On Bergeron and the pursuit of perfection

Bergeron3

Nobody’s perfect.

In Patrice Bergeron’s case, at least when it comes to his profession, perfection is a closer goal than for most.

Boston’s lone representative at the NHL’s All-Star festivities in Nashville has done it again- showing fans around the world that stardom at hockey’s highest level does not require blazing speed, flashy offense or a larger-than-life off-ice persona. The 30-year-old center brings none of that to the table, though I bet if you polled GMs around the league and had them pick 5 players to build a franchise around, Bergeron would be on more of their lists than not.

On Sunday, Bergeron returned to the building where the Boston Bruins called his name for the first time, selecting him in the second round of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, a year that is going down as one of the strongest collective drafts in league history. For those who may not be aware, the B’s picked up Bergeron with the 45th overall selection, and it was a compensation pick awarded them by the league when Bill Guerin had taken the money ($9 million per season) and run to Dallas. Back in those days, the entry draft was nine rounds, and the NHL had rules to protect teams from being plundered by the big spenders of the world with a compensatory formula that involved the amount of money departing free agents got. In other words- the bigger the coin, the higher the pick, and Boston landed one of the highest extras that year.

The rest, as they say, is history.

But, for those who followed the draft closely back then, Bergeron’s eventual success in the NHL as a champion on multiple levels and the undisputed class of all forwards defensively, he was anything but a household name when the B’s drafted him ahead of some of the more flashy names that were available at 45.

Bergeron’s journey from under-the-radar, solid but unspectacular Quebec League pivot to impressive NHL rookie at age 18 and an eventual Stanley Cup and two-time Olympic champion (to go with multiple other titles to include the 2005 World Jr. Championship and MVP accolades) is one of personal discipline, focus and a will to constantly seek self-improvement. He didn’t explode onto the NHL scene in 2003 with the excitement and draft pedigree of others in his peer group, but his ascension to the ranks of the league’s elite has come with consistency and class, as he overcame two of the bigger knocks that can derail a hockey player’s NHL dream faster than the Kardashian sisters change their looks: size and skating.

Bruins assistant GM Scott Bradley, who was Boston’s chief amateur scout at the time, recalled going to an Acadie-Bathurst Titans game early in the 2002-03 campaign to see offensively skilled defenseman Bruno Gervais. He came away smitten with No. 37, a first-year center who had spent his 16-year-old season playing midget AAA hockey because he was unable to stick in the QMJHL as a full-time player. From that moment on, the die was cast- a series of events was set into motion that would ultimately see that youngster not only drafted, but eventually evolve into the face of the Bruins franchise some 13 years later.

It isn’t like other NHL teams didn’t know who Bergeron was. Central Scouting had him ranked in their top-30, though when you factored in a very strong European contingent that year, he projected to land somewhere in the mid-to-late second round. I spoke to one NHL scout based in the Maritimes in Nashville on the ’03 draft’s second day- back when rounds 1-3 were done on a Saturday and 4-9 occurred on Sunday- and asked him about Bergeron. He liked him enough, but expressed concerns about Bergeron’s height (he was pretty average at the time, hovering around 6-foot) and lack of foot speed. He did point out how creative and smart Bergeron was, however, and liked where Boston got him.

That fall, Bergeron not only impressed the Boston brass at his first training camp, but got the attention of the one who mattered most at the time: rookie head coach Mike Sullivan. He made the club out of camp, scored his first NHL goal against the Los Angeles Kings a few weeks later (October 18, 2003 to be exact), and some 12 years later, has added 224 more and is closing in on 600 points for his career. If not for an entire season lost to lockout, nearly an entire year gone to a massive concussion suffered on a hit from behind in 2007, plus another half-season wasted in another lockout, he’d be closer to 800 points and 1,000 games.

Bergeron has quietly become the player that just about every hockey fan wishes was theirs. He’s always been serious and dedicated, but he plays the game the way he lives his life: disciplined, effective, with honesty and integrity. Like the kid who sat inside the net and watched his peers skate in beginning hockey before getting up and joining in the game that would eventually become his way of life, Bergeron’s rise to NHL super stardom has been deliberate.

One NHL scout told me over coffee in Buffalo during the 2011 World Jr. Championship that his one real regret in a long career scouting amateur players for the same team was not pushing harder for his club to draft Bergeron in 2003. “We coulda had him,” he lamented with that wistful look a man gets when he knows in his heart his gut had been telling him to act, but he didn’t seize the initiative. “I know things would be a lot different for us if I had taken more of a stand in our room before the draft.”

Perhaps. Probably.

But what happened instead was that another team, with a scout who went into a fateful junior game with zero expectations, saw all he needed to and then leveraged his power within the Bruins organization to act.

Bergeron is now that grizzled veteran that Marty Lapointe was in 2003 when he took the young Quebec City native under his wing. He has a noticeable scar on his upper lip- a reminder of the countless battles in the trenches on the 200 x 85 sheet of ice. His presence and poise is a testament to those contests. He’s just about seen it all, and has the medals to prove it. Best thing of all, at least from Boston’s perspective, is that he’s still very much in his prime, so he will keep adding to his growing legend.

The pursuit of perfection is a worthy goal. Some people come closer to it than others, and Patrice Bergeron is one of them. Perhaps Boston Globe reporter Amalie Benjamin said it best in her recent piece about how Bergeron is perceived around the rest of the league over the All-Star weekend when she closed with this:

So he’s good, sure. But perfect? That’s a lot of pressure to put on a fellow hockey player.

“Well, I mean, there’s not that many of them out there,” Duchene said. “I think if you asked most guys in the league if there was a perfect player out there, who would it be? I think most guys would say him.”

One thing seems to be certain: Bergeron is the perfect Bruin. And for those who love the team, that’s perfect enough.

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