Friday Flashback: Patrice Bergeron in 2003

Saw an article on brood IX of cicadas, who went dormant in 2003 and will soon be coming out from underground in Virginia and the Carolinas to live for several months this summer before their progeny will go back down for the long siesta. That got me thinking- in the 17 years those bugs have been in hibernation, Patrice Bergeron has built a Hall of Fame resume with the Boston Bruins. Here’s another archived piece- written in November of 2003- Bergeron’s rookie NHL season, after he made the B’s roster as an 18-year-old and quickly showed signs of the greatness that was to follow. In the time the cicadas went into the earth, he’s become a pretty damn fine hockey player- the nonpareil of Bruins draft picks until David Pastrnak came along in 2014.- KL

“The Boston Bruins select, from the Acadie-Bathurst Titan of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, center Patrice Bergeron-Cleary.

Boston Bruins v Calgary Flames

With those words from the team’s amateur scouting director Scott Bradley, the B’s made a relatively innocuous pick at the 2003 NHL Entry Draft in Nashville last June.

Little did anyone know, the Quebec City native, not even going to be 18 for another month, would soon be an immediate impact player from a draft class touted as one of the best in years. Little did anyone know, the quiet kid who was physically unimpressive and who carried a 28th-best ranking from NHL’s Central Scouting Service (CSS) among his North American peers was about to establish himself as the undisputed early steal of the entire  ’03 crop.

When the B’s passed on Zach Parise with the 16th overall pick, instead opting to send the selection to the San Jose Sharks and drop down five spots to 21, draft-savvy fans were incensed. Message boards  lit up with questions about the wisdom of passing on Parise, whose father J.P. was a former Bruin before the Minnesota North Stars grabbed him in the 1967 expansion draft. The younger Parise was coming off of an outstanding freshman season for the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux, and was highly-regarded for his tremendous character and tenacious skill game despite a lack of ideal size. It seemed that Parise would be the right prospect to pick up in the wake of the news that Jozef Stumpel had been dealt back to Los Angeles the night before, even though it looked like the Minnesota native would be a few years away from the NHL.

But the Bruins had other plans, and dealt the pick to San Jose, who promptly took another high scoring forward in Steve Bernier before New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello and his top scout David Conte swooped in with a trade and grabbed Parise 17th. Four selections later, the Bruins took defensive defenseman Mark Stuart out of Colorado College, one of Parise’s U.S. NTDP teammates.

No one saw it coming, but in passing up a chance to draft Parise and Ryan Getzlaf, who had been taken 19th overall by Anaheim, the Bruins had their sights set on another forward whom they believed was going to be a real difference-maker, and who wasn’t very far away from the NHL at all.

Make no mistake: it wasn’t too difficult a choice to make between Stuart, who was more a victim of the deep draft despite being a top player for USA Hockey for several years, and Bergeron, who had only one single season of major junior hockey under his belt, after playing AAA Midget and Bantam the two previous years in his native Quebec. The rumor is that the B’s had Bergeron rated in the first round, and were tempted to take him at 21st overall, but they knew that Stuart would not lost until the middle of the second round where their next pick was. So, the Bruins rolled the dice and took Stuart first, hoping that Bergeron would still be there when they picked again in the middle of the second round thanks to the compensatory pick they received Bill Guerin signing with Dallas  the summer before.

Bergeron was there when Boston’s turn came, and it ended up being a relatively unheralded selection at 45th overall.

As for the rest of us in the media, the pick was met with a collective, “So what?” After all, Bergeron was anything but a household name among a group of prospects that 90% of NHL fans wouldn’t know from Adam. In other words, we made our way down into the bowels of the arena to the media interview section not expecting a great deal from this latest draft pick. Would he even speak English? How long would he last at his first professional training camp?

Bergeron, who mentioned that he would drop the hyphenated Cleary from his surname, met the press with little fanfare as he answered the standard line of questioning. He quickly put to the rest the notion that he would have problems fielding questions in English, even with a thick French accent.

Are you happy with where you went today? “Very happy. It was the first time where I had to wait and it didn’t matter.”

What kind of a player are you? “I’m a playmaker. I like to set up the goals, but I also like to score them.”

Is there anything about your game you’d like to improve? “Definitely my skating, and I want to get stronger, too.”

And so on. Bergeron answered our questions and then was whisked away to complete his in-processing with the team. After the Bruins selected Masi Marjamaki at the bottom of round two, we all met with Bradley to discuss the day’s action. It was there that we began to get an inkling of how pleased he was that they had gotten Bergeron.

Bradley used terms such as “special player,” “great vision,” and “tremendous skill” to describe him. He talked about Bergeron’s outstanding performance in the playoffs, and how he had become Bathurst  coach Real Paiement’s go-to guy on offense after beginning the season as the Titan’s third-line center. Bradley also said that while the Bruins liked Parise, there were about five other players rated just as high who were still on the board. Dropping five slots guaranteed that they’d still get one of those five, while gathering an extra two selections to further bolster their prospect depth in a very good draft. It was a trade they felt they had to make.

With the good fortune of being at the same hotel in Nashville as Bergeron was, we were able to connect for a later sit-down to capture more of his thoughts beyond the superficial post-selection media scrum.

Bergeron first apologized for his rough English skills. Nevertheless, he was surprisingly articulate for one so young. He talked about his love for hockey and the Quebec Nordiques growing up. He said that he had immense respect for Joe Sakic as a player and a person, but admitted that he admired Adam Foote for his tenacity and nastiness. He did not hesitate to comment on his dislike of the rival Montreal Canadiens. He was glad to be drafted to an Original Six team like the Bruins.

Bergeron also said that he realized that his skating needed work, and that because he had average height, he needed to get stronger if he was going to be able to make the eventual transition to pro hockey. To that end, he hired a personal trainer and power skating instructor immediately after his junior season ended, and had been working out ever since.

His favorite thing to do outside of hockey and training is watching movies, especially comedies. “Dumb and Dumber” is his all-time favorite, but he chuckled when he talked about the “crazy humor” of Will Ferrell’s streaking scene as Frank “the Tank” in National Lampoon’s “Old School.”

You couldn’t help but notice a quiet intensity, beyond his years. That’s not the same as thinking he would make the team and jump out to the early lead among rookie scorers, but I figured he might stick around for a few weeks and maybe even play in an exhibition game or two.

As it turns out, that projection was wildly off-base. And in a good way.

It is now November, and Bergeron hasn’t looked back since arriving to Bruins training camp and turning the place on its head. Martin Lapointe took the rookie under his wing from day 1, and has even opened his house up to Bergeron, where the rookie is spending his first year out of the province of Quebec away from his family and friends. From the moment he took the ice for his first rookie camp scrimmage until opening night, Bergeron has not looked out of place in the slightest.

The below-average skating? Not a problem. Bergeron may not be a blazing fast skater, but nor is he slow-footed or noticeably behind the play. He is in the middle of the action, and unless you’d read the scouting reports that he lacked acceleration and a quick initial burst, you’d never know that it was a shortcoming in his game.

The alleged lack of strength? Not a problem. Bergeron has freely given and taken hits, not playing a physical style, but not shying away from contact either. The money paid to Raymond Veilleux, who also trains Simon Gagne, has been worth it. Bergeron does not look out of place, and can more than hold his own down low and in the corners.

Bergeron may or may not keep up his scoring pace that saw him tally three goals and eight points in his first ten games before going scoreless in his last two, but for the NHL’s youngest player and a guy who wasn’t even on many pre-draft radars in June, he’s been the early surprise of the 2003 draft.

As for Boston, it looks like they hit one out of the park. Bergeron’s early success has galvanized the team, and has fans starting to get more interested in Bruins hockey because so many of the new faces on the club are young and not the old retreads the team was known for bringing in over the past several seasons.

No. 37 doesn’t look out of place at all. If anything, it looks like the team has done wonders for its future, and Bergeron is at the center of it all.

 

For perspective on how far he’s come since 2003, here’s the classic Patrice Bergeron rookie year Massachusetts license plates commercial with Andrew Raycroft compliments of NESN…”Great plates! I want them too.”

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