WILMINGTON - As Patrice Bergeron the NHL player, who often took 20-minute postgame conditioning rides on a stationary bike, yesterday's five-minute ride at Ristuccia Arena was a workout hardly worth mentioning.
But as Patrice Bergeron the patient, who's been limited to short walks for exercise since sustaining a Grade 3 concussion, the morning workout was a momentous occasion that was nearly two months in the making.
Yesterday, for the first time since suffering a career-threatening injury against Philadelphia Oct. 27, Bergeron worked out, starting with a brief stretch and spending five minutes on the bike while his Bruins teammates practiced.
"Light. Very light," said Bergeron. "No sprints."
Yesterday's session represented one of the first stages toward a return Bergeron believes will take place this season. Bergeron said he felt fine after the workout and didn't feel any immediate symptoms. He does not have a set schedule for following workouts, as physical activity will depend on how he feels.
"He's going to take his time," said coach Claude Julien. "You don't want to go too hard and have to take a step back. You have to be cautious and maybe do a little less so you don't make an encouraging situation more discouraging."
After the workout, a smiling Bergeron, wearing a brown jacket and sporting heavy stubble on his face, walked out of the players' lounge with a normal gait. Bergeron bore little resemblance to the man who made his first public appearance since the injury Nov. 8 at TD Banknorth Garden, wearing a neck collar and shuffling slowly in the hallway.
Lately, Bergeron has been spending more time with the club, watching games from the Garden press box and receiving treatment here while his teammates practice. Bergeron, however, is not close to undergoing the series of tests required of a player after a concussion before he is cleared for action.
"We want to make sure he doesn't have a relapse," said Julien. "Sometimes it may mean doing just a little less than trying to do a little more. Because if you do a little more and you have a relapse, it's discouraging. If you do a little less and feel good the next day, then it's encouraging. We want to make sure to keep that trend going."
In the 23 games Bergeron has missed this season, the Bruins are 12-8-3 - a respectable performance for a club without arguably its finest all-around player.
Last season, Bergeron was the team's No. 2 scorer, recording 22 goals and 48 assists for 70 points in 77 games. But Bergeron was also saddled with a ghastly minus-28 rating, the third worst in the league.
This season, while usually centering Marco Sturm and Chuck Kobasew on the No. 2 line, Bergeron had totaled three goals and four assists in nine games before defenseman Randy Jones belted him into the Garden boards. Bergeron, regularly deployed as a shutdown center by Julien - opposing centermen included Tampa Bay's Vincent Lecavalier and Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf - had turned around his defensive game, posting a plus-2 rating while winning 50.3 percent of faceoffs.
Bergeron's absence has resulted in a trickle-down effect that could be catching up to the Bruins, who are 1-2 in their last three games, all at home. Marc Savard has gone against the opponents' top centers. Dennis Wideman has been promoted to the No. 1 power-play unit, taking Bergeron's spot on the left point. Phil Kessel has shifted from wing to center to give the team depth up the middle. Glen Metropolit, who started the season on the fourth line, has been elevated to No. 2 center.
So far, the team has been strict with its insistence that a date for Bergeron's 2007-08 return, if possible in the first place, is unknown. General manager Peter Chiarelli has not used the long-term injury exception to replace all or part of Bergeron's $4.75 million cap hit, partly because the Bruins might be in a bind if they use the exception and the 22-year-old returns this season.
"I can say that I'm looking forward to having him back," said Julien. "But I can also say as a coach that you can't depend on those things. You've got to work with the players you have at your disposal, which is what we've done so far. We'll keep working with that.
"The minute you find out he's coming back, it's like a bonus to our hockey club. You can't dwell and say, 'What if we had him? Where would we be?' You don't do that because you're wasting a lot of energy. Those are things you can't control."
As he prepared to leave the rink yesterday, Bergeron was stopped in the hallway by Petteri Nokelainen, one of the Providence call-ups who have tried to fill the forward's skates.
"You look better," Nokelainen told Bergeron.
"Everyone's happy to see him back and see him around a little more," said Julien. "They all know what he means to the team. They all know the type of person he is, too. We could certainly use a Bergy in our lineup."
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.