By Larry Wigge
Philadelphia Flyers coach Peter Laviolette has no problem seeing that passion and excitement in the face of veteran center Danny Briere.
In overtime January 7, Briere completed his first hat trick of the season by scoring with 5.4 seconds left in overtime to rally the Flyers for a 3-2 victory over the Ottawa Senators. Oh, yeah, Danny topped of this night with the third fight of his 779-game.
"I saw the look on Danny's face. It almost like a smile," Laviolette said. "I seen it often enough to know that he's going to do something special."
Briere, who had 13 goals and 16 assists in 36 games this season, was on that night against Ottawa.
Briere recalled early in his life as coach of the Laviolette was on his side in December 2009.
"I remember facing yet another challenge," Briere said. "Things weren't going well for me and the Flyers. And coach Laviolette took me aside and said he wanted me to play my game. He said to be aggressive, force the play. He wanted an up-tempo offense.
"That meant the world to me. It's not something I've heard from the coach."
It's a given that you are going to hear the stories about how certain players worked to make their God-given talents better. And there are surprisingly a lot of other stories about how athletes overcome adversity to make it to the top. Well, Briere is a 5-8 3/4, 177-pounder, that most skeptics said was too small, too this or too that.
You know the story. It always ends with "but ..."
"Yeah, he's good, but he'll never make it at the next level."
"It started," Briere said, head held high after helping the Eastern Conference to victory at the All-Star Game in Dallas in 2007, "when I heard the parents of some of the players saying it. I was just 12 at the time. I was playing Peewee for the Gatineau Ambassadors."
No one is daft enough to question Briere's abilities these days. Not only is he a vital part of the Flyers.
"All a kid wants is recognition that he's playing hard and trying to win. Not stuff like, 'Yeah, but that's about as far as he'll go.' Or 'he's good, but he's still too small,' " Briere rattled off excuses he's heard through the years.
There also was a devilish little smile on the Gatineau, Quebec, native's face. But ...
"I heard it all the way through. I'd make the next level and it would be, 'He can't do this, he can't do that,' " Briere added. "You can't let it get you down, so you start to use it as motivation to show the doubters."
Making a positive out of a negative?
"Exactly," he added. "Who knows, if I was 6-2 or 6-3, I might not have the drive, the passion for the game that I do now."
I wondered if the 35-year-old center with soft hands an innate ability to survey the offensive zone to decide whether to make a play or take a shot believed in first impressions.
"Absolutely not," he said. "It's not how you look. It's how you perform."
No whispers. That was heartfelt praise for a player small in stature with a big, big heart. But times were often demanding in junior hockey and would continue to be rough.
"I remember when I started juniors, I was 140 and I was regularly battling with guys 200 and 220 pounds," Briere said of his time playing at Drummondville of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League at a time when bigger was believed to be better, where a good big man could lean on a good little player, legally or not, and neutralize him. "I was small, but it was something I was never afraid of. It didn't matter to me how big they were. I knew I wasn't there to fight those guys or outmuscle them. I learned how to play against big guys. Every once and a while, I got crunched, but I did pretty well staying out of trouble.
"GMs thought if you could find a guy who is 6-4, you could work with this guy and make him a player, where a guy who is 5-8, 150 pounds, they thought it would be hard to get height on him and add weight. For me personally, it was a good thing. I had a lot of people tell me that if I were 6-feet tall, I would have been the first overall draft pick, so I always had motivation to prove people wrong, people who said I was too small that I could play at the next level."
But the whispers, the innuendos, were still there -- even after Briere had an astounding 67-goal, 96-assist pre-draft season at Drummondville and led the league in goals, assists and points. Mind-boggling numbers. Still, he barely made it into the first round of the 1996 NHL Entry Draft, going 24th overall.
Briere grew up idolizing Wayne Gretzky for obvious reasons. But being down the road from Montreal, he also enjoyed watching Mats Naslund of the Canadiens. And Pat LaFontaine tore up the Quebec League.
"I felt that, 'If they could survive at their size and be stars in the NHL, maybe I can, too,' " Briere said confidently.
There are countless players who have had to overcome to become great. Just look at Martin St. Louis, the NHL's Most Valuable Player in 2003-04. Drive and inspiration from the too-small syndrome. It's not just size and speed. It's what's in a player's heart and stomach and head that allow the smaller guys to overcome the obstacles they've faced in trying to make it in the NHL.
New challenges. New obstacles ... like when Daniel cleared waivers in his fourth year in the NHL 2000-01 at Phoenix. A FOURTH time.
"Every single team passed me by," Briere said, clenching his fist a little. "That was probably the lowest point of my career. That was a big blow to my ego because you realize that nobody wants you. At the same time, it was a wakeup call that I needed to change some things. My goal after that was to prove everyone made a mistake, so that's been my attitude since then."
"I asked my dad if he could find someone I could train with, I wanted to work harder on my strengths, not just my strength," he said.
Robert Briere, Daniel's dad, asked Hugo Girard, who was a competitor in Canada's World's Strongest Man challenges who shares Gatineau as a hometown, if he knew someone. Girard volunteered for the job himself.
"I was blown away when he looked at me and said, 'I've been watching your career and I think you need this, this and that,' " Briere laughed. "Then he asked me, 'Why do you want to put yourself through the training? The pain? And more pain?'
"I said, 'I don't want to be just another third- or fourth-line guy who just checks in every night for a few minutes. I want be a top-six guy. I want to make a difference.' "
Briere quickly went from an 11-goal player in 2000-01 and waived through the NHL to a 32-goal scorer for the Coyotes. Hugo helped Daniel with his core strength. His legs. His quickness. His stamina.
"He's really driven, never stops working, fighting, scrapping, trying," said Tampa Bay center Vincent Lecavalier. "I play next to a guy like that ... Martin St. Louis ... in Tampa every night. And Daniel is smart, just like Marty and shifty. Those characteristics, those intangibles, are difficult to defend."
It all started with Robert Briere, a hockey-playing wannabe, whose showed his son the right kind of passion for the game. Robert works as an insurance broker in Gatineau. Constance, his mom, showed her love for their family by teaching, nurturing kids at a neighborhood day-car center and she instilled the same kind of caring in her son.
"Confidence is the biggest thing in hockey," Briere said. "When you don't have it, you play scared. If you go out there afraid to make a mistake, you're useless. The best advice I ever got was from my Midget Coach, who said, 'Nothing is impossible, if you really, truly, believe in it.' "
First impressions of Daniel Briere? He wears passion on his sleeve and in his heart. He fearlessly challenges anything and anyone. Guts. Determination. Skill. He's a big talent and a bigger-than-life All-Star.
Up-tempo. He plays that way and his personality is that way.
And those in this big-man's game who believe there's no place for someone under 6-feet, you've just been taught a another little lesson in reality by the impact he's had on the Philadelphia Flyers and the rest of the NHL.