WILMINGTON — In the real world, Patrice Bergeron is a young man. He is only 29. He has been married for just over a year.
On the ice, Bergeron is practically middle-aged.
This will be his 11th season in the NHL. He has played 659 games. In 2003-04, his rookie year, Bergeron played alongside Ted Donato. This past June, the Bruins drafted Ryan Donato, the son of Bergeron’s former teammate. When Bergeron spends too much time thinking about that, he starts reaching for his walker instead of his hockey stick.
“I used to skate around with him when I was 18,” Bergeron recalled of hanging with the 7-year-old Donato. “It tells you that time flies by.”
On Tuesday, as the team’s primary alternate captain, Old Man Bergeron led a group of players through their first informal practice of 2014-15 at Ristuccia Arena. Full-time Bruins Loui Eriksson, Chris Kelly, Daniel Paille, Dennis Seidenberg, Adam McQuaid, and Tuukka Rask joined Bergeron for the 90-minute session.
Bubble players included David Warsofsky, Justin Florek, and Zach Trotman. David Pastrnak, the team’s most recent first-round pick, zipped around the rink, following the instructions — Bergeron led the drills and oversaw the post-practice sprints — of a player who made the team as an 18-year-old.
Shawn Thornton, the seven-year Black-and-Gold enforcer, participated as an interloper. Thornton wore a white jersey and the red socks of the Panthers, his new employer. After the practice, instead of retreating to the dressing room he called home for seven seasons, Thornton changed in a smaller room down the hall alongside fellow crashers Keith Yandle (Phoenix) and Hal Gill (unsigned).
With every year that passes, Bergeron claims more and more ownership of the team. That’s a good thing.
“I’m ready for that now,” Bergeron said of his leadership role. “I think I’ve evolved over the years. I’m just happy that I’ve been able to mature here in Boston.”
Bergeron and the Bruins fell two rounds short of their goal last year. Even if they were the better team, they did not deserve to beat Montreal.
But it is the excellence of Bergeron, among other qualities, that qualifies the Bruins to contend for a 2014-15 run they will hope last into next June. Bergeron is coming off one of his best seasons. He recorded a 30-32—62 line in 80 games. He won 58.6 percent of his faceoffs. The center dominated the puck while staring down first-line opponents. He won the Selke Award as the game’s best defensive forward.
Sidney Crosby is the NHL’s best center. Bergeron is in the tier just below, a club that also counts Anze Kopitar, Pavel Datsyuk, Ryan Getzlaf, and Jonathan Toews as members.
Claude Julien can count on Bergeron for 0.75 points per game, more wins than losses at the dot, and smothering defensive play in all situations. Julien also can depend on Rask to stop 93 percent of the pucks he sees and Zdeno Chara to negate first-line forwards.
General manager Peter Chiarelli couldn’t afford to re-sign one-year Bruin Jarome Iginla. He still has to sign Torey Krug and Reilly Smith. Chiarelli would like to trade a player to loosen up cap space and bring back a third-line right wing.
But complementary rope-pullers such as Eriksson, Seidenberg, David Krejci, Milan Lucic, and Brad Marchand are talented and experienced players. They’re why Chiarelli, to this point, hasn’t initiated a next-generation transition. It hasn’t been necessary.
“We have the same core,” Bergeron said. “I’ve been saying that a lot the last six or seven years. It’s great to have. It’s great to see.
“It tells you a lot that Peter and his guys want to keep that intact. It makes us want to work even harder to keep it. There’s new guys coming in and young guys coming in. I think there’s a great balance between all of that.”
As he does every summer, Bergeron focused on his skating. To play three-zone hockey in the middle, Bergeron requires an explosive first step to slip into his stride. He also likes to be agile enough to change directions abruptly.
He also worked on his shot. Last year, Bergeron played on the No. 2 power-play unit. Because of Iginla’s departure, the Bruins might consider Bergeron as the right-shot, left-side triggerman on the first unit. Bergeron never has been known for his one-timer, which was Iginla’s moneymaker.
His other responsibilities won’t change. Bergeron will center Marchand and Smith on the No. 2 line. It will be Julien’s first choice when he needs a shutdown shift from his forwards.
“We had some great chemistry by the end of the season and into the playoffs,” Bergeron said. “We would have liked to do more as a team and as a line in the playoffs. But I thought our chemistry was there.
“I’m excited and happy, if it is what’s going to happen and we’re going to put the three of us together again, it’s nice that we have that already established.”
This is the first season of Bergeron’s eight-year, $52 million contract. He will be 36 years old by its conclusion.
In all likelihood, this is Bergeron’s final NHL contract. In that way, the end is already in sight for the once-shy teenager from Quebec City. There are many things Bergeron intends to accomplish before then.