June 10, 2012

From NEHJ: All hail Bergeron

By Jesse Connolly

"We were three or four weeks into training camp and there’s this 18-year-old kid sitting in the corner, and he’s still around. And you’re like, ‘Who is this guy?’” Mike Knuble recalled. “He turned into a phenomenal player. He’s a classy guy and a leader on his team, and a leader at both ends of the ice.” 

As hard as it is to believe, it’s been nearly nine years since a fresh-faced youngster by the name of Patrice Bergeron came out of nowhere and broke camp as a member of the Bruins in 2003. As a second-round pick that summer, there was little to no hype surrounding the 6-foot-1 center heading into the season, but he flew under the radar and earned himself a spot with the big club.

In looking back at his NHL career thus far, Bergeron always has flown under the radar. Despite notching 39 points in his first pro season, he wasn’t even the most heralded rookie on his own team, as goalie Andrew Raycroft won the Calder Trophy as the league’s Rookie of the Year. When he notched back-to-back, 70-point seasons coming out of the lockout, nary a national media outlet batted an eye, as the Bruins were in the early stages of rebuilding and nowhere near being considered Stanley Cup contenders.

When they finally did reach that point, Bergeron was in the midst of working his way back from multiple concussions that cost him roughly a full season between the 2007-08 and 2008-09 campaigns. And though they certainly had huge impacts on the team’s turnaround, nearly all of the credit from observers outside of New England went to the likes of Marc Savard, Milan Lucic, Tim Thomas and Zdeno Chara.

But make no mistake about it: Even dating back to his first camp in 2003 when he grabbed the attention of Mike Sullivan (Marshfield, Mass.) and the rest of the Bruins’ coaching staff, Bergeron has long been one of the most widely respected players by teammates and opponents alike.

“Obviously with ‘Bergy,’ the first thing you think about him is how he’s a true professional with the way he conducts himself on the ice and off the ice,” Bruins forward Chris Kelly said. “He shows up to play every game the exact same way and he plays a lot of minutes on a lot of given nights, and they’re not easy minutes he plays. He plays all three zones and does a lot of those little things that go unnoticed by a lot of people, but they’re the reason why this team has success.”

Kelly got an early glimpse at what Bergeron might be capable of, as the two competed against one another in the AHL during the lockout in 2004-05. Kelly was skating for the Senators’ farm team in Binghamton, while Bergeron was leading the way for the Providence Bruins. 

“It’s extremely tough. He makes all those smart little plays that make him so special,” Kelly said when asked what it’s like to go up against Bergeron. “I remember playing against him during the lockout year, and he was 19 at the time. My line was against his line, and I remember thinking how strong he was for a 19-year-old. 

“That year, the American (Hockey) League was one of the best leagues in the world. There were a lot of great players that came down to play in the American League that year. I remember thinking this kid at the time was pretty strong and pretty skilled.”

Throughout the entirety of Claude Julien’s tenure as coach, Bergeron has worn just about every hat imaginable for the Bruins.

Got to win a key faceoff? Put in Bergy. Need a shift to swing momentum, a big goal, a timely defensive stop? How about someone to shadow the opponent’s top offensive threats for an entire playoff series? You can count on Patrice.

“He’s one of those guys that if you want to build a franchise, he’s the kind of guy you want on your team and you want to build it around,” teammate Brad Marchand said. “He’s the kind of player you need to win championships. 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 last year if it wasn’t for him.”

After years of doing all the little things for the Black and Gold, the Bruins’ Mr. Everything finally got some long overdue recognition thanks to his superb performance during the Bruins’ championship run last spring. Scoring the game-winning goal in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, among other things, will do that.

“He deserves it,” Marchand said. “He had a couple tough years, going through concussions and what not. The way he’s been able to bounce back and become the best defensive forward in the league and still put up the numbers he does is incredible. For him to get the recognition he has, he’s earned every bit of it.”

In addition to being profiled on the National Hockey League’s all-access look into the lives of its top players, “NHL 36,” Bergeron generated plenty of Selke Trophy buzz throughout the season. Along with Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk and St. Louis’ David Backes, he formally was named as one of the three nominees for the award annually presented to the league’s top defensive forward.

“He deserves to win it, not just be one of the candidates,” Marchand said of Bergeron, whose plus-36 rating and 973 faceoff wins were tops in the NHL. “He’s earned it and hopefully it will go in his favor.”

While Bergeron graciously will accept the trophy if his name is called at the NHL Award show later this month in Las Vegas, the fact remains that the Bruins’ pivotal pivot has never clamored for adoration from the masses.

Off the ice, Bergeron carries himself in a reserved manner. When it’s time to stand up and say something, Boston’s alternate captain has the attention and respect of everyone in the room, but the mild-mannered Quebec native just wants to show up, work his hardest and be the best he can.

“He’s pretty quiet. He’s a professional,” Kelly said. “He takes care of himself and he’s a well-respected guy. When he says something, people listen. He just goes about his business. He doesn’t like the glamour. He’s not looking for the spotlight. I think that’s what’s more endearing about him. A lot of the time he just goes out there and does his job and doesn’t look for any credit.”

Marchand, however, gives Bergeron plenty of credit for helping make him a better player and a better pro.

“You see how dedicated he is on and off the ice to get prepared for every game. He wants to be the best player every single day, in practice and in games,” Marchand said.

“When you see a guy like that, you want to be like him, you want to practice like him and play like him, and carry yourself off the ice like him. Every year you see he continues to get better and better, and that’s why.”

Flashiness has never been Bergeron’s forte outside of the rink, which in a way reflects how No. 37 plays the game. He doesn’t have a sensational slap shot in his arsenal or towering size or blazing wheels. What Bergeron does have is remarkable versatility.

“Defensively he just doesn’t get beat,” said Knuble, whose Washington Capitals squared off against the Bruins in the first round of this year’s playoffs. “He doesn’t look that quick, but he actually is. You think he’s not great with the puck, but he’s extremely slippery. He does everything very well. He’s not going to dazzle you, but his teammates sure as hell appreciate it and his coaching staff appreciates what he does every night.”

Bergeron sustained an upper-body injury in Game 3 against Washington, straining his oblique muscle. It worsened in Game 5, causing his speed and ability to maneuver on the ice to be significantly hindered. He couldn’t even take faceoffs. But with his team’s season on the line, stepping off to the sidelines was never an option. Bergeron — who approximated he was playing at 60 percent — had to rely on pain-killers to get through the rest of the series.

And while his gutsy effort was all for not, as the Bruins lost in overtime of Game 7, the center’s courage and selflessness earned him high commendations from his coach.

“It speaks volumes with this guy,” Julien said after the Bruins’ win in Game 6, during which Bergeron had an assist and whose lone appearance at the dot was a key faceoff win in the defensive zone. 

“Any time we talk about this player there’s always something new that comes up, but that makes him an even greater player. I think as much as he’s extremely respected in the room, somehow he became even more today.”

Bergeron has long been respected and infinitely appreciated by everyone throughout the Hub of Hockey, but it’s certainly nice to see that the rest of the hockey world has finally caught on and realized just how vital he has been and will continue to be for the Bruins. That 18-year-old kid in the corner sure turned out to be pretty special.

This article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Jesse Connolly is the Bruins beat writer for New England Hockey Journal and is the
editor of hockeyjournal.com

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ 

Email: jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com