By Larry Wigge
You see Patrice Bergeron in all crucial situations. This 6-4, 194-pound dynamo and captain for the Boston Bruins.
The situation is no different for the Boston Bruins without Bergeron than the Edmonton Oilers without Mark Messier or Wayne Gretzy or the Philadelphia Flyers without Bobby Clarke or the Pittsburgh Penguins without Mario Lemieux. You need a goal late in the game, Bergeron is out there. Got to kill off a penalty, Bergeron is out there. Need a faceoff win, Bergeron is the guy.
Even when he was a second-round surprise in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft straight to the NHL, Bergeron showed the star power and leadership from the moment he stepped on the ice.
But back in the early part of the 2007-08 season his career could have been over with a Grade 3 concussion, after Philadelphia's Randy Jones slammed him into the boards a jolting thud. In this concussion-crazed world we live in the sports today, Bergeron must remember how close he came to being finished.
Yet, he has recovered from the incident and scored two goals in a 4-0 victory in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals to lead the Bruins to their first title since 1972. Bergeron has good memories beyond the concussion.
"After winning the Cup, I definitely believe that everything happens for a reason. I can handle adversity a lot better," explained Bergeron.
He looks at things with a 35-year-old mind, instead of just 26. He's overcome that fear of missing all but the first 10 games of 2007-08, a reminder of the concussion one year later and a glimpse of the symptoms causing him to miss the first three game of the Finals.
"I think we've all grown as players here experience-wise," he said. "Individually and as a team. It's experience you can't buy. It's definitely made me a better person. I think it makes me appreciate it even more."
During his seven seasons in the NHL, no one has every accused the 27-year-old center from Ancienne-Lorettta, Que., native, of looking for the offensive flow that comes with an All-Star. He topped out at 31 goals and 42 assists in 2005-06, his second year with the Bruins.
When you consider that had two goals three times in a seven-game span to get his totals to 15 goals and 38 assists at the All-Star break.
"Certain players really make you feel comfortable," Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien explained. "They always seem to be in the right place. Patrice is one of those guys that really reads the plays well. I don't have to go up to him on and correct him or tell him to make certain adjustments.
"When he does get caught out of position a little bit, his work ethic just kicks in -- he works twice as hard to get back. That’s why right now, he’s known around the league as one of the better two-way players. He just works so hard. You understand why at the end of a game he’s always exhausted, because he leaves it all out on the ice."
He listened to veteran star Mark Recchi and learned a lot from the veteran.
On the day before the biggest game of his life, Bergeron listened to what Recchi told him. Then he went out and helped the Boston Bruins win a Game 7 for the Stanley Cup.
"I was getting nervous," said Bergeron. "His advice was to relax, go out and play. Elevate your game. I did that."
He doesn't want to repeat the past -- yet he does because it's a part of his resume.
The pain kept Patrice Bergeron from watching his teammates play. Not from the press box, not from his TV at home after playing in 10 games in 2008-09.
"I couldn't do anything," Bergeron explained. "The light was bothering me. The noise was bothering me. Everything was.
"It was giving me headaches, making me dizzy. I couldn't do anything to pass the time. I was pretty much trying to go through the day, trying to sleep and rest -- and feel better."
Boston GM Peter Chiarelli praised the forward's mental toughness.
"He's a very strong person, strong-willed," Chiarelli said. "Quiet, but strong-willed."
Bergeron is getting his game timing back. He wants to prove he's the same player he was before the concussion. Even after the second concussion.
"The game speed is what I need to adjust to the most," Bergeron said. "All my skills are there. It's matter of finding the back of the net pretty much.
"That's the risk you take when you step out on the ice," Bergeron said, insisting he was never concerned the injury could be career-ending. "It never crossed my mind. I know I'll be back. I'll be back as soon as I can. Whatever happens, it's going to be the best for me, and I hope it will be this year."
He was fitted for a new one-piece helmet with softer padding that's designed to absorb the repeated hits that a player takes through the course of the game. And as far as getting cleared to play again, Bergeron believes that’s a mere formality.
At the worst point, Bergeron remembers making his way home to Quebec City, during his absence from hockey, the first time in some five weeks he strayed more than a few miles from his downtown Boston condo. With his mother, Sylvie Bergeron-Cleary, at the wheel, they motored the six-plus hours north, leaving behind both TD Banknorth Garden and a growing, irritating case of cabin fever.
"The walls were kind of closing in on me at the end," he recalled. "So it was good to get out of there, you know, to get a change of scenery, see my family. But most important, just be able to relax, have some quiet time . . . and just look at something different than those walls."
He said he stretched every day and goes for walks. With his improved concentration and focus, he has been able to make those walks a little longer each day.
Improvement a few steps at a time.
That in a nutshell is Patrice Bergeron. He explained that when he was drafted he took everything much more seriously, starting with nutrition and training his body.
"I realized I could get there and I could get to the next level," said Patrice. "I was always at the gym, but I felt that with a personal trainer, I would do the right things and they would teach me really what to do.
"Now, I’m working out with other NHL'ers and they have the same goal that I do. Having that makes you want it even more and sometimes you see them putting more weight than you on certain drills, so you want to catch up.
"It’s just, I guess, a challenge for me in the summer and it helps me get ready for the season."
"Relentless," is the word that Julien used to describe Bergeron.
The evolution of Patrice Bergeron, the high and lows, shows a very determined athlete just coming into his own.