One thousand games with Patrice Bergeron

I have a framed picture of Patrice Bergeron in my kitchen. I’ve had it up wherever I’ve lived since at least 2008, when it was given to me as a kind of joke present. It features Bergeron during his rookie season, in those horrid yellow pooh-stained jerseys the Boston Bruins insisted on wearing for more than a decade, and there’s a thought bubble over his head with an indelicate joke I’ll spare you for now — it’s funny within the context of my apartment but probably less so on the internet. Anyway.

That’s one of a few reminders of Bergeron I keep nearby. There’s a growing collection of hockey cards in the binder I maintain of all things Bruins, and pulled from that is his rookie card, currently sitting on my desk alongside cards of Bobby Orr and Roberto Clemente. And maybe most importantly, there’s a hockey card I keep in the console of my car’s dashboard that I’ll typically toss into my bag whenever I travel. It’s bleached out from the sun, and its plastic protective case is getting pretty scratched and dulled. But it carries on.

★ ★ ★

Tonight, when Boston steps onto the ice at the Garden and the lights blare and finally the linesman drops the puck at center ice to officially begin the 53rd game of the 2018-19 schedule, there’s a decent chance it’ll be Bergeron taking that drop. And if that’s the case, there’s an even better chance he’ll win that draw and the puck will fly back to Zdeno Chara or Charlie McAvoy to trigger a rush up the ice. Notably, it’ll be his 1,000th game, and how he got here is just as impressive as all the things he’s accomplished in that time.

Joe McDonald of the Athletic has an excellent rundown of Bergeron’s early years and his growth into the leader we all have the benefit of watching, game in, game out, and that stands on its own. I can’t speak to most of that except for a few chance encounters in my sports writing days where I, wordlessly, would listen to him break down a play or a win after a game at his locker, usually taking the time to single out deserving teammates of praise while still insisting that they all have to work harder. There are clichés in most quotes pulled from professional athletes, and then there are the athletes that seem to be genuinely accountable and, from there, the same words take on more weight. He strikes me as the latter.

And that’s because his words have always matched his game. I’ve said it before to friends who are new to the game, and I’ll keep saying it as long as I can, that there are few ways for those newbies to better learn how hockey works and how it should work than by keeping an eagle eye on no. 37. Watch how he maintains his vision of not just the puck, but the other nine skaters on the ice. Look how he doesn’t just dump the puck in the offensive zone, but finds a player or a spot and delivers it there before cycling back to the point or setting up shop in the slot, waiting for the puck to return. Look how what should have been an odd-man rush into the defensive zone becomes nothing because of a well-timed poke-check on an attacking skater. Watch how his body checks, still surprisingly thunderous after all this time, are always made to separate the player from possession of the puck and not his helmet. Look at all the weird little things he does over the course of the game.

There’s the statistical part that measures some of this, obviously. In those first 999 games, he’s tallied 305 goals and 473 assists for 778 career points, and the offensive part of his game seems to be getting better — over the past season and a half, he’s at more than a point-per-game pace (107 points in 100 nights). The defensive part of his game obviously generates more headlines — he’s a plus-160 for his career, a four-time winner of the Selke Trophy and a top-five vote-getter for it five more times after that. And none of this accounts for the 112 playoff games he’s led Boston through.

Those are the numbers gradually listed on the backs of those cards. His own no. 37 is going to live in the Garden rafters at some point. And it’ll be raised there because of the performances in the playoffs, icing a Game 7 for the Stanley Cup, leading the charge in a most improbable comeback two years later, sacrificing his body in attempts to bring that Cup back to New England. It’ll be there for all the little things he’s done, for all the headline goals, for all the young players he’s taken under his wing, for mastering English so quickly after making the team as an 18-year-old, for breaking through the darkness of a horrifying injury as a 22-year-old.

★ ★ ★

This card has not been through as much as Bergeron has in his career. But almost a decade ago, I pulled it out of a wreck and put it in my bag as I literally picked through the remains of a busted life and tried to move on. It didn’t do anything special, beyond that it was there and it was comforting to know that it was there.

Hockey, for the fan, the non-professional, the person who just likes to watch, can be a comforting presence. It’s an exciting game with speed and drama and personalities and snazzy sweaters, and over time we grow attachments to those jerseys and characters. The years go on, we earn a deeper appreciation of the finer points and the skill, the games continue and we assign memories and entire eras to the games and its players. The rookie out of L’Ancienne-Lorette, Québec, who is three years younger than me has become this symbol of everything I liked about hockey and the Bruins and the professional game, and a living reminder that great things can be accomplished simply by showing up, working hard, continuing to learn as much as possible, carrying on.

So that’s why I, as an otherwise functioning adult, still keep all these little reminders of Bergeron around my apartment, and it’s why I continue to keep this card with me. I’ll carry it in my pocket today as a close reminder that the work never stops. One thousand games don’t just happen by accident.

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