BRIGHTON, Mass – Patrice Bergeron has never been cut from an NHL training camp roster in his 16-year career as a professional hockey player.
That didn’t stop the 34-year-old center from handing out his cell number to players sent back to Providence this week, and offering to be in touch if they need anything during a challenging time for them as hockey players.
That’s just the kind of leader Bergeron is inside an NHL dressing room, and exactly the kind of quality person he is both on and off the ice regardless of circumstance.
With that in mind, it was no surprise when news surfaced last week that Bergeron played an important role in helping turn things around for a Bruins player that had hit a low point in his life last season. Gemel Smith spent only the second half of last season with the Bruins organization after getting picked up on waivers from Dallas last December, and Smith ended up only playing a grand total of three games during his tenure in Boston.
It surely must have felt like his hockey career was coming to an end and Smith was taking it hard.
“I made myself go to a sunken place,” said Smith to the Athletic. “I couldn’t sleep for a month. I felt very alone. I isolated myself from everyone else because I’m a guy that keeps to myself. That’s where I went wrong [when] I should have talked to somebody [who could] help me through it.”
Enter No. 37 as it only took a brief amount of time for Bergeron to make an impact on the 25-year-old center’s life when he was clearly at a crossroads.
Smith admitted to the Athletic in a preseason interview that depression and despair had overwhelmed him as things spun in neutral with the Black and Gold. He was waived by two NHL organizations within weeks of each other and he was stuck in the AHL away from anybody he knew in the Dallas organization. It was Bergeron, though, that noticed something didn’t seem right with Smith in their brief time together, and didn’t hesitate to offer both a friendly ear and other people he could chat with in his time of need.
Bergeron said his biggest point to his teammate was that he wasn’t alone. The B’s franchise center pointed the struggling Smith toward Bruins team psychologist Max Offenberger while making it very clear to the youngster that people cared about him within the Bruins dressing room.
“It was one of those things where you never know if somebody wants to talk about it. [Smith] was just somebody that seemed like he wasn’t himself,” said Bergeron to NBC Sports Boston of his time with Smith last December. “I didn’t know him very well, but he seemed very down and introverted. I thought something was going on and I just reached out to let him know I was there if he needed to talk.
“We had a little talk and I just told him to maybe talk about it [more]. There’s a saying ‘Do not suffer alone.’ And it’s the biggest thing in life and also in hockey. Sometimes in sports there are a lot of things involved with the game that can be hard to handle, and his situation wasn’t easy. It’s hard on anyone. That’s all I did. I just said a few words to try and make him feel better, and it made a difference. I was just trying to be there for him. I really don’t deserve that much credit, but I’m really happy that he’s doing better.”
People often talk of Bergeron’s leadership on the ice after 16 years as one of the faces of the NHL, and with good reason. He’s got the four Selke Trophies, the Stanley Cup title and many other team-won accomplishments over his nearly two decades in Boston.
It was Bergeron’s pep talk that fired up his teammates ahead of Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final in St. Louis and ended up even making Game 7 possible prior to its disappointing end. It would probably be easy for a player with Bergeron’s resume to simply not reach out, or even notice, if a teammate was enduring a down period as Smith most certainly was.
But that’s not Bergeron and it won’t ever be simply because of who he is.
Instead, the whole situation was a look inside exactly what makes the Bruins dressing room such a welcoming place for players from all backgrounds and experience levels. It’s a crucial part when the off-the-ice bond helps build on-the-ice strength and character. It’s empathetic people like Bergeron in Bruins leadership roles that make it such an accepting place where individuals are cared for as people, in addition to being hockey players.
“We all have our issues and we all have a vulnerable side to us. It’s about not being afraid to reach out and talk to one another. It’s perfectly normal. It shouldn’t be frowned upon, quite the contrary actually. He was only here for a couple of days and he didn’t seem like he was okay. I thought I would just talk to him,” said Bergeron to NBC Sports Boston. “I think it’s changed over the years a lot, in general as much in life as in hockey. I think people are more open to acceptance and realizing that we’re all equal. It goes hand-in-hand with us in this locker room. Whether it’s a rookie or a 42-year-old guy that’s been through everything and is going to be a Hall of Famer, we all have a voice. We’re all there for each other.”
It’s sometimes said in half-joking terms that Bergeron is perfect in just about everything he does on and off the ice. But there’s a lot of truth in the innately good way that Bergeron goes about his business both on and off the ice and the example he sets daily.
It’s made him a great player on the ice. It’s also made him a winner and one of the best leaders in the NHL today while co-leading the Bruins with captain Zdeno Chara.
But Bergeron’s interaction with Smith also illustrated why No. 37 is an excellent teammate always looking out for the other guys in his dressing room no matter how many games they end up playing for the Boston Bruins. And that’s what really matters, after all.
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