Ten years ago, Patrice Bergeron forced the hockey world to learn his name a lot earlier than it was supposed to.
For an inexperienced second-round pick to take over an NHL camp and make the team as an 18-year-old is extremely rare. Then again, rare is a word that’s often been used to describe Bergeron.
“Honestly, I can't say that I surprised myself, because that would be unfair,” Bergeron told WEEI.com this week. “When you show up, when you play, when you go on the ice, you want to accomplish something, you want to prove people wrong. I think that's the approach that I had. Even though I was also realistic that I thought I would go back to junior, I still wanted to be the best I could be and be a surprise at camp.”
Bergeron came so close to not making the team that he was informed of his cut prior to the Bruins’ first 2003 preseason game, but his play and character so impressed the Boston coaches and management that they couldn’t justify sending him back for what would have been just his second year of junior hockey in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
“I remember at the time I kept talking to [then-Bruins scout] Daniel Doré, and I kept calling him and saying, 'When are you sending Patrice back home?' ” Réal Paiement, Bergeron’s QMJHL coach, said this week. “[He said,] ‘Very soon, Réal. Very soon.' A week later, I'd call. 'So when will you send Patrice back?' And he would say, 'Very soon, but you know, the guys really like him.'
“I called him the next week and [he said], 'You know what, Réal? He's coming, he's coming. We're going to send him back, but the coaches really like him now.' The next week was, 'You know what, Réal? We're going to keep him.' He wasn't in their plans at the beginning; he just grew on them as he had grown on us.”
The Bruins were a team that was expected to contend; they’d made the playoffs the previous two seasons, and though they had a new coach and a goaltending tandem consisting of an aging Felix Potvin and a not-yet-proven Andrew Raycroft, they weren’t a team that was looking to rush a teenager -- especially one with a résumé as limited as Bergeron’s.
Not only was Bergeron not perceived to be NHL ready, he was still viewed as a player who was developing in the QMJHL, where he had only played one season with strong but not spectacular results.
Yet in that 2003 training camp, Bergeron gave the NHL the first of many examples of his signature work ethic and hockey smarts, forcing the Bruins to keep him on the roster and give the future Selke winner a head start on a legendary career.
“From Day 1, as soon as he stepped on the ice, there was that 'wow' factor,” Martin Lapointe, Bergeron’s teammate and off-ice mentor in the 2003-04 season, told WEEI.com. “The way he was on the ice, composed and really calm. The way he dealt with that situation at that early age was incredible. It showed management that there was something in the kid that was really special, and he's been showing it since Day 1 and keeps doing it.”
Just months after drafting him, general manager Mike O’Connell and the Bruins had “no expectations” of Bergeron in the immediate future, and they weren’t crazy for thinking that. When players make the NHL at that young an age, it’s usually because they’re a top-five pick going to a weak team and can struggle without the team worrying about winning.
Not only was Bergeron able to make the team at the age of 18, but before long he made himself a top-six player for the Bruins, recording 16 goals and 23 assists for 39 points over 71 games as a rookie. The Bruins learned quickly that the sky was the limit for Bergeron, whose mere presence on the roster alleviated the natural concerns that came with the idea of trading young captain Joe Thornton the following NHL season.
“He was as polished as he is now,” O’Connell said of Bergeron. “He was a mature kid who just got it. It's the reason we made the trade. We traded Thornton. We thought that Patrice was the guy, the type of player you want to build your team around.”
'CAN HE SKATE?'
Though Bergeron made the Bruins in 2003, he was just two years removed from not making his QMJHL team. A fifth-round pick of the Acadie-Bathurst Titan, Bergeron wasn’t kept for the 2001-02 season because the team couldn’t envision the 5-foot-10, 145-pounder (as Paiement recalls) getting much ice time on what was a strong QMJHL roster.
He also had never played at the Midget Major AAA level, having spent the previous season playing Bantam AA, so the Titan told him to play a year of Midget Major AAA, dominate, and join up with them the next season.
He did just that, turning a strong season before finishing the campaign with the Titan. By the time he finally got to play his first full season in the “Q,” Bergeron was 17 years old and in his draft year.
As far as his NHL chances stood, Bergeron didn’t have the body of work to be viewed as a serious NHL prospect. He recalls not even being ranked on the Central Scouting Bureau’s preliminary list. Yet as the season went on, he played at a point-per-game pace and the scouts began showing up. He more than passed the eye test.
“There's that player that goes in flashes and you learn as you watch him, you see that he doesn't do a lot of the little things,” Paiement said. “Patrice is the contrary. He's the type of guy that you [watch] the first time, and he's playing and he's good, and you see him the second time, and you [notice] he's doing all the little things.”
Yet when the scouts would go to see Bergeron, they came with one big question: Could he skate? Scout after scout asked Bergeron’s coach about his legs, and Paiement had an answer for them.
"My answer was just saying, 'I don't know about his skating, but he ends up on the other side all the time,' " Paiement said. " 'He ends up between the D and the net all the time, so he must be doing all right with his skating.' "
Bergeron’s reaction was different. Rather than going the typical play-with-a-chip-on-your-shoulder route, Bergeron listened. Professional scouts thought that his skating wasn’t good enough, so he took power skating lessons and made his skating a priority leading up to the draft.
By the time the season was over, Bergeron had recorded 23 goals and 50 assists for 73 points in 70 regular-season games. He added six goals and nine assists for 15 points in 11 postseason games.
He also had gotten bigger. The once 5-foot-10, 145-pounder now was 6-foot-0 and 178 pounds. When Central Scouting came out with its final rankings, Bergeron was the 28th-ranked North American skater.
“He grew on the scouts as the year went on,” Paiement said. “He's not the type of guy that started in the first round and ended up in the second. He probably started in the seventh round and ended up in the second.”
PARISE OR PATRICE?
When the 2003 draft rolled around, the Bruins held the 16th overall pick and had three players targeted for the selection. Atop their wish list was Zach Parise, a center from the University of North Dakota who was coming off a freshman year in which he had 61 points in 39 games to make him a Hobey Baker finalist. Parise was ranked well ahead of Bergeron and was the ninth-ranked North American skater by Central Scouting.
The other players who drew first-round consideration from the Bruins were American defenseman Mark Stuart and Bergeron. When it came time for the Bruins to pick, all three players were available.
Rather than taking Parise, which they would have done had they stayed in the slot, the B’s rolled the dice. Hoping that at least one of their coveted players would still be there, O’Connell worked a deal with the Sharks (no, not that deal with the Sharks) to move down five spots to No. 21. The Sharks took Steve Bernier with the 16th pick. Then the Devils pounced, trading up to No. 17 to nab Parise and give O’Connell a decision to make.
The Bruins liked Bergeron enough that they would have taken him in the first round, but they banked on other teams not feeling the same way. Stuart was the higher-rated prospect and the B’s hoped the 17-year-old Bergeron’s lack of experience -- something they were happy to overlook -- would cause teams to overlook him in the first and early second.
“New Jersey stepped in and took Parise, and then came the decision where we take Stuart or Bergeron,” O’Connell said. “We took Stuart because we felt [we might] have a chance at Bergeron later on because of his lack of history.”
Everything went according to plan, and when Bergeron was available at No. 45, the B’s made the pick. They hadn’t gotten their top target in Parise, but they had just selected a lesser-known name who was poised to become one of the most important players in franchise history.
'I COULDN’T HEAR OR READ WHAT WAS GOING ON'
While the bullet-points version of Patrice Bergeron’s path to the NHL will note that he made the team out of training camp, it was actually his rookie camp performance the week before training camp that gave the Bruins an indication that they might have something special.
Bergeron, who at the time was 18 years and one month old, was the youngest player in the team's rookie camp. He also was in a new country and still learning English, all while not really knowing anyone.
As Bergeron recalls, those factors helped him focus on hockey. He was nervous as he took the ice in front of his new bosses for the first time, but in a time of utmost uncertainty, hockey was the one thing he could control.
“Obviously, I couldn't hear or read whatever was going on about if I was doing well or not, so I didn't have to worry about that, that's for sure,” he said.
With the tunnel vision the situation allowed him to have, Bergeron excelled. He stood out among the group of older, more established prospects and earned himself an invitation to main camp. Bergeron had accomplished his goal of leaving a positive impression, but the invitation put a bigger, far more unlikely goal in front of him.
“I was like, 'Well, it's good. My name's out there,' ” he said. “I’d shown that I could play in it and make something happen earlier than expected.”
The run wasn’t supposed to last much longer, though, as Bergeron would be the QMJHL fish in an NHL pond. He’d get his taste of what NHL players were like, and then he’d wait his however-many years to become one.
'I’VE NEVER SEEN A KID MORE MATURE THAN PATRICE BERGERON'
Back then, the Bruins were nothing like they are now. There was no salary cap in the league, and their owner wasn’t the most generous guy in the world when it came to signing veteran players. As such, O’Connell wouldn’t finish the offseason with a complete roster, but rather a core group and some spots here and there that would either be filled by a younger player or a veteran who came across the waiver wire.
There were young players (Andy Hilbert among them) who had more experience and seemed to be legitimate candidates to make the team. In O’Connell’s mind, he had an idea of which guys he figured would push for roster spots, but Bergeron wasn’t one of them. That slowly changed.
“He came in and he was really good the first day,” O’Connell said. “He was really good the second day. He was really good the third day, then the fourth day, 10th day, 12th day.”
His play didn’t just catch the eye of coaches and management. The quiet young forward soon began standing out to veteran players. What figured to be a day or two on the ice together soon turned into the makings of a top-six line.
“At first when he came into camp, nobody knew about him,” Lapointe recalls of first seeing Bergeron. “We had no expectations. He'd go back to juniors, follow the development that he was supposed to take, and in two, three years, maybe four years he would make that big step. But every practice, every scrimmage, he would impress a lot.”
Lapointe, who was drafted 10th overall by the Red Wings in 1991, was in awe of Bergeron. Not only was he holding his own with NHL players, but there was no cockiness, no immaturity. There was nothing that made any veterans uneasy about having him on the team.
“My first camp, with me being the first pick of Detroit, first round, I thought that I had it made,” Lapointe recalled. “I came to camp 20 pounds overweight. But this kid didn't act like that. He was really focused, and he had a plan in mind. In that sense, he was more mature than me. He shaved a couple of years off his development to play right away, instead of me, learning from my mistakes and coming to camp the next year a lot more impressionable.
“I had to learn from my experience from the year before, but this kid never missed a beat. He knew what his plan was, he followed it and earned a spot at a very early age. His maturity was exceptional. I've never seen a kid more mature than Patrice Bergeron.”
'YOU’RE GOING TO GO HOME'
The Bruins were happy with what they’d seen from Bergeron. He had strong showings in each training camp session, but he was told early in camp that he would not be making the team.
The decision was made to let Bergeron play in the first game of the preseason against the Canadiens in Montreal and leave him behind in Canada, where he would return to the QMJHL. Doré gave Bergeron the bad news, padded with words of encouragement.
“He said, 'Well, you're doing well. Keep playing like that,’ ” Bergeron recalled Doré saying to him. “ 'You're going to play the first game in Montreal and then you're going to go home after.'
“I was like, 'All right, fair enough. I'm pretty happy that I got a chance to play a game. I never thought I would.’ ”
Then the game came, and a strong performance from Bergeron, capped by an overtime goal, kept his unlikely stay in Boston alive.
“I had scored in overtime, and they were like, 'You're coming back to Boston,' ” Bergeron said with a big smile. “It was like that pretty much for the rest of camp. We had nine games and I played in all of them.”
Indeed he did, and with each game came the opportunity to remind the Bruins that he was a kid who had his second junior season waiting for him.
As the preseason went on, the promised trip back to Quebec never came. At the end of the ninth game came something else: a contract.
“It was very exciting,” Bergeron said. “It was the perfect way [for camp] to go.”
Yet the contract by no means meant that Bergeron had made the team for good. Teams are allowed to play junior-eligible players for nine games before deciding whether to use up the first year of their entry-level deal, so O’Connell and the B’s planned on closely monitoring how he played to determine whether to keep him.
As it turned out, they wouldn’t have had to monitor anything other than box scores to make a decision. Bergeron had two goals and five assists for seven points through his first nine games, and the team elected to not only keep him but move him onto one of their top two lines with Lapointe and Brian Rolston.
“It's not like the spots were necessarily there for me, but I felt like they gave me a chance, and I really need to thank them, all of them -- Mike [O’Connell], to Jeff Gorton, to Mike Sullivan -- they gave me a chance. That's all you can ask for really, and then you have to seize it.
“They said that before camp, and sometimes they don't necessarily follow through with it, but they did. They made room for me to make the team, and I'll always be thankful for that.”
'A BIG REASON WHY I AM WHO I AM NOW'
When Martin Lapointe made the Red Wings, he was a young Quebec native who was in a new country and faced very similar uncertainty to what Bergeron would face in Boston. Steve Yzerman made things a lot easier on him, inviting Lapointe to live with him.
Lapointe was always grateful for what Yzerman did for him, so he was quick to open his door to Bergeron.
“I just wanted to give some back,” Lapointe said. “He was a kid from Quebec, we were both French-Canadian, and I know how it feels to be thrown into a big hockey world being so young against 20s and 35-year-old men, and on top of that not being able to speak the language that well.”
Lapointe and his wife invited Bergeron to live with them and their two children, with Lapointe recalling the 18-year-old being “like a big brother” for his kids.
“You can tell he was so genuine the way that he did it,” Bergeron said of the gesture. “I can't thank Marty and his family enough for what they did for me that first year. I really learned so much from him. He's a big reason why I am who I am now. I've learned so much on and off the ice as a leader just by watching him. He was a huge help, huge help for my development that year, for sure.
“I don't know what I would have done as an 18-year-old on my own in a new country, new language, new everything. That would have been really hard, but he made it a lot easier on me.”
Lapointe was more than just a landlord and linemate for Bergeron as a rookie. He was the guy Bergeron followed, the guy he would take after. As Bergeron recalls, Lapointe was never an overly vocal guy, “but when he was, guys were listening.”
“He'd lead by example,” Bergeron said. “He always worked the hardest, always tried to be the hardest worker on and off. I remember him doing the biggest workouts after a game. After a huge game he was still doing whatever it was -- squats, bench press -- and putting a lot of weights on it. He was trying to pull me into it and push me to do it. I was doing it because he was doing it, and as a young kid that's what you want to see from leaders: guys pushing themselves and trying to get better.”
'IT GOES SO FAST'
As the season went on, Bergeron put together a campaign that, aside from missing 11 games with a shoulder injury, was as promising a first season as his teammates could ask for.
“He took pride in faceoffs,” Lapointe said. “He was one of the best and is still one of the best. In his zone, he was really responsible. He wanted to defend first, made sure he did a good job defending, and when the puck was in the offensive zone, his talent and his skills took over.”
Not only did Bergeron find himself succeeding in the NHL at a young age, he found himself doing it on a team that looked to be a legitimate Cup contender. Raycroft had emerged as a starting goaltender en route to winning the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, while O’Connell liked the team’s chances so much that he made the B's major buyers at the trade deadline, making big splashes for the likes of Sergei Gonchar and Michael Nylander.
The Bruins would finish second in the conference but were upset by the Canadiens in the first round. It was their third straight first-round exit and they were months away from a season that would not be played, but that season had given them a star.
Since then, pretty much everything but Bergeron has changed. Raycroft would become ineffective and traded for some guy named Tuukka Rask. Thornton was traded. O’Connell, Sullivan and Doré were fired. A new regime was brought in, and with it came the Stanley Cup.
As for Bergeron, he’s only become one of the premier players in the NHL, the 2012 Selke Award winner as the top two-way forward in the league and a leader cut from the same cloth as Lapointe. He overcame concussions early in his career and is the best forward on a perennial contender.
And he’s still 28 and signed for the next nine seasons.
“It's crazy. It goes so fast,” Bergeron said. “To think it's been 10 years already is hard to believe almost, but I've learned so much throughout the league and I feel very blessed to have the chance to have such a long career when I still have a lot more left ahead of me, hopefully. It's exciting.”