Patrice Bergeron: More than just a brain on skates

Patrice Bergeron: More than just a brain on skates

Patrice Bergeron was not present inside the Verdun Auditorium when the Acadie-Bathurst Titan called his name with the 80th overall selection in the 2001 QMJHL Entry Draft, the last pick he was eligible to be drafted as a 15-year-old.

Instead, the L’Ancienne-Lorette, Que., native found himself in the parking lot in the scorching Montreal sun, assuming he had not been drafted and blissfully unaware that the road to a Stanley Cup title, multiple Olympic gold medals and a Hall of Fame-worthy resume had just begun.

Plucked from Obscurity

Director of scouting for the Titan, Jacques Blouin, alongside scout (and Bergeron’s Bantam AA coach) David Smith were the two leading the charge for Bergeron on the Titan scouting staff, with their plan being realized at the last possible moment.

“David said, ‘If we are not picking Patrice Bergeron, I don’t know what I’m going to do,’ ahead of the last selection of the fifth round,” reflected Blouin to The Toronto Observer. “I said to him, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to pick him’.”

While the Titan scouting staff was high on the centre, Bergeron wasn’t a known commodity at the time, or even playing at the AAA level for that matter. Otherwise, he would have been drafted a lot higher than the final pick of the fifth round.

Quebec Midget AAA Hockey Development League’s press conference for the unveiling of a trophy in the name of alumni Patrice Bergeron in 2018. TOMA ICZKOVITS/QMI AGENCY

Going into the draft, Blouin and his team had three Bantam AA players that they had their eyes set on, two of which had strong NHL bloodlines. Maxime Tanguay was the younger brother of Alex Tanguay, the Colorado Avalanche forward that just a week before the draft won the Stanley Cup by scoring two goals in Game 7 of the 2001 Stanley Cup final over the New Jersey Devils. The son of three-time Stanley Cup champion Pierre Mondou, Benoit, ended up getting drafted in the third round, and would experience immediate success with the Baie‑Comeau Drakkar, earning rookie of the year honours.

This left Bergeron, with no NHL lineage, still on the board. However, Bergeron’s parents, Sylvie Bergeron and Gerard, played a critical role in bolstering the 5-foot-7, 145-pound teen’s hopes of playing in the QMJHL.

“We had a really good interview with his parents,” said Blouin on their first meeting. “We saw that the parents were pretty tall, as well as his brother (Guillaume). It was interesting to see all of these components.”

“But the main thing was his character, along with his great hockey sense. He had good hands, but there was a lack of speed at the time. He did not have the speed to play at the first level, or to be an impact player.” 

Teen Titan

The season after getting drafted by the Titan, Bergeron returned to Saint-Augustin-de-Desmaures, this time pacing his AAA midget team in scoring with 73 points in 48 combined regular season and playoff games, interspersed by four games with the Titan around Christmas time.

While Bergeron’s single assist in the four QMJHL games he played wasn’t noteworthy, his mere presence made an impact. Just six months out from his draft date in June, Bergeron had sprouted four inches and added 20 pounds to his frame, something that caught assistant coach Sylvain Couturier off guard when he joined the team the next season.

“When I got to Bathurst, I asked (head coach) Real Paiement, ‘How did that guy go back to midget? He wasn’t good enough last year?’,” Couturier told The Toronto Observer. Couturier has been with the team for 20 years and is now the general manager.

Bergeron suiting up for his lone season with the Acadie-Bathurst Titan in 2002/03. ACADIE NOUVELLE ARCHIVES

Bergeron quickly worked his way into a role as the second-line centre, primarily playing with fourth-year winger Karl Fournier on his right, and the Buffalo Sabres’ third-round pick the summer before, Michael Tessier, on his left.

While that new-look line was a great second option, it was still firmly behind the Titan’s top unit of 19-year-olds Olivier Filion and Jonathan Ferland, and 20-year-old Janis Sprukts, a group that combined for 231 points in 169 games in the 2002/03 season. The Titan also featured one of the best goaltenders in the league, Adam Russo.

All of this added up to the third best record in the league at Christmas break. With the Titan’s recent history of going to the final in 2001 and recording the best record in the league in 2001/02, the sustainability of Bergeron’s start came into question for a team that was clearly built to win now.

“At Christmas you try to improve your team through trades and the discussion at the time was with Patrice only being 17, if he was going to break down in the second half,” said Couturier about Bergeron’s rock solid start, where he put up 40 points in the first 38 games. 

“But we couldn’t get any better than Patrice on the market even though he was 17, and sure enough he just kept progressing, and I think he got better as the year went along. All of our worries about him being 17 faded away. And in the playoffs he was amazing, he was our best player for sure.”

Bergeron came back after the Christmas break to go on a five-game, goal-scoring streak, the longest streak for a Titan player that season. He kept his point per game pace after the break, recording 33 points in his final 32 games, then took it to another level in the playoffs, with 15 points in 11 contests.

One of those playoff games was more consequential for Bergeron’s NHL draft stock than the rest.

Boston Bruins scout Daniel Dore had been heavily involved in scouting Bergeron in the 2002/03 season, which led to Bruins head scout Scott Bradley being in attendance for the second game of the Titan’s opening series against Chicoutimi at the K.C. Irving Regional Centre in Bathurst in late March.

Bergeron notched the only hat trick of his QMJHL career that night, adding three assists and winning 80 per-cent of his draws.

As is the case with many critiques of Bergeron’s game, the box score didn’t tell a fraction of the story.

“What stuck in my mind was to see how they used a kid like that, right off the bat,” Bradley told The Boston Herald. “He was playing the power play on the back end, he was quarterbacking, he was penalty killing. For a young kid like that who was playing his first year, it is very rare.”

While the four-time Frank J. Selke winner as the best defensive forward in the NHL was best known for his offensive contributions in the early part of his career, the cerebral element of his game still flashed his patented defensive acumen at 17-year-old.

“Just the way he positioned himself on the forecheck, his stick was always in the right place,” said Couturier, who has seen his fair share of talented defensive forwards first-hand, playing with Selke winner Steve Kasper on the Los Angeles Kings, along with being the father of 2020 Selke winner Sean Couturier.

“He was on a different level defensively, he knew where the puck was going to go before it got there and his anticipation was probably the best I’ve seen in junior hockey.”

Unconventional ascent to NHL stardom

While the capacity to think the game was and still is clearly present at every level he’s played at, the 2003 off-season was a monumental one in terms of his body playing catch-up.

“Off the ice, he was a pro at 17,” said Couturier, who had an inkling that Bergeron would not be returning after Bergeron put up six points in a pre-season game for Acadie-Bathurst before departing for Bruins camp. 

“His preparation was top notch and he took care of himself. He took care of his body, and he rested well. Everything you expect out of a pro, he was doing at 17.”

Patrice Bergeron’s game-day routine as a 26-year-old in the NHL as detailed by NHL 36 was built off of his habits that he developed as a teenager.

After being drafted 45th overall by the Bruins in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, Bergeron put that professional mentality into action well before he stepped back onto the ice. 

The soon to be 18-year-old hired personal trainer, Raymond Veillette, and power-skating coach, Julie Robitaille, shortly after being drafted in June. By the time Bergeron stepped into camp for the Bruins, he was listed at 6-foot and 172-pounds. Three years after being drafted into the QMJHL as a 5-foot-7, 145-pound 15-year-old, the body had caught up to the point where Bergeron was not only ready to make the NHL, but to make an impact at the highest level.

Outside of the obvious hockey IQ that always made itself apparent, the raw and deceptive strength he had largely defined his game in the early part of his career, whether that was skating with more explosiveness, engaging in puck battles, being strong on draws in the face-off circle, welcoming contact, or holding onto the puck.

“There were times when he took the puck, and he was so strong, so determined,” said former Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli to The Boston Globe after being with Bergeron for one year heading into the 2007/08 season. “I’ve only seen that in a couple of players, and the other one is (Marian) Hossa.”

While Hossa’s rise to stardom followed a much more linear path, the lockout of 2004/05 put that notion to bed not just for Bergeron, but for all young players trying to make their impact on the league.

After a successful debut season that saw Bergeron place fifth in rookie scoring with 39 points in 71 games, along with flashing off some explosive skating by potting an overtime winner in Game 2 of the Bruins first-round series against the Montreal Canadiens, Bergeron’s next stop was Rhode Island, playing for Boston’s AHL affiliate Providence Bruins.

In a time where there was a lot of uncertainty in the NHL, the AHL offered a unique sense of stability for young players trying to make a name for themselves, including 23-year-old left wing Andy Hilbert, a talented forward out of Michigan who finished as a finalist behind Ryan Miller in 2001 for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award as college hockey’s top player, and produced at over a point per game pace in 2002/03 for Providence in the AHL.

“You could be leading your AHL team in points and someone goes down on the fourth line in the NHL and they call you up and slot you in,” Hilbert told The Toronto Observer, who to that point had played 155 games in Providence and 38 with Boston since being drafted in the second round by the Bruins in 2000.

“It’s great to get that call-up because you want to be in the line-up, but it’s a very different dynamic to play in a different role. It’s one of the best times I’ve ever had playing professional hockey that season in Providence. There’s always healthy competition and it’s very competitive, and that season we were all just together as a team. Mentally it probably made it a bit easier.”

After a rookie season where Bergeron played both the wing and centre positions, and with numerous different linemates behind a clear Bruins top line of Mike Knuble, Joe Thornton and Glen Murray, the youngest player in the AHL found immediate chemistry with Hilbert in a top line role, alongside right wing Keith Aucoin.

This chemistry extended past playing together at even strength, as Providence had the fourth best power-play in the AHL, with Bergeron quarterbacking the top unit from the half-wall, commonly finding Hilbert occupying the net-front for a number of backdoor goals. On the penalty kill, the two teamed up again, operating an aggressive unit that combined for four short-handed goals. 

The duo occupied a role in Providence that was not all too dissimilar from the role that Bergeron has occupied for the last 10 years in the NHL alongside left-winger Brad Marchand. Hilbert ended up leading the team in scoring in both the regular season and playoffs with 100 total points, while Bergeron recorded 73 points in 84 combined regular season and playoff games.

The only thing that split the two up that year was the month that Bergeron was loaned to the legendary 2005 Canadian world junior team, already with a gold medal in his trophy cabinet from playing at the 2004 world championships in Prague.

It was in North Dakota at the world juniors championship that Bergeron first played and struck gold with Sidney Crosby, a process that has repeated itself three times since at the 2010 and 2014 Olympics, and the 2016 World Cup, with another potential opportunity in front of them at the 2022 Olympics in Beijing. With Crosby and Corey Perry as his linemates, Bergeron once again took advantage of his top-line role, leading the tournament in scoring and taking home MVP honours.

Maintaining place on top of the mountain

While Hilbert’s time as Bergeron’s linemate came to an end when he was traded coming back from the lockout for the 2005/06 season, he teamed up with Bergeron’s world junior linemate Crosby in Pittsburgh just a year later, putting up 18 points in 19 games alongside the rookie phenom, notably burying a 2-on-1 feed from the Cole Harbour native in the game that Crosby eclipsed 100 points.

As one of just a handful of players to play alongside arguably two of the smartest players in recent memory, a list that that includes players such as Mark Recchi and Marchand, Hilbert offers a unique perspective on the similarities between the two.

“In a weird way they’re like versions of each other,” said Hilbert after a long pause to gather his thoughts. “One’s right-handed, one’s left-handed. They consistently do everything well.” 

“I think Patrice is stronger at both ends, and naturally has that defensive mindset which helps that aspect of his game, whereas Crosby has that tenacity and compete level that helps make him a better defensive player. They both have great vision, and obviously Crosby is more explosive and dynamic than Patrice, but playing with them, they’re still very similar players.”

The explosive component of Crosby’s game is something that has been on full display for years, with his edgework arguably being the best aspect of his game. While Bergeron doesn’t have that same dynamic skating ability, as much as it has improved since it was identified as an area that needed work as a teenager, there is a simple way that Bergeron helps make up for that.

“Skating is such a huge part of being a good hockey player, but his angles are so great,” said Hilbert of Bergeron’s ability to combine his hockey IQ with his feet to put himself in the best position. “I think a lot of it is natural, some of it is probably muscle memory. There’s a difference between working hard and working smart, and he works smart.”

Fifteen years after Hilbert played with Bergeron, the same thought still applies to his game. 

While the 36-year-old may have lost a step in terms of top line speed, he hasn’t lost his geometrical bearings, which allows him to be impactful at both ends of the ice, whether it’s reading passing lanes, taking the best angle to the puck for recoveries, or positioning himself in open space to receive the puck.

Another thing that the Bruins captain hasn’t lost is his strength.

“I think (Mikko) Koivu was similar to Patrice, at least defensively,” said Hilbert, who played briefly with the long-time Wild captain in the preseason and the start of the season in 2010/11. 

“I think a lot of guys like Koivu and Patrice go under the radar. They’re not flashy all the time, they’re just solid and consistent. Are they doing anything crazy? Sometimes they do, but it’s more about their consistency.”

Noted defensive stalwarts Mikko Koivu and Patrice Bergeron can often go overlooked for their contributions away from the puck, something that a metric such as puck battle win metrics try to capture, of which Koivu and Bergeron were the top two forwards in the league in the 2019/20 season.

Bergeron’s 18-year career has not been without its downs, most notably his concussion issues that impacted both his play and availability between 2007 and 2009. The ups, however, are a lot more difficult to discern, as his consistently effective play muddies the perception on when Bergeron has truly been at the top of his game since his streak of 10 straight seasons of being a Selke finalist began in 2011/12. And one could argue even before that when he placed in the top five the two seasons prior.

While Bergeron’s rapid development as a teen can largely be attributed to his literal growth both on and off the ice, the same hockey sense that got him noticed as an undersized 15-year-old is the same thing that allows him to be an elite player in the NHL over two decades later.

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