The game was over. The season was over. And now Patrice Bergeron was lingering by the gate leading to the Bruins’ dressing room at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., hugging his teammates, one after the other, as they stepped off the ice.
First, it was David Pastrnak. The next was Brad Marchand, Bergeron’s teammate on the Bruins since Marchand’s NHL debut in 2009. The third man in was Charlie Coyle, born and raised just south of Boston in working-class Weymouth, and an 11-year-old Bruins fan with dreams of his own on the night of October 8, 2003, when Bergeron made his NHL debut with the Black ’n’ Gold.
Watching these Bruins being hugged by Bergeron following Boston’s 3-2 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 7 of this opening-round Stanley Cup playoffs series Saturday, I was doing what I’m guessing a lot of you were doing.
That is, looking for a sign, something, anything, that might indicate that Bergeron had played his last game as a Bruin.
But, no, there were no winks, no nods, that gave away Bergeron’s plans for next season or if there is to be a next season.
A few minutes later, Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy was the first from the organization to speak with the media. He answered the obligatory question about Bergeron this way: “Oh, I have no idea. I’m not the guy to answer that. I hope not. He means so much to this franchise. We all want him back, but only he can answer that. And I have no inkling. I have not addressed it with him.”
Yes, only Patrice Bergeron can answer that. And as of Saturday, he has no answer. Not yet.
“No, it’s too early,” he said. “It’s too fresh right now. It still stings, obviously. It was a hard-fought series. Came up short.
“I’m going to have to think about it,” he said. “But I’m not there right now.”
This latest early-round playoff exit is going to be placed under a Big, Bad Bruins Microscope in the days and weeks to come. Video will be reviewed, blame assigned. And any talk about Bergeron, now an unrestricted free agent, will include lots of what-might-have-beens but also a ton of what’s-next if the Bruins captain, who turns 37 on July 24, either retires … or … and decorum requires that this be mentioned as a possibility … signs with another team.
But if you’re an old enough Bruins fan to have gone along on the entire 18-year ride that has been his Bruins career, that means you were around on that horrific Saturday afternoon, Oct. 27, 2007, when Bergeron was sent splattering face-first into the glass after being checked from behind by the Philadelphia Flyers’ Randy Jones as the two skaters pursued the puck.
He was just 22 years old but already in his fourth NHL season. He was already a star, already a Bruin, and you know exactly what I mean by that. The Garden was silent as the kid remained on his back for a few moments, motionless. He was eventually placed on a stretcher and soon was on his way to the hospital, and to an uncertain future.
Twelve days later, Bergeron was allowed to speak with the media. It remains, all these years later, the most uncomfortable media conference I’ve ever attended. Bergeron was walked slowly into the media room at TD Garden, looking woozy and out of sorts. He was wearing a neck brace. He sat down uneasily, the way an old man does.
There were strict rules to this media conference: Five minutes of questions in English. Five minutes of questions in French. No one-on-ones. No TV hits. No call-ins to the talk shows.
“There has been improvement from last week,” he said that day. “I look at that as a positive and look forward to getting better.”
But, he said, “Obviously I would be lying if I said I feel good right now. It’s tough for me to be sitting here. I feel a lot of the symptoms from the concussion, and so far it’s hard for me to walk on two feet. I feel kind of dizzy and light-headed. Pretty much day-to-day stuff I would normally do is tough.”
I mention that day here because, as things happened, Bergeron turned out to be one of the biggest success stories in Boston sports history.
Yes, he did miss the remainder of the season as he recovered from a broken nose and a Grade 3 concussion. But he did return, and over the next 14 seasons, he was a Bruins stalwart. He was a key member during the Bruins’ Stanley Cup run in 2011. In 2013, after the Bruins lost in the Cup final to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games, he revealed he’d been held together with athletic tape and baling wire throughout the postseason.
“I had a broken rib, torn cartilage and muscles, and I had a separated shoulder,” he told reporters after Game 6.”
Bergeron has won four Selke Awards and counting. He was last year’s recipient of the Mark Messier Leadership Award. In 2013, he received the NHL’s King Clancy Memorial Trophy for humanitarian contributions.
If he decides to retire, there will be handwringing that he didn’t go out a winner the way, say, Peyton Manning did. Or that he didn’t do something extra special in his last game, the way Ted Williams socked a home run in his final trip to the plate. But don’t get caught up in any of that. Celebrate Patrice Bergeron now, whether he retires or returns to the Bruins, or, well, you know, goes somewhere else.
As for the last option — the going somewhere else part — I highly doubt that will happen. Yes, the Bruins nobly sent Raymond Bourque to Colorado so he could finally win a Cup, but, heck, Bergeron already has one of those. My read — a guess, really — is that when he does end his career it will be in the fashion of Derek Jeter, who decided he wanted to be a Yankee for life.
But whatever Patrice Bergeron decides, he can do so with a clear conscience. We may never again have another athlete who plays 18 or more seasons in Boston.
(Photo of Patrice Bergeron: James Guillory / USA Today)