Patrice Bergeron had just arrived in Boston in 2003, a French-Canadian rookie with big expectations and little English. He would sit in meetings, lost and confused, a shy teenager trying to learn hockey while barely understanding his coaches.
The demands pressed on him - stick work, goal scoring, speed, English.
He’s not alone, then or now. Nine languages are spoken in the Bruins locker room: English, French, German, Slovak, Czech, Serbian, Russian, Finnish, and Swedish. And that doesn’t even count the Italian that defenseman Zdeno Chara - who can speak six languages - is learning for fun through Rosetta Stone.
Theirs is a multilingual locker room. To make the communication go smoothly, to make sure no one is left out, there is only one universal language in the locker room. That’s English. It’s why it was so crucial for Bergeron to learn it. It’s why the French Canadians might speak their native tongue amongst themselves but switch to English the moment a non-French speaker approaches.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t some stumbles along the way. Not every player comes in knowing English.
“You don’t want to mess it up, at the same time you weren’t sure what was going on,’’ said Bergeron, who arrived as an 18-year-old and is now an established veteran of eight NHL seasons. “But when you’re thrown in there you’ve got to pick it up. It’s like throwing a little kid in the water - he’s got to find a way.’’
Bergeron did. And now he’s gotten to the point where he thinks in English. His teammates say he’s in danger of losing his French accent. It’s a point the Bruins hope every player reaches, while fostering an atmosphere of respect for the diversity of the spoken word.
‘It happens rarely when there’s a word that I don’t know what it means . . . People don’t come to the rink and say some special word I’ve never heard before in my eight years in the States.’David Krejci, who speaks Czech and English
“I think we have an unwritten rule, and it’s based on respect, that when there’s people around you that don’t understand the language, you speak English,’’ Bruins coach Claude Julien said. “I can be talking French to one of the players and if somebody comes in and we’re chatting, we’ll switch over to English.’’
But language can become a barrier as easily as it can become a common bond.
“I think maybe there are more cliques just because of nationality,’’ forward Chris Kelly said of other locker rooms. “You tend to gravitate toward the people that speak the language you’re comfortable with.’’
For instance, Kelly said he could go out to dinner with Chara and David Krejci, and the Czech and Slovak languages would be put away in favor of English. That helps eliminate some of the issues that can arise.
“You wonder if they’re talking about you,’’ Kelly said. “I’ve heard of some guys that talk about their linemates that don’t speak the language that maybe they do. It’s tough. But I don’t see it happening in this locker room. I think if someone has something to say, they’ll say it to their face.’’
That’s partially because of the leadership role wielded by the captain, Chara, he of the six-plus languages. There are still things that get lost in translation, still moments when young French-Canadian forward Jordan Caron might turn to Bergeron or Julien, his eyebrows raised in confusion. (Chara said “The bad words and jokes are the very first things that everybody learns.’’)
When there are issues, Chara said, they talk about it. Or Chara might step in and ease the tension, make the translation.
“I think it’s very important that when you do speak different languages than English, it’s not making fun of some other people or players,’’ said Chara, who learned English in high school. “Because it’s good to have a joke and everybody has a laugh, not just some of the guys.’’
Not everyone thrust into that situation can make the transition. If Krejci did not have a close friend from the Czech Republic with him in Canada his first year in juniors, he might not have made it to the Bruins.
“My first year I was homesick so bad,’’ Krejci said. “If it wouldn’t be for my best friend, who also played there with me the first year, I don’t know if I really would have gotten through a year there.’’
He had known what to expect, had been warned by friends, had understood there would be a new language and a new culture. It still took him months to learn the basics, to advance from not knowing how to answer the simplest questions to having a conversation.
Now? After eight years in Canada and in the United States, Krejci is among the best on the team at the iPhone game Words with Friends. He’s got down “za’’ and “qi,’’ and rarely comes across a word or an expression he doesn’t understand.
But a quick adaptation to English isn’t always the case. Chara recalled Anton Volchenkov, a teammate with Ottawa who now plays for the Devils. Volchenkov came to the NHL from Moscow. He was a nice guy, Chara said, willing to do whatever was needed. But he couldn’t speak English, and he struggled to fit in.
“You felt bad for the guy because he probably didn’t have a chance to learn any English in Russia,’’ Chara said. “You also can’t blame them for not knowing English. For some guys it’s quicker, some guys it’s a slower process.
“It really comes down to how much you want it. If you really want to stay, if you really want to learn, then you do whatever it takes - take lessons or hire a tutor or whatever that might be.’’
The players aren’t the only ones affected, though. It’s their wives or girlfriends, their children. For some, it’s hard to leave on the road because their families can’t speak the language.
“If you’re not able to adapt, it’s going to be hard to survive hockey-wise,’’ said Bruins minor leaguer Josh Hennessy, who made the transition from Brockton to juniors in Quebec, learning French in the process. “I think somebody who is having such a hard time picking up the language has to do with them maybe being so homesick that they’re not trying hard enough, that they just have a personality that lends itself to being way more comfortable at home.
“They’re the type of players that come over here for a year, maybe two, then get out of the NHL more quickly because of the language barrier. Very rarely do you see a guy three or four years into his North American hockey career who’s not comfortable with English.’’
Words of advice
Bergeron sees himself in Caron, though the 21-year-old arrived knowing less English than Bergeron did. Caron actually had picked up English playing in Saskatchewan for a season when he was 14, but he lost it upon returning to Quebec.
When he arrived at the Bruins’ American Hockey League affiliate in Providence, nothing came easily. Caron had to rely on his teammates’ aid with seemingly simple tasks - “Stuff like getting my license and my bank account. It’s pretty hard when you don’t speak the language,’’ said Caron, now nearly fluent in English.
Bergeron helped, paying it forward as Martin Lapointe had done for him. Bergeron remembered what it was like to understand only a few words out of every meeting.
“I think the first thing that happens is you become comfortable talking about hockey,’’ Hennessy said. “The hardest thing to do, at first, is when somebody asks you a non-hockey-related question and you have to explain yourself. That comes a lot less natural. That takes time.’’
Caron’s biggest strides were made in the playoffs last season, when he was left off the roster, left to fend for himself with other teammates in the same situation - none of whom spoke his language.
“No French at all for like two months,’’ Caron said. “Two months.’’
He improved. He had to.
Despite the loneliness and the isolation, there were positives. Like when Milan Lucic spied an attractive woman in Montreal and, being surrounded by some of his French-speaking teammates, tried out his 11th-grade language skills.
“Elle est chaude,’’ he said, a translation for “She is hot.’’
Bergeron’s response, at first, was only confusion. And then there was laughter.
Like other similar moments, it brings the Bruins together. For Chara and Bergeron, an assistant captain, that’s important to building the team, it’s important to their leadership, to a group that needs to function as well linguistically as it does on the ice.
It doesn’t stop there for Chara. He tries to connect through language outside of the locker room, too. He spots the Swedish waitress in the Tampa restaurant, talking to her in her native language, spots the pair of lost tourists asking for directions in Boston, answering them in Russian.
He’d like to learn more languages, to be able to make others at ease, no matter the situation, no matter the location.
“I think it’s something that helps not just in the hockey world, but outside of hockey, as a human being,’’ Chara said. “Because I know how much it helps, how much it can connect people.’’Amalie Benjamin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.
Correction: Because of an editing error, Martin Lapointe was incorrectly identified in an earlier version of this story.