By Joe Haggerty
VANCOUVER Theres been an interesting little piece of urban legend passed along as fact when it comes to Patrice Bergeron.
The 25-year-old Bergeron signed a three-year, 15 million contract extension with the Bruins in Prague prior to this season, and made a commitment to the team that drafted and developed him as an 18-year-old pleasant surprise out of Quebec.
Bergeron was beyond overjoyed to continue the working relationship with the city thats become home over the last seven years. He even had one long, involved private conversation with Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli at the Prime Ministers Palace in Prague exactly one night before formally agreeing on the contract extension.
This is where things get a little wonky.
The whispers, the word on the street and the rumor mill had it that Bergeron was lobbying to gain assurances from the Bs brain trust that hed have a bigger offensive role in Boston after several down years in the goal-scoring department.
He had taken on more of a defensive stopper role under Claude Julien, and Bergeron supposedly wanted some kind of offensive guarantees from Chiarelli before signing on the dotted line.
That kind of theory might hold some water in an age where so many professional athletes fret and fawn over their own statistics, but theres a giant problem with that line of thinking when it comes to No. 37.
Theres simply not even a shred of truth to it.
No, that never happened, said Bergeron. The conversations I had were all about making sure the right pieces were going to be in place for us to be competitive, and to make sure the Big Guy Zdeno Chara was staying in Boston too.
Offensive numbers are nice and of course everybody wants to contribute, but thats not what it was ever about. I wanted to know what the long range plan was for the rest of the guys on the team. I wanted to know how we planned to keep everybody together. It had nothing to do with me individually, and its never been about that.
Thats the quintessential Bergeron answer to a question that wraps his entire hockey essence into a few quotable sentences.
The center has earned respect around his locker room and around the entire NHL world for that matter because of the selfless attitude and willingness to place the name on the front of the sweater way, way ahead of the French-Canadian name on the back.
The ironic thing about all of this?
The way matters have worked out, Bergeron is enjoying his best offensive season in five years for the Bruins.
In fact the two-way center is having his best overall NHL season while just entering his prime years that combine his considerable physical gifts, his ever-present drive and motor and the experience that comes along with being a seven year NHL veteran.
It seems like a very long time since he was tossed into the fire as an 18-year-old rookie on a Bruins team that featured high profile players like Joe Thornton, Mike Knuble, Brian Rolston, Sergei Gonchar and Glenn Murray, and all those experiences have molded him into a pretty special hockey package.
Ive always loved him, said Recchi of Bergeron. Last year was a very good year for him, and it was really a stepping stone. He was one of the top defensive players, and this year hes putting together better offensive numbers to where he was capable of. Hes so smart, so physically strong and so hard to play against and hes such a good guy.
Hes become a great leader on this team, hes really stepped up and he understands what it takes to be a leader both on and off the ice. He was leading by example on the ice, but now he can talk to guys about things and he feels comfortable doing that. Everything has evolved with him, and its been great to see and watch.
Bergeron has 20 goals and 29 assists in 60 games for the Bs along with a plus-21 this year, and is on pace for 27 goals and 67 points in what would be his best offensive season since the 2006-07 Boston campaign. He leads the Spoked B tribe with 13 multiple point games and has heated up for 12 goals and 13 assists in his last 22 games.
Back in his first few seasonshe was still manning the No. 1 offensive line for Dave Lewis in a doomed season of hockey, and the points came much more easily.
The two-way pivot has already potted 20 goals this year for the first time since his pre-concussion seasons coming out of the NHL lockout, and has figured out a way to balance both his offensive and defensive duties for the Black and Gold.
Bergeron heard the doubters that had him pegged as a glorified checking center incapable of again hitting the 30-goal and 70-point bar hed set for himself early in his career. He simply ignored them for the greater good of the team.
The center was willing to make offensive sacrifices in order to neutralize the other teams playmakers, but was fairly certain he would have it all in his hockey career.
The defensive responsibilities would be the only reason I would think that, said Bergeron when asked if the thought ever crossed that he might never get back to his former offensive level. It was never about me doubting that I was still that kind of player because I knew I was. I know some people out there doubted me, but not me. I know that Im the same player. I just needed some time after my role changed.
For me the thing Im my most proud of is the two-way game, said Bergeron. To be able to put up the same kind of numbers now is a lot different than my first couple of years. The first couple of seasons when I was putting up numbers like I am now, I was more of a first line guy. I wasnt put out there in defensive situations. Ive learned a lot over the years, Ive gotten better at the defensive side, I take pride in it and I dont think Ive let my defense slip at all this year because the offense was there.
Bergeron isnt one of those characters in sports like Dustin Pedroia or Tim Thomas that imagines doubters anywhere and everywhere, and uses it like rocket fuel to prove them horribly and terribly wrong.
Hes instead been the kind of player that simply wants to beat you and take the puck away because hes A) ultra-competitive and B) respects the game of hockey thats provided him with things he never thought possible.
Its that unwillingness to give up on puck battles and the ironclad strength when it comes to possession that opens up comparisons to New York Islanders legend Bryan Trottier, who Recchi played with in Pittsburgh at the end of his NHL career. Recchi said Bergeron strongly resembles Trottier with his heaviness and solidity while handling the biscuit, and thats not a bad comparison considering Trottier cleared 500 goals and 1400 points in the NHL.
Bryan Trottier was very similar to Bergeron. He had a similar body type and he was really hard on the puck, said Recchi. Hard on people, hard on the puck and he just wasnt going to be denied. He was so strong on the boards. It wasnt like he was out crushing people, but he just has that physical element where hes so strong.
I think the world of Bergeron and to me the Bruins locking him up was a huge step. He wanted to stay here and be part of this. I love coming to the rink every day because I know Im going to be playing with Bergeron, and obviously he makes life a lot easier for me.
Bergeron could play keep away with just about anyone in the NHL, and rarely loses possession because bigger, stronger and faster opponents simply cant get the biscuit off Bergerons Reebok stick. In a game where puck possession is king, that kind of skill set is worth its weight in Black and Gold.
That mixture of competitiveness and tough-minded skill has always made Bergeron a good match with Recchi on forward lines, and this season theyve found their perfect compliment in the skilled, gritty, speedy Brad Marchand. The chemistry and shared high skill level has helped Bergeron regain much of his offensive game from the post-concussion days, and its also brought the centers name to the forefront when it comes to award consideration.
I think we scored three goals against Buffalo in that first game together, and you could tell right away that it was a good fit, said Bergeron. He is that energy guy that we needed to have success on that line, and he has that speed and unwillingness to quit on any pucks.
A sad but true NHL fact: its not a 40-point scorer that wins the Selke Trophy no matter how good a defender that NHL player might be.
Youve got to be an offensive superstar to also be considered among the leagues best defensive forwards, and Detroit Red Wingers forward Pavel Datsyuk is living Selke proof of that over the last couple of seasons. Expanding his offensive numbers has allowed Bergeron to enter into the Selke conversation with Datsyuk, Vancouvers Ryan Kesler and Chicagos Jonathan Toews, and build on last years body of work that allowed him to finish fifth in the Selke Trophy voting when it was all said and done.
Bergeron is among the NHLs top ten in faceoff percentage with a 56.5 percent success rate in faceoff wins, and hes second among Bs forwards behind newly acquired center Chris Kelly with 2:05 of shorthanded ice time per game on a penalty kill thats been solid for Boston all year. That coupled with his impressive plus-20 while routinely matching up against the other teams best players has spurred Bergeron on the path back from underrated two-way player to budding superstar.
Theres little doubt Bergeron will get some Selke consideration at the end of the year, but there are other pieces of hardware hes fixed his eyes on.
That stuff is always something specialand it means a lot, said Bergeron. But I really mean it when I say that awards in hockey are something I don't really believe in. The other stuff doesnt really matter all that much. Its about winning at the end of the year, and hoisting that Cup over your head. Im sure any guy that wins any of those awards would trade it for a Cup. I truly and honestly mean that. It's nice, but it wouldn't change my life at all.
The Bs center was getting pigeon-holed into the defensive stopper role hed grown to love with the Bruins while skating in Claude Juliens system, and that was unfortunate.
But those labels simply dont apply anymore, and cant contain Bergerons expansive gain.
Bergeron has proven once and for all hes the best Boston has to offer on their current roster, and that both he and his hockey team are in the exact kind of place they need to be with the playoffs looming.
Its been fun. Weve got a good team thing going on, said Bergeron. Ive enjoyed the season so far, and its been fun to be a part of. Im just trying to fit in and be a part of it, and just do my job.
But it can really only be fun if you go far in the playoffs, and really make something out of it. Thats the goal for all of us and Im not looking to far ahead.
Thats the beautiful thing about Bergeron: theres no hidden agenda, subtext or dual meanings to anything he says.
Its what makes him a burgeoning leader inside the Bs dressing room, and its exactly what has allowed Bergeron to build himself all the way back up into a two-way force of nature for the Black and Gold.
Contrary to what some might have said, what you see is exactly what you get with the hard-charging, dogged Bergeron.