QUEBEC CITY — The weeks went by, fall’s chilled pastel giving way to winter’s frozen white, another hockey season unfolding throughout puck-crazed Quebec. Sylvie and Gerard were patient, content that their 5-year-old son, Patrice, cared only to crawl and sit inside the net, dotting around the ice on all fours as the other kids took their first strides inside cozy Arena Jacques-Cote.
“I assure you,’’ recalled Sylvie Bergeron-Cleary, the mother of perhaps the top two-way player in today’s National Hockey League, “of all the kids out there, he was the only one not skating.’’ Patrice Bergeron’s slow entry into the sport that became his fame and fortune lasted some three months. Twice a week, Sylvie and Gerard made the 20-mile round trip to the arena in Sillery, with an eager Patrice in the back seat.
When would Patrice finally take a coach’s hand, or grab onto one of the chairs the other kids used, propped up like penguin hatchlings? “And finally, one day in December, he stood up in the net and started skating,’’ Sylvie said. “He turned to us, he smiled, his eyes lit up and he waved to us. We were stunned.’’ Now a 10-year veteran with the Bruins, Bergeron continues to surprise with his accomplishments, almost a quarter-century after those early days in the arena at the edge of the St. Lawrence River.
As the Bruins enter game five Saturday afternoon in their series against the Detroit Red Wings, the 28-year-old center has completed a season in which he scored 30 goals (tied for the team lead with Jarome Iginla) and cobbled together a career-best 13-game scoring streak that included 11 goals and 17 points.
Long considered a dominant defensive forward and among the NHL’s premier face-off specialists, Bergeron late this season emerged not only as a consistent offensive threat but also a Hart Trophy candidate for league MVP. He is not favored to win — Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby is the likeliest candidate — but he assuredly will draw some votes.
It’s all part of an increasingly expanding and impressive portfolio that has seen the persevering, understated Bergeron thrive despite a number of daunting physical knocks, including multiple concussions in recent years and, more recently, a collapsed lung suffered in last year’s Stanley Cup Final.
A Bruins alternate captain and one of the most respected voices in the locker room, he owns one Stanley Cup, a pair of Olympic gold medals earned with Team Canada, a Selke Trophy as the NHL’s top defensive forward, and another gold medal earned with Canada’s world junior team.
Bergeron, the kid who once had his parents wondering whether music and not hockey could be his future, these days is hitting all the right notes. “Hockey’s his passion — it has always been his passion,’’ recalled Bergeron’s mother. “He was, I think, 10 years old when he was taking piano lessons. The instructor thought he was talented. Then one day he came home and said he wasn’t going back.’’
The issue, recalled Sylvie Bergeron-Cleary, was that the music instructor suggested to Patrice that he should give up hockey to play piano. It was a brief conversation. “All done,’’ she recalled, still amused. “He never went back.’’
Street hockey days
Sylvie and her husband, Gerard Cleary, long a member of Sillery’s department of public works, have two sons, Patrice and Guillaume, who is nearly two years his brother’s senior. Guillaume played hockey until age 16 and moved on to concentrate on academics. He is a graduate of the city’s Université Laval and is employed by the Province of Quebec as a workplace health and safety inspector.
Both Sylvie and Gerard grew up in Sillery, the town where Patrice eventually learned to skate, only 3-4 miles south of Quebec City’s postcard downtown district. According to Sylvie, she played hockey for one year at age 14, a member of what was the first all-girls team in town. Gerard, like many Quebec native sons, played into young adulthood.
“He was a goon,’’ offered Guillaume, flashing the trace of a subtle smile, nearly identical to that of his younger brother. “He wasn’t a goon!’’ objected Sylvie. “Well,’’ added Guillaume, a trace of a smile still in place, “that’s what I’ve always heard.’’
The Bergeron-Cleary family lived in Charny, just over the Pierre Laporte Bridge, about 10 miles south of downtown Quebec, in the days when Patrice first learned to skate. Because of their age difference, the two boys rarely played on the same team, though they constantly played street hockey in front of the family’s small, tidy home on Rue de L’Etourneau.
“Those are my best memories of playing with him,’’ recalled Guillaume. “We were out there all the time.’’ When the boys weren’t outside playing hockey, mused Sylvie, they carried the game inside, to the basement.
The street where Patrice Bergeron grew up, which was still filled with mounds of snow in early April. “We had a freezer down there,’’ she recalled, shaking her head at the recollection of flying pucks. “All dented.’’
Student of the game
Guillaume and Patrice still play hockey together when Patrice returns for the summer. Patrice and wife Stephanie live in Saint-Augustin-de-Desmaures, a short drive from Sylvie and Gerard, in the same town along the St. Lawrence River where Patrice attended Seminaire Saint-Francois, a co-ed Catholic high school.
Patrice’s backyard now includes his own rink, with boards and artificial surface, ideal for the Bergeron boys to return to their street hockey roots each summer. “Usually we play together, one-on-one,’’ said Guillaume, his recreational time restricted by a full-time job and the joys of fatherhood (son William is two months old). “If I am not out there, Patrice is, practicing one-timers, quick wrist shots.’’
According to Guillaume, his brother is the same determined worker in the summer as he is during the NHL season. Patrice, he said, takes no more than two weeks of vacation, then returns to workouts, typically under the tutelage of trainer Raymond Veillette at Université Laval for strength conditioning and dry-land exercises.
Along with the backyard workouts, he’ll sometimes rent ice for an hour at a time to work on skating and shooting. He also shares ice time with a group of NHL players from the area, including Steve Bernier (New Jersey) and Antoine Vermette (Phoenix). Bernier is a fellow alum of Seminaire Saint-Francois, where both of their NHL sweaters hang proudly in a dispay case inside the school’s Complexe Sportif.
Bergeron, foreground with captain’s ‘C’ on his jersey, at the center of his high school team photo.
Bergeron (foreground with captain’s “C” on his jersey), in his high school team photo. Luc Savoie, the school’s athletic director the last 18 years, recalled the “polite, quiet, respectful’’ student-athlete that Bergeron was in his Seminaire days, Grades 7-11.
“Always in good humor,’’ added longtime Saint-Francois teacher Mark Berthiaume. “A great kid. A very quiet boy who did his work — and played hockey.’’ Bergeron, recalled Savoie, in Grade 10 failed to make the prestigious Seminaire Blizzard Midget AAA team, only to return the following year, his final at the high school, and be named the Blizzard captain. He then left home the following September to play Quebec League junior hockey in Bathurst, New Brunswick, and was selected No. 45 overall by the Bruins in that June’s NHL draft (2003).
By October, he was an NHL regular at age 18 — some 36 months after being cut by the AAA team in 10th grade. Like the little kid who sat inside the net for three months before one day just taking off, he was a quick learner, once in the game. “Amazing, no?’’ said a beaming Savoie, proudly showing a visitor pictures of Bergeron that dot the walls outside the school’s gymnasium. “Really amazing.’’
Following the Bruins’ Stanley Cup victory in 2011, Bergeron surprised most everyone at the school by showing up unannounced with the Cup in hand for a private celebration with students and staff. It was separate from the public celebration he held in downtown Quebec City, where family, friends, and spectators celebrated a favorite son’s day with the Cup.
“It was a big, big rally — there must have been 1,000 or more at the rally in the city,’’ recalled Kathleen Lavoie, longtime hockey reporter at Quebec City’s La Soleil daily paper. “It was really something to see. We only learned about [the school] visit after it happened — he kept it a secret.’’
Mother is watching - Quebec City is by no means Bruins country. When the NHL Nordiques played here (1979-95), there was rabid support of the hometown Bleu et Blanc, and the young Bergeron brothers were among the Nordiques’ ardent flag-wavers. Now, most of the local NHL fan base has shifted to the Montreal Canadiens.
“But I must say, that took a long time to happen,’’ noted Lavoie. “With the Bruins winning the Stanley Cup, and doing it with Patrice Bergeron . . . in the last few years, we have more Bruins fans. Red Sox, too, more than Yankees or Blue Jays. We have something for Boston teams."
For all the years her son has played in Boston, noted Sylvie, she and her husband have missed no more than two or three of his games, either in person or on TV.
“I love to watch him play,’’ she said. “His all-around game. He has an IQ for the game, an intelligence. “I know him very well on the ice. He is a great player, Patrice. He knows always where to be. He does all the little things. It’s a pleasure to see him play.’’
As a mother, she also knows how he suffered in the weeks and months after sustaining his brutal, season-ending concussion in October 2007, the one delivered by the Flyers’ Randy Jones — the one that could have killed him. She was sitting in the stands at that end of the ice in Boston and remembers seeing Patrice’s face go blank as his head slammed violently into the glass.
“Very hard to see, to watch . . . painful,’’ she said. “It was a very, very rough time. I don’t like to talk about it. “And since that game, I don’t see the game the same way — not just for Patrice, but for every player. I’ve had to learn to watch and not to worry. And that was hard for me. “I am better now, but . . . but when it happened to him, I felt it in my body. And still when I watch now, I am — how you say? — I contract.’’
With both hands raised, she fashioned fists to exhibit her anxiety. “As a mom,’’ she said, “I am a bit more worried. But like any experience, I’ve learned — it is the game he chose, the life he chose. Hockey. He loves that. “And so, I have to accept his choice. I do. I am with him all the way, too. As the mom with your sons, you have to be with them in their choice and everything they do.’’
Reminded me a lot of a story I read, a long time ago, in the New Yorker about Jimmy Connors and his relationship with his mom. Well done KPD!