron has been the one constant. And not only has he survived through both the team’s and his own share of turmoil, but also he’s fittingly earned recognition for doing it all for this club, helping lift the team back up to among the league’s elite and cementing his status as one of the greatest Bruins of all-time.

How did Bergeron get to where he is today? It’s been quite a journey.

Building around ‘Bergy’

“I’ve been a Bruin throughout my career,” the 28-year-old center said in July, fresh off signing an eight-year, $52-million contract that locks him up through 2022. “They’re the team that believed in me as an 18-year-old kid. I’m really happy now to see that I will hopefully retire a Bruin. That’s the goal and that’s what I want.”

While Bergeron awed the B’s brass during his first training camp in 2003, no one could have  predicted the kid from Quebec would have such a big impact on a team that would go on to finish with the best record in the Eastern Conference.

“He was certainly unique in how game-ready he was at such a young age,” said Kevin Dupont, a senior staff writer and columnist at the Boston Globe for the past 28 years. “I can’t say I had as developed a sense of his personality. His English was good but certainly not as accomplished as it is now. From the get-go, just a very humble, nice kid.

“On the skill level, I have to admit I can’t say his skill level jumped off the ice. If I went over the years and thought of those kinds of guys like (Maxim) Afinogenov when I first saw him with Buffalo, the ’92 Olympics in France when I saw (Alex) Kovalev for the first time, (Alex) Ovechkin, Mario (Lemieux), their talent was so abundant that even I could spot it. With Bergeron, even to this day, his game remains extremely subtle, smooth, thorough. It’s through the thoroughness and consistency that the brilliance of his play comes through.”

Coming out of the lockout, the Bruins greatly miscalculated the free-agent market, failing to replace key cogs such as Brian Rolston, Mike Knuble and Sergei Gonchar. The results were dismal, prompting a dismantling of the roster as the 2005-06 campaign wore on, which began with GM Mike O’Connell’s (Cohasset, Mass.) decision to deal captain Joe Thornton to the San Jose Sharks.

The trade will forever be considered a failure when it comes to the return Boston received for a player who went on to capture the Hart Trophy as league MVP that season, but O’Connell felt as though the organization had a better player in mind to build around.

“I asked myself if Joe Thornton could lead us to the Stanley Cup, and my answer was no,” O’Connell told New England Hockey Journal in a 2011 interview. “The whole lockout thing didn’t work, and we knew we had to rebuild. Do you want to rebuild around a player that has character but not the championship character you’re looking for? We knew we could build the team around the Bergeron types that have a positive influence on all the players coming in. That’s exactly what you see, so it worked.”

Randy Jones and the road to recovery

After completing Step 1 of the rebuild by gutting the roster and damn near wiping the slate clean, O’Connell was canned, as was head coach Mike Sullivan (Marshfield, Mass.). In came Peter Chiarelli to lead the turnaround. The GM hired Dave Lewis to be the new bench boss. He also re-signed the player O’Connell had envisioned being his franchise cornerstone for years to come.

“Patrice is an outstanding young player with a tremendous future,” Chiarelli said in August 2007, extending Bergeron following the center’s 31-goal season. While the Lewis-helmed, 2006-07 season was arguably the most disastrous year in team history, Bergeron provided hope for the future, posting what’s still a career-best 70 points alongside wingers Marco Sturm and Brad Boyes. Superstardom appeared to be just around the bend.

Then came the afternoon of Oct. 27, 2007.

In a matinee against the visiting Flyers, Bergeron rushed into the corner to retrieve the puck, with defenseman Randy Jones in close pursuit. Driven head-first into the glass, the Bruins center was knocked unconscious. He lay sprawled out on the ice, arms spread wide, his chest rising and falling as his visor fogged up with every exhalation.

Bergeron missed the remaining 72 games of the regular season and Boston’s seven playoff tilts. Jones was suspended for two games.

“It damn near killed him,” Dupont said when asked if he wonders what kind of long-term effects the incident had on Bergeron’s game. “I have to believe somewhere in his game and in his head there’s some caution all the time. I never look at him and say he’s flinching here or swinging out. He goes to where he has to go, the difficult places. That said, maybe it’s all baked into the cake now and there were other dimensions of his game we’ll never see develop, but that’s OK. He’s still an excellent player.”

Bergeron could’ve lashed out at Jones, scolding him for potentially ruining his career and his quality of life in the long haul, but he handled the aftermath of the near tragedy with class.

“After he got clobbered by Randy Jones, I got the first interview with him. It was by phone,” recalled Dupont. “There was nothing sensational or eye-popping in what he said, but like always, he thought it through, said good things, had solid reasoning. He could’ve been very emotional. He didn’t blame the guy, but said it wasn’t the way to play the game. Clearly he couldn’t have known then — cause he was in tough shape when I talked to him — that he was going to come all the way back.”

There was a very real fear about whether or not Bergeron could regain his old form, especially after a 2008-09 season in which he managed just eight goals in 64 games and, on a far more concerning note, missed time with a second concussion. He rebounded by scoring 19 goals the following year, and by the time the 2010-11 season rolled around, No. 37 was back in the conversation when it came to the game’s top centers.

“He’s doing real well and it’s great to see,” Boyes said during a return to Boston with the Sabres in 2011. “The things he has gone through, the ups and downs and the injuries he’s had, it’s good to see him get back to the way he can play and to lead the way he does. It’s awesome. He’s a guy who is a quality person and you want good things to happen to him, and things are happening well for him.”

Gold medal, silver chalice

The fact that statistics rarely tell a player’s whole story was never more abundant in 2010, when Bergeron was selected to play for Team Canada at the 2010 Winter Olympics. In all likelihood, eye-popping numbers are something you’ll never see out of Bergeron, who has one 30-goal season and one 70-point campaign to his credit to date.

What makes him great is the fact that he’s — at a minimum — very good at every facet of the game.

“He’s not the quickest, not the strongest, not the biggest. You can go to all the things he’s not, and then you get to: What is he?” said Dupont. “At his weakest, he’s a B-plus in every category. He’s not abundantly fast but he moves, so I’d put his speed at B-plus. Accuracy of shot is in the A’s. Not the quickest stick but a smart stick, that puts him in the A’s. Always in the right place, A-plus in terms of positioning and hockey sense.”

A year after his faceoff prowess and defensive acumen helped Canada capture gold, the Bruins’ Mr. Everything did it all in the 2011 postseason en route to Boston’s first Stanley Cup victory in 39 years.

“He’s the kind of player you need to win championships,” teammate Brad Marchand said. “He’s the kind of guy that can lead in every situation and you want him on the ice all the time. We wouldn’t have won (in 2011) if it wasn’t for him.”

A pro’s pro

Ask any NHLer to describe Bergeron. The word “professional” is all but guaranteed to come up in the first 10 seconds.

Many will long remember Bergeron’s “We got the Cup!” chant on the morning of the Bruins’ championship parade in June 2011, for both its significance and the fact that it came from a player who’s often perceived as being quite subdued.

On the first day of camp this fall, Bergeron was asked if he got married over the offseason. No one should’ve been surprised he passed on giving a long soliloquy about his personal life.

“I did. It went well. It was a fun day and everything went well,” Bergeron said.

Mr. Everything on the ice is Mr. Modesty off it.

“I don’t believe any of his persona is manufactured,” said Dupont. “It’s just who he is. Is he a subdued guy? Yes. I think if we lived in a French-speaking world, he’d chirp a little more. But I don’t know that. I think in some ways, because he’s Francophone first, maybe we don’t get a full look at his personality.”

Dupont, a 2002 Hockey Hall of Fame honoree, sees a number of similarities between Bergeron and Jean Ratelle, who topped 70 points in five of his six seasons as a Bruin (1975-81).

“The guy I always think of, and maybe it’s the French thing, is Ratelle,” he said when asked which Bruin from years past reminds him most of Bergeron. “The game is so dramatically different now, but in terms of being smart, a presence, good on the draw. … There was an elegance to Ratelle in his play and also his manner. I don’t get the same sense of elegance in manner in Patrice, but similar in terms of dignity, humility and grace, and certainly no display of ego.”

No guts, no glory

The oft-discussed shift in which Gregory Campbell finished off killing a penalty with a broken leg against Pittsburgh in the conference finals was an act of bravery that will never be forgotten. To highlight the phrase “risking life and limb,” however, Campbell did the latter. In the Stanley Cup Final, Bergeron did the former.

In what proved to be a season-ending, heartbreaking loss in Game 6, Bergeron managed to log 18 effective minutes despite being hampered by a broken rib, torn cartilage in said rib, a separated shoulder and a punctured lung that sent him to the hospital for an overnight stay following the game.

“To be honest, I talked to ‘Soupy’ a couple times about it,” Bergeron said during this year’s camp when asked about the acclaim he and Campbell received. “We don’t feel like it was anything special or extraordinary, to be honest with you. We felt like we were just trying to do our job. Same thing for me. I was just trying to be out there and help the team as much as possible on the ice. I’m 100 percent positive that all the guys would’ve done the same thing, especially late in the season in the finals like that. You want to be out there helping your teammates out.”

In typical Bergeron fashion, he downplayed the moment.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Dupont said. “It wasn’t just that night, of course. It was the incident that carried over from in Chicago, which is why he had to get that shot, which is what punctured his lung. I can remember being on the conference call when he signed the extension. I brought it up in the call: It sounded then like he was wheezing. That was a number of weeks later. You could hear it. That said, as banged up as he was, he put in a strong performance.”

Lasting legacy

We can laud Bergeron for his countless hockey achievements and admirable life endeavors — notably his charitable efforts, including Patrice’s Pals — but the veteran of 579 NHL games deserves a heap of credit for being one hell of a resilient human being, both inside and outside of the rink.

“Is there anybody else that’s been through the whole train wreck?” Dupont said, reflecting on the myriad changes the organization’s undergone during Bergeron’s tenure. “I guess that speaks for itself, doesn’t it? Obviously he was extremely young when he got here, so it was easier to persevere. And also, most credit to him: He could have easily moved on. Not that he’s ever been extremely under market, but he was in a place where he could’ve signed somewhere else for more money, especially given where Montreal is — even though he hates the Canadiens — having grown up in Quebec City.

“He could’ve said, ‘I’ve had enough. I’m going to go out and test the market here.’ I don’t know why he stayed. I’ve never really asked that question. I think some of that isn’t so much the team as it is the city. It’s a great place to play in terms of the history of it, the city, the fans that appreciate it and the whole thing. But also you don’t get so chewed up. I’m sure he can fairly easily walk down the street and not get mixed up in the celebrity stuff that would happen with other athletes in this town.”

But there’s something special about this city, its people and their hockey passion.

“It really feels like home now,” Bergeron said. “We don’t want to go anywhere else and so it was an easy decision for me and my family. Early on I wanted to just play in Boston. I said that last time when I signed my three-year deal. That’s why I signed it before going on the market because I wanted to stay in Boston. Now same thing here. I want to retire as a Bruin.”

If Bergeron does retire at the end of his extension (2022), that would come two years short of the organization’s 100th anniversary. That’s a lot of history, and a lot of players to stack him up against in determining his place among the Bruins’ all-time greats.

“If you look at those names that are up there, (Phil) Esposito, (Terry) O’Reilly, (Cam) Neely, he’ll be there in my mind,” Dupont said. “But again, if you look at those names, you can say who’s the toughest, the highest scoring, who had the biggest goals, (Eddie) Shore, who he was for his personality. He’s going to come up short on some of those metrics.”

But Dupont believes a group with a greater appreciation for the nuances and fine details of the sport could very well bestow the greatest individual honor upon Bergeron after he hangs up his skates.

“No one is ever going to put him in that — and you can make some arguments — Lemieux or (Guy) Lafleur category, but if he keeps going like this, he has a very reasonable crack at the Hall of Fame,” said Dupont. “The people who vote on that know the game. It isn’t a fan vote. If it was, he’d never get there. They’re the people that understand the nuances of the game and how difficult the position is. As we saw, (Tyler) Seguin couldn’t play it with a compass, but maybe he will one day. And that’s not to say Bergeron was that good when he came in here. It’s developed over time. He’s aged well with it. He’s going to have to do this for another three or four years to get that kind of consideration.”

When asked about his No. 37 one day hanging in the rafters at TD Garden, Bergeron remained as humble as ever.

“I can’t really say that right now. It’s too early to talk about that to be honest with you,” he said. “There’s so much history behind the Bruins and, obviously, to me I feel very fortunate that the Bruins felt the same way that I feel about the organization and the team. I’m really happy. I’m hopefully going to retire here in Boston and I’ve been able to get eight years (on his deal). I’m really excited about that. It’s definitely going to be a huge honor, but there’s a long way to go still.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ
Email: jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com