|Patrice Bergeron hopes his summer work in Quebec will help him avoid the injuries that hampered him last season. (JACQUES BOISSINOT/FOR THE GLOBE)|
A pact to improve
Bergeron vows his offseason conditioning will pay off
VAL-BELAIR, Quebec - The snowy pile of Zamboni detritus offered scant competition for the late August sun, radiant and warm and penetrating. Amid the meltdown, two young boys, mischievously and genetically predisposed to such summer serendipity, seemed to appear out of nowhere to wage their snowbrawl royale, their guerre de neige, here outside Arena les 2 Glaces.
"Quebec is a special place; I love it here," mused one of La Belle Provence's hockey homeboys, Patrice Bergeron, he and a visitor from Boston sitting outside the practice rink within a short lob of the prepubescent warriors. "Boston is really unique also . . . big, but small at the same time . . . you can get around quickly."
Bergeron, 22, is about to begin his fourth NHL season, his stardom dropped upon the Hub with the suddenness and surprise of a midsummer Back Bay blizzard. All of 152 NHL games to his credit, he signed a five-year deal last summer that guarantees him an average $5 million plus through the spring of 2011. On the fast-forward road of NHL financial success, he hit the jackpot, and followed immediately with a 2006-07 season that, like the Bruins as a whole, was long on inconsistency and far short of its promise.
"Last year, a lot of things went wrong," said Bergeron, his production of 70 points only a 3-point drop from his sensational sophomore season. "I am aware of that, and I want things to change. Every time you learn, you improve. I think maybe I tried to do too much."
Indeed, much like defensive behemoth Zdeno Chara, Bergeron paid a price for his talent, his willingness, and his versatility. In the fractured and oft-befuddling game plan cobbled together by then-coach Dave Lewis, Bergeron was at times painfully overused, especially so considering that he was also hurt - an issue that he steadfastly refuses to discuss.
"Lower body, in a couple of places," said general manager Peter Chiarelli, emphatically stating that Bergeron was hurt more than the talented pivot let on, more than media and fans were aware. "I'd call them injuries that were in wear-and-tear areas, you know, consistent with overuse."
But best left undisclosed and undiscussed, according to Bergeron. All in all, it was a season not to remember, only in part because of injury.
"I just don't like to talk about it," he said. "Because it's not about that now, it's about being a better player."
Perhaps equally painful was the glaring minus-28 that was also part of his 2006-07 dossier. Of the 858 NHL forwards and defensemen who suited up last season, Bergeron and Montreal defenseman Sheldon Souray (now an Oiler) finished T-855 in plus-minus. Only Joffrey Lupul of Edmonton (minus-29) and R.J. Umberger of Philadelphia (minus-32) ranked lower on hockey's yin-yang scale.
"Not a stat I'm proud of, that's for sure," acknowledged Bergeron. "Especially when I say I take pride in my defense. I want to change that - and not just that, but everything. I want to get back where there is confidence in me, confidence [among] my teammates.
"I want to get back and play - that's it."
The return officially begins tomorrow when all Bruins veterans must report to Causeway Street for physicals. Whatever ailed Bergeron last year, he says it is now a nonissue. He is healed and ready, intent on stepping up his game, or at least getting it back on par with the standard he set with what now stands as his platform season of 2005-06.
He returned to his home in Quebec City soon after exit interviews last spring, and then took his mom, dad, and brother on a vacation to Mexico. Upon returning, he quickly began to resume workouts with his longtime personal trainer, Raymond Veillette, and power-skating coach, Julie Robitaille. Veillette and Robitaille have been with him since soon after he turned pro with the Bruins, in the months following the 2003 draft when he was chosen No. 45 overall.
The 2007-08 version of Bergeron is the same size, a compact 6 feet and 195 pounds. Upon close inspection, he appears slightly broader across the shoulders, a result of his summertime workouts. But most of all, said Bergeron, his emphasis was on building up his aerobic capacity, specifically his endurance, something he identified as a need last season, especially during the busier weeks of the 82-game schedule.
"Today I played for an hour and a half, and it felt good," said Bergeron following an intense scrimmage with a gathering of other Quebec-based NHLers, including Simon Gagne, Antoine Vermette, Francis Bouillon, and others.
"You want to change stuff. Every year I come back, I talk to [Veillette]. He asks what was good, what was wrong, and this year he changed some of the cardio stuff, worked on my legs, and I feel stronger.
"Some of the change is just because of age - I'm getting older - and I ended last year thinking that I had to be not necessarily stronger, but I had to increase my endurance. When we had a lot of games in a row, say four games in a week, or two games with a night off followed by another game, it was that fourth game that I didn't feel 100 percent."
The increased leg strength and improved aerobic integrity, along with better luck on the injury front, could go a long way in returning Bergeron to his "A" game.
Connecting with coach
"He's the first to admit that he didn't have the year he wanted," said Chiarelli. "And I had a number of people say to me last year that he didn't have his jump, that he didn't skate as well as he had previously. But I saw it in stretches.
"And you know, before I came here, I knew he was a very good player, but I'd say my view of him, seeing him play night after night, changed dramatically. He does a lot of those little unselfish things that don't get noticed.
"I knew he was strong. I knew he could put up points. But there were times when he took the puck, and he was so strong, so determined . . . I've only seen that in a couple of players, and the other one is [Marian] Hossa."
It's likely that Bergeron will play a more defined role under new coach Claude Julien, whom he played for when he suited up for Team Canada in the 2006 World Championships in Riga, Latvia. (Julien was an assistant coach.) Julien wants to implement a strong forechecking system, which is perhaps Bergeron's strongest suit.
Under Lewis, the Bruins rarely deployed a forecheck, and if Julien has Bergeron spearheading that pressing attack, it could mean he would see slightly less time on the power play. Game situations, and especially the score, could dictate how his minutes are budgeted. Meanwhile, Bergeron liked what he saw and heard of Julien in their brief time in Riga.
"He's really good about telling you your role, what he expects of you - he wants you to be intense on the ice," said Bergeron, his own searing intensity and understated demeanor very similar to that of Bruins icon Ray Bourque. "When he speaks, he's very good at explaining what he wants out of everyone, what he wants for a system. Basically, he wants everyone to be hard on everything - hard on the puck, hard along the boards, hard on body checks. Intensity."
By the end of August, Bergeron was skating four days a week, and augmenting the scrimmages with off-ice workouts. He doesn't talk about 2007-08 as if it's redemption-in-waiting, but his disenchantment with last season is clear, as is his pledge to make things better.
"I have some objectives in my own mind," he said. "But I will keep them in my mind - I don't want to say what they are."
In the starting gate
Chara is expected to wear the captain's "C" again, with Bergeron and Glen Murray again projected to wear the alternate captain's "A." Better perhaps, the way Bergeron sees things, that everyone in Black-and-Gold should have a leader's "L" on their shoulders.
"We all know Z is the captain, but we all have something to bring," he said. "We all have leadership to bring to the game. Really, I don't think it matters who does what - it doesn't matter if you have an 'A' or a 'C' or whatever.
"I think I can bring more than last year, and I'd feel the same without that 'A' on my sweater, you know? And I say that without taking anything away from Z or Muzz."
And as for the pitfalls and disappointments of last season, no need for anyone to underscore them to him, said Bergeron. He was there. He lived it. There was little to like. The big new contract in hand, he wanted to fulfill the hype, if not outperform it, only to come up short.
"That's fair, I agree," he said. "I don't need people to tell me that. I am aware of it, and I want to change. My game is to be hard on the forecheck, create on offense, finish forechecks, be good in all zones, and create plays off the forecheck. I didn't do that last year and it cost us."
Reminded that there were 17 other skaters on a night-to-night basis wearing Black-and-Gold sweaters, not to mention two goalies, he added, "I know, it's a team sport, and it's never about one guy - be it a good time or a bad time. All of us have to be better if we're going to win."
Last week, Bergeron made the seven-hour drive back to Boston, his SUV stocked with a wide assortment of music, including ample selections of rap (some of it in French; go figure) and rock-and-roll. He is back living in the Hub of Hockey, within walking distance of the Garden, where a new season is about to dawn.
For the most part, the Bruins' roster has remained static, save for a new goalie (Manny Fernandez), a key forward who is a potential Bergeron linemate (Peter Schaefer), and some added muscle up front (Shawn Thornton). The first formal workout is Friday, the day when last year officially becomes history, and the future, whatever it may be, begins to take shape.
"Always something to learn, always something positive to bring," said Bergeron, the end-of-summer sun dropping lower in the sky, in lockstep with the shrinking pile of snow and melted snowballs strewn across the parking lot pavement. "And I know we can be better."
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.