When Anders Bjork signed with the Bruins last summer, he was headed into a situation without much personal history with the Original Six franchise having grown up in Wisconsin, and played his collegiate hockey at Notre Dame.
He’s making up for lost time now, though, on the ice with three goals and seven points in his first nine games while settling into his right wing spot alongside Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. The 21-year-old might have had a little bit more history with the Bruins franchise than he let on at first, however, given that Bjork’s dad, Kirt, and former Bruins forward Dave Poulin were teammates at Notre Dame back in the 1980’s.
Bjork and Poulin have remained close over the years, so the younger Bjork was at least able to get a little taste of what it’s like to be in the Black and Gold before he was. . . well. . . in the Black and Gold.
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“He’s reached out a few times through my career in college and even before that to give me advice, or let me know what he was seeing if I was struggling. He’d send me texts of encouragement sometimes, and it was always really cool to get that from a guy like Dave,” said Bjork.
“His advice would always be really helpful. His main thing [about playing for the Bruins] was to just enjoy it, and he told me how great that the people are here.
“He told me not to be shy and to be myself, and that it was all great people and a great organization.”
One thing Poulin didn’t give Bjork was any good “old time hockey” stories about his GM Don Sweeney and club president Cam Neely from their days playing together in Boston.
“Not yet,” said Bjork with a laugh. “Maybe I’ll try to find those out.”
According to Poulin, Bjork has similar high end skating wheels and offensive skills to his old man when he was an All-American at Notre Dame. It’s the ability to defend and play the 200-foot game that’s made the younger Bjork an NHL prospect, and somebody worthy of installing in the prime right wing spot alongside Bergeron and Marchand even as a fresh-faced rookie.
“I think he’s probably a little more responsible defensively. [Anders] seems to know his goaltender’s name and sees him on a regular basis. Kirt had an incredibly high skill level and was one of the fastest players I ever played with at any level, but it was just a different day and age for the game,” said a laughing Poulin, describing the difference between father and son as players. “[Anders] is responsible defensively, but there’s a side to that where defensively there are a lot of learned things in that league. I learned from players I played with as much as any coach I played for. Early on [in Philly] I had Bobby Clarke and Darryl Sittler as guys I could watch firsthand.
“With Anders getting that opportunity, I may be the biggest Patrice Bergeron fan in hockey. He is one of my favorite players in the league for how he plays the game. He’s got a real cerebral ability that’s off the charts, and his knowledge of the game and the way he competes on a regular basis. If you put a young player in that grouping, sitting beside those guys and the communication level after every shift [is so beneficial]. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the guy on the left side has learned a lot from the centerman as well. Talk about going to get a Ph.D. or a Master’s Degree in hockey, those are some pretty good mentors.”
The family friendship between the Bjorks and the Poulins has been an enduring one steeped in the worlds of hockey and Notre Dame where things like tradition and loyalty are much more than just words. That’s allowed Poulin to be a good sounding board for the family throughout Anders’ hockey career as it began taking off in the U.S. National Team Development Program, and hit an early high note when he was selected by the Bruins in the fifth round of the 2014 NHL Draft.
“Starting around the Bantam age when he was playing with the Chicago group out of Milwaukee, you could see that he had a chance to be a pretty good player,” said Poulin. “The game change has come at a really nice time for Anders with the emphasis so much on speed and skill, and youth for that matter. So those things have all come together at the same time for him.”
That friendship has also had its share of interesting situations like when Poulin was working the first round of the Bruins/Senators playoff series for TSN. The Bruins were pushing to sign Bjork once his Frozen Four run with the Fighting Irish ended, and Poulin had both his strong ties to the Bjork family as well as tight friendships with former Bruins teammates in Sweeney and Neely.
Poulin largely stayed out of that situation when Bjork took some additional time to mull over his decision to turn pro, but Anders has always appreciated any advice he’s passed along from a 13-year NHL career with the Flyers, Bruins and Capitals, or as a hockey lifer that coached at Notre Dame and served as a hockey ops executive with the Maple Leafs for most of the last 20 years. But he certainly had no problem telling Anders and his family that they would truly enjoy life as a member of the Bruins when he did decide to sign on for the NHL experience.
“I had a really, really good experience in Boston. I was there less than four full years, but those were some really close teams,” said Poulin. “Part of it was because we won a lot. You lose twice [in the conference finals] to Mario Lemieux’s Cup teams [in Pittsburgh], and you’ve got a pretty good group there.”
Now Bjork is hoping this rookie season is the start of his own great book of recollections, relationships and experience with the Black and Gold just like the ones Poulin relayed to him during his own memorable four-season stint in Boston.