Player Profile 6: Patrice Bergeron-Cleary (L’Ancienne-Lorette, Quebec)

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Knowing that he is a popular figure amongst my readers and acknowledging the amazing game he had Monday night, I decided that now is the right time for this. I’m sure many believe that he was destined for this sort of success, but it actually took a lot more hard work and perseverance than you might have thought. More or less his entire life has been like his pro career – A great, fortuitous struggle to be noticed.

Patrice Bergeron-Cleary was born on July 24th, 1985 as the second child (older brother Guillaume having been born two years prior) of Gerald Cleary (a Quebec City public works employee and the son of a Northern Irish immigrant) and Sylvie Bergeron (a social worker). He was born and raised in L’Ancienne-Lorette, a suburb of Quebec City. His upbringing made him a lot of what he was and is today in regards to hockey. Growing up within QC made him a great fan of the Nordiques and model his play after some of his idols, such as Sakic and Forsberg. His family was a big influence as well, and though Guillaume’s own hockey career was not particularly long, it was sufficient to gain Patrice’s interest in the sport.
Bergeron spent most of his minor hockey career at A and AA levels with the Sainte-Foy Gouveneurs, cracking AAA in 2000 and switching programs, joining the Séminaire St-François Blizzard for the ’01-02 season. Patrice was not known for prolific offense (though he did average 1.63 points per game in his one AAA season), but his coaches loved him and scouts took note of him for his defensive forward work. It got him picked 5th overall in the 2001 QMJHL draft and position at center on the top line for the Acadie-Bathurst Titan’s 2002-03 season. That year he scored 73 points in 70 games and more or less guaranteed himself a future in the pros.

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Bergy at around age 16 during his tenure in the Q. (Photo courtesy of the Acadie-Bathurst Titan.)

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Patrice was selected by Boston as the 45th overall pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. His earliest experiences at this level were a huge culture shock, moving from the small city of Quebec to the town often referred to as “the Hub of the Universe”, and entering training camp knowing nearly no English. The process was made easier by the mentoring of fellow Quebecer Martin Lapointe (who also provided a bit of inspiration for Patrice by showing him mementos of his two Stanley Cup championships with Detroit) and captain “Jumbo Joe” Thornton. He must have taken in a lot, because his first year in the pros was a success, involving him scoring 39 points in 71 games and being selected for the YoungStars competition during All-Star weekend in Minnesota. He also provided steady offense in the postseason, with a goal, 3 assists, and a +5 rating in a first-round, seven game loss to Montreal. The next year was a bit of a breather, as a lockout caused by a disagreement in regards to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement eliminated the NHL season. Patrice wanted to stay active and did so with the Bruins’ AHL affiliate in Providence, Rhode Island. This was a very fruitful experience, with great year-end stats (21 g, 40 a, 61 pts.) and a deep run into the Calder Cup playoffs.

NHL action started back-up in the fall of ’05, and I have no reason to believe Patrice was at all prepared for what would occur. In November, Thornton was sent to San Jose in exchange for defenceman Brad Stuart and forwards Marco Sturm and Wayne Primeau. Bruins general manager Mike O’Connell was blasted for this move, but O’Connell did it in the interest of the franchise. The intent was to build the team around Bergeron rather than Thornton, as the management preferred Bergeron’s on- and off-ice character. Despite Bergeron’s career year of 31 goals and 73 points (played mostly on a line with Sturm and Brad Boyes), the Bruins bottomed out and missed the playoffs after a roster purge in which the team lost most of its valuable assets to free agency, resulting in the firing of O’Connell as well as coach Mike Sullivan (who was more of a victim of bad timing and bad decisions than anything else). Thornton went on to be the winner of both the Art Ross and Hart Memorial trophies, and there was a lot of doubt about O’Connell’s move having any benefits. But it would show to do so in time.

New general manager Peter Chiarelli definitely liked the idea of O’Connell’s plan, but wanted to take it further by surrounding Bergeron with talent and depth. In the off-season, Chiarelli’s first big moves were acquiring top tier defenceman Zdeno Chara (soon named captain) and playmaking centre Marc Savard. The individual talents were present, but did not work together right away and the Bruins again missed the postseason. It was a necessary bridge year and again had its victims, with coach Dave Lewis not returning the next year. Under a new defensive system developed by Lewis, Bergeron registered a second straight 70 point season in ’06-07 despite dealing with a nagging shoulder injury. Individual success was simply not enough and Bergeron wanted more out of the next season. But it simply didn’t go as planned.

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This was the dramatic turn. The stars on the team were looking fantastic and finally unified under the leadership of bench boss Claude Julien. Tim Thomas was convincing the fan base he truly was worthy of being the starting goaltender. Bergy had 7 points in the first ten games of the ’07-08 season and surely great success was in the immediate future. But one hit changed everything.

http://youtube.com/watch?v=6xAEetam6HQ

That was it. The Bruins’ next 72 games and another first-round loss to Montreal that could have gone differently were played in the absence of their greatest talent. Those were days that he spent in physical and emotional agony. At age 22, his career could have been over and Causeway Street could have had its greatest tragedy since Norm Leveille.

Fortunately, however, fate had other plans, and Patrice was symptom-free by the summer of ’08. To paraphrase some of the lyrics from the song “Clint Eastwood” by Gorillaz, his future was coming on.

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After such an injury, there was a lot of recovery time needed, but Bergeron’s re-development never slowed down. A brief scare occurred because of a mild concussion caused by Carolina defenceman Dennis Seidenberg (who became Bergeron’s teammate the next season), but otherwise ’08-09 turned out fairly well with the Bruins picking up veteran winger Mark Recchi, earning the first seed in the Eastern Conference, and sweeping the Habs out of the first round (a series in which Bergy earned his first career fighting major). 2009-10 provided more steps of development for Bergy as he earned a point total (52) closer to his usual output and a spot on Team Canada which would get him an Olympic gold. The season proved difficult, however, as Savard suffered a concussion at the hands of Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke which would deraill his entire career, and an unhealthy Bruins line-up went through a monumental collapse against Philadelphia in round 2 of the Stanley Cup playoffs. It was as if the hockey gods turned Boston into Sodom and Gomorrah and it was necessary to blow the team up and start over.

But eventually everything comes full circle. With Cam Neely becoming team president, the franchise made a statement – They were looking for more than just post season appearances. It was time for a Duck Boat parade.

Acquisitions such as offseason trades for Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell, the drafting of speedster and sniper Tyler Seguin second overall, and midseason moves for Tomas Kaberle, Chris Kelly, and Rich Peverley made the Bruins the full package they needed to be, reclaiming first in the Northeast Division. Drawing the Habs in the first round yet again, the task at hand was difficult from the very start with the power play being absolutely dismal. With the help of the clutch play of Horton, they eventually won in seven games (being the first team in NHL history to win a seven game series despite not scoring a single power play goal). The next round saw a rematch with the Flyers, but the 3-0 game lead the Bruins surmounted would not be relinquished this time, with the Black and Gold outscoring the Orange and Black 23-7 en route to a four-game sweep. Game Four was a scare, however, as Bergy suffered yet another concussion after a hit from Claude Giroux, keeping him out of the first two games against Tampa Bay in the conference finals. Seguin did a fair job filling in his roster spot, but no one replaces the master. With Bergeron leading the charge after his return and Thomas standing on his head, the B’s earned a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals after winning possibly the best seventh game in hockey history. Get at us, Vancouver.

The Finals consisted of finger biting, blind side hits, a lot of embellishment from Sedin, Sedin, Kesler & Co., and one of the most phenomenal goaltending performances in history courtesy of Mr. Thomas. In the end, the Bruins outplayed and outclassed the Canucks. Kiss our Stanley Cup rings. And who better to score the deciding goal in Game 7 (making this the only team in history to win three Game 7s in one playoff run) than that French-with-a-smidge-o’-Mick-Canadian kid who had been through and endured so much pain in pursuit of a dream? He did it. He reached the pinnacle he heard so much about from mentors such as Ray Bourque and Martin Lapointe. The glory was his.

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Next season, Bergy continued to have personal success with a total of 64 points (his best in five years) and the NHL’s best plus-minus at +36. He easily came away with the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the NHL’s top defensive forward, with the other two nominees (Pavel Datsyuk of Detroit and David Backes of St. Louis) only earning a handful of first place votes each. In regards to individual achievement, this was the moment. This was when Patrice finally got the acknowledgement from the league he deserved. This just goes to show where perseverance will take us. There were times when doubts crept into his mind, such as the times when even trying to read books during his long recovery after the Randy Jones hit was painful, but that simply carved him. With his persistence, mental fortitude, and the support of his coach, teammates, general manager, family, and longtime girlfriend Stephanie Bertrand (with whom he lives in the North End), Bergy came back rejuvenated and will forever be known as a Boston sports legend.

Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.

A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

Enjoy this, folks, and have a nice rest of your weekend.

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