Through 999 games, Patrice Bergeron and Bruins have been a grand pairing
There was never a backup plan, the prudent something else, the alternative career path in case the hockey thing didn’t play out exactly the way most every Canadian schoolboy dreams.
Patrice Bergeron was all of 10 years old when the mere suggestion of putting anything ahead of the game he loved struck a discordant note.
“I remember my piano teacher was telling me I should do less practices in hockey,” Bergeron recalled last week after one more practice recital in his life’s unending concerto on ice. “She was asking, you know, could I balance hockey and piano lessons?”
Nearly a quarter-century later, a look of utter disbelief creased the chiseled face of the four-time Selke Trophy winner (best defensive forward in the NHL). Less hockey, more piano?
“And I was like, ‘Uhhh, OK, that’s it,’ ” he recalled, raising a hand and wiping it through the air as if to erase such nonsense. “ ‘I’m done with piano.’ ”
With Bergeron, 33, about to play in his 1,000th NHL game, every one of them with that Boston spoked “B” on his chest, there can be no arguing that he was on the puck, read the play, and read it early. No surprise, not for a guy whose career trademark has been positioning, spatial awareness, deciphering in the moment exactly where he fits on the ice, absorbing the cacophony of all the other parts whirring around him. Being in the right place. Virtually every time.
When he steps on the ice to face the Islanders Tuesday night at the Garden, Bergeron will become only the fourth player to play career game No. 1 through 1,000 with Boston, preceded by Wayne Cashman, Ray Bourque, and Don Sweeney. In all likelihood, he’ll join Cashman, a central character here in the Stanley Cup wins of 1970 and ’72, as the only ones never to play for another NHL franchise.
“To me, the biggest thing, the most special thing about it, is probably the fact that all those games are with the Bruins organization,” Bergeron said. “It just shows loyalty from my side, but also from the Bruins side, for me to be here for such a long period of time.”
It is now season No. 15 for Bergeron, who arrived in town as a quiet, bright-eyed 18-year-old just weeks after the Bruins selected him 45th in the 2003 draft. Had Montreal’s hockey minds been sharper, the Canadiens, with pick No. 10 (Andrei Kostitsyn) and 40 (Cory Urquhart), would have chosen the humble, unassuming kid from two hours away in Quebec City. How different things might be today for the bedraggled Les Glorieux, forever slouching toward their first Cup since 1993.
“Obviously, you dream of playing in the NHL,” said Bergeron, who’ll be the 323rd NHLer to reach the plateau. “You don’t necessarily dream of playing 1,000 games, and you appreciate the meaning as you go along in your career, realizing who did it, and obviously the longevity is pretty special.”
Bergeron is one of only two players on the Boston roster to have played here in the pre-Claude Julien era (along with Zdeno Chara). He has outlasted two general managers (Mike O’Connell, Peter Chiarelli) and played now for four coaches (Mike Sullivan, Dave Lewis, Julien, and Bruce Cassidy).
Bergeron recalled that Sullivan, now a two-time Cup winner as the Penguins bench boss, took him aside that rookie year and flatly told him, “The sky’s the limit for you.” Prescient words from a coach who would not survive the regime change from O’Connell to Chiarelli in the summer of 2006.
“That always stuck in my head,” Bergeron said. “Because it really gave me a lot confidence. It’s kind of something that I tell myself sometimes when, you know, it’s always work and believing in yourself to have the confidence to do the right things. Sometimes you’ll hit a rough stretch, and it’s just believing and pulling through.”
Only 22 years old, and playing in career game No. 239, Bergeron nearly reached a premature limit to his promising career when he was hammered into the end boards by Flyers defenseman Randy Jones. Knocked cold, he collapsed to the ice, his 2007-08 season ended after 10 games by the severe concussion.
Months later, his father, Gerard, paced the parking lot outside the club’s practice rink in Wilmington as Bergeron skated and trained in hopes of reclaiming his career, his life. Dad’s voice choked with emotion, recalling that his son sat for weeks in his Boston apartment, blinds closed, eyes and brain unable to tolerate the daylight. The hit could have been lethal.
“I was only thinking about getting healthy,” Bergeron said. “At that point, all I wanted to be was normal — like, on a general basis, not even as a hockey player. So it was hard for me to think about the future at that time because it was a tough year.
“But it never really crossed my mind that this could be the end, or whatnot.”
Training staff and doctors remained positive. He fed off their energy and promise. He missed the remainder of the season but returned to work in October ’08. Now, 760 games later, it remains a distant but poignant memory.
“The only thing it did for me was make me realize how much I missed it,” Bergeron said. “And to be thankful — and I actually remind our young guys of that, be thankful in the dog days of February, or when you feel it’s dragging.
“It’s a long season. It’s a grind. You don’t appreciate it as much. But you realize you miss it when you’re away from it. You realize you have to be thankful and appreciate every day, and, yeah, enjoy it and have fun.
“It taught me to be more myself and not put so much pressure on myself.”
Often lost in the Bergeron discussion, largely because of his identity as a consummate two-way defensive forward, is his ample offensive ability. Four Selke awards have hijacked the fact that he has serious offensive pop, particularly in recent years as the “bumper” on the No. 1 power-play unit.
Of all the players selected in the ’03 draft, Bergeron ranks behind only Eric Staal and Ryan Getzlaf for total points (778) and he is steps ahead of noted gunners Thomas Vanek, Corey Perry, and Joe Pavelski, and others. Of the seven others in that draft to reach 1,000 games, he joins Dustin Brown (Los Angeles) and Brent Seabrook (Chicago) as the only players still with the clubs that drafted him. Vanek (367 career goals), originally a Sabres pick, is now with his eighth NHL team.
“It’s loyalty on my side, because that’s where I wanted to be,” said Bergeron, who has three years remaining on an eight-year, $55 million contract signed in 2013. “I never really waited till the last minute to sign. It was almost always a year ahead. So the loyalty went both sides, obviously, so I appreciate it.”
The official celebration will be Saturday, with Brown and the Kings at the Garden. Bergeron’s mother, father, and brother (and family) will make the trip from Quebec City, along with his maternal grandparents. It will be grandma’s first trip to Boston, a trip important enough for her to get her first passport. Bergeron’s wife and three children (ages 2 months, 18 months, 3 years) will fill out the luxury box for the man of 1,000 games.
“Glad it’s a matinee,” said Bergeron, who lived with teammate Marty Lapointe’s family when he moved to town more than 15 years ago. “It’s a lot easier on the kids.”
Bergeron plans to play for at least the three more seasons, the remaining term on his contract. He’ll be 36 then and probably closing in on 1,300 games. His contracts here have totaled slightly more than $93 million. No telling how much longer he’ll go beyond the spring of 2022.
“Take it year by year, I guess,” he said. “But I don’t think I’ll be pulling a Chelios or a Z.”
Chris Chelios was 48 when he suited up for his final NHL game with the Thrashers. Boston captain Zdeno Chara (1,456 games) will be 42 next month.
“Right now, I’m too far [from retiring] to put too much thought into it,” Bergeron said. “Management seems fun, but it’s also very time-consuming. Never say never, I like to say, but we’ll see.”
How odd. For anyone who has paid close attention to the first 999 games of his career, Bergeron has always seemed to know precisely the next step. Now with his career timeline shortening, the sky’s limit reached, he’s truly not sure where the play leads from here.
“Who knows?” said the maestro. “Maybe take some piano lessons. I don’t remember any of it. I’d love to learn that again.”
The bet here, 1,000-1, is that he nails it.