Note: This story combines data I found on yahoo, cbssportsline and a few other sites with my own observations.
Boston Bruins' young star centerman Patrice Bergeron wasn't thinking about hockey in November. He wasn't thinking about the next opponent or the playoffs or what he needed to do to elevate his already impressive game. At age 22, he was wondering whether he'd ever get a chance to play again.
On October 27th against the Philadelphia Flyers, Bergeron's career was forever changed when he was driven face first into the end boards at full speed by Flyers defenseman Randy Jones. The hit left him motionless on the ice for what seemed like an eternity. The medical staff cut away his gear before placing his neck in brace, taping his legs to one one another and moving him to a board to stabilize his body. He was finally moved on to a stretcher and taken to the hospital. It was a terrifying scene as Bergeron showed little to no movement throughout the process. He was ultimately diagnosed with a severe grade 3 concussion and a broken nose. There was good news, however, in that there was no damage to his neck or spine but his career was certainly in question.
Claude Julien was furious with the play, calling it a "dirty hit" and challenging the league to address the situation with the Flyers who, as a team, had been involved in three violent plays in their first 10 games. Ultimately, Julien was most likely disappointed in the suspension handed down by the league. Randy Jones was suspended for two games without pay, which ultimately cost him $5,614.98. For the Flyers, it wasn't much of a loss considering that Jones wasn't even one of their top four defensemen while it was a devastating loss for the Bruins.
Patrice Bergeron was one of the most promising young players in the league. 2005-2006, his second year in the league, was a breakout season for the 20 year old where he scored 31 goals and added 42 assists. 29 of those points were scored on the powerplay. The following year wasn't quite as great, but still a very good season with 70 points and 22 goals. There were high hopes for the 2007-2008 season as Bergeron had 7 points in the first 10 games, but the attention quickly shifted after the incident. The team no longer wondered how many points he' d scored but rather whether he'd ever score another goal again.
On November 8th, an ailing Patrice Bergeron held a press conference to discuss the game, the injury and his future. It was as gutsy a performance by a player that I can remember. Bergeron, still in a neck brace, physically struggled to even rotate his head to face the reporters. The lights, the noise, the commotion all seemed to take a toll on him. The rules were that he would answer questions in English for five minutes and then in French for another five and then he would walk away. It was ultimately a unique press conference where Bergeron called, not for the league, but for the players to change the game. He urged them to show a greater level of respect for one another and cut down on the dangerous hits from behind.
"You have to hold back -- hitting is a part of the game, but not from behind. We have to respect each other a little bit more. I know I'm not the only one who has been saying that this past year. Something needs to be done. We have to think about the consequences when you're on the ice. "
I have a tremendous amount of respect for Bergeron and I'd love to say that his sacrifice was worth it, that his press conference changed the game but I'd be lying. For me, there have been more dangerous hits from behind this year than any I can remember and the league continues to be shy about cracking down on it. I often wonder when we'll see someone get paralyzed on the ice. When it does happen, the league will need to shoulder part of the blame.
It's been about 5 months since the incident and Bergeron has fought through all of the pain and discomfort that comes with a concussion of that magnitude. In fact, at times it prevented him from even being able to watch his teammates as the lights and noise triggered debilitating headaches and dizziness that made it difficult to move around. Brief walks were a challenge and all the exercise his body could handle. Ultimately, he struggled to even leave his home. Over time, he regained some of the little things people generally take for granted. He was able to move around, go outside and eventually go see his teammates in person. It was one of the first steps he'd take.
Recovering from concussions is a difficult thing. It's about testing yourself and your body and being patient throughout the process. For Bergeron, a slow, steady five minute ride on an exercise bike in December was a huge step forward and the biggest "win" he'd had since the injury. Throughout his exercise program the headaches would return forcing Bergeron to scale back his approach. After a period of time, he'd try again and see how far he could go without the headaches and dizziness bringing him back to earth. Then he took a big step in late February when he started skating again. It started slowly, with him skating before and after practice by himself with no gear. Two weeks ago his dedication, patience and persistence allowed him to return to practice with his teammates. He wears a special colored jersey so that his teammates know that he is only practicing in a "non-contact" fashion but being back with the team is exactly what he wanted.
Now, he stands at the edge of an incredibly remarkable milestone. On Wednesday he will have a number of neuro tests done and they will determine whether or not he is ready for contact again. If all goes well, and the tests provide positive results, it certainly seems like Bergeron will be back this season. The Boston Bruins, who are desperately hanging on to a playoff spot in the East, would love to have their star in the lineup but they also won't take any changes with a player so young. For them, it's just great to have him back in the locker room. The likelihood of us seeing him back during the regular season are slim-to-none, but the post-season might be a different matter. Regardless, it's great to hear that his return is now a matter of "when" as opposed to "if." He's just happy to be back in the environment, back with the team and back to focusing on the game we all love.
“It’s a great feeling to be around the guys again, be around the locker room, have a chance to skate with the guys. I waited 4 1/2 months to have a chance to do that,” Bergeron said. “It’s a great sport, and you don’t appreciate it as much; you don’t say thanks enough.
“Now that I’ve been away from it, I get a chance to realize it’s my passion. I’m thankful for every second, every minute that I’m on the ice.”