Patrice Bergeron started earning acclaim for his defensive game four seasons ago when he was a legitimate Selke Trophy candidate for the first time.
It has taken longer for Bergeron to be appreciated as one of the best all-around players in the NHL. Maybe it started during the Boston Bruins’ 2011 Stanley Cup run or last year’s trip to the final, but after playing a major role in Team Canada’s gold-medal performance at the Sochi Olympics, the 28-year-old is surely considered among hockey’s elite centres.
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"I think what he’s done is he opened a lot of people’s eyes," Boston coach Claude Julien said. "I know at his first Olympics he didn’t have, whether it was the opportunity, to do what he did. The last one I think people realized how good he is."
Statistically, Bergeron had just two assists in six games, but the Quebec City native shifted from a fourth-line centre role to right-wing alongside Sidney Crosby and never missed a beat. His nearly flawless play wasn’t a revelation as much as it underscored his growth from the 2010 Games in Vancouver, where he was the 13th forward.
In that tournament, as defenceman Chris Pronger told CBC Sports recently, Bergeron had a smaller role that was "probably a little unfair to him."
"Patrice would sit on the bench for long periods of time and then we’d get a penalty and turn to him and say, ‘OK, go out and kill it,"’ Pronger told CBC. "That’s a pretty tough, but important, job."
It’s also an important job to play with Crosby, whose unique talent level and menatal acuity are often difficult to match. Bergeron said during the Olympics that the challenge is to be at his best when on Crosby’s wing.
"It’s about trying to find him when he’s open but also it’s getting open for yourself, not just trying to feed him," Bergeron said of Crosby. "You give him the puck in your zone and he does his thing."
Bergeron said playing with not just Crosby but everyone on that deep, talented Team Canada made him better.
"I think it helped me with the confidence being there, and the pace and the level of the game down there, it definitely helped me coming back here," Bergeron said last week in Detroit before the Bruins finished off the Red Wings to set up a showdown with the Montreal Canadiens that begins Thursday.
Sochi gave Bergeron an international showcase to show his stuff, but he has been a key cog for the Bruins for a number of years. He has played 70-plus games in eight of nine full NHL seasons since entering the league in 2003 and had 20 points in 23 games when Boston won the Cup in 2011.
This season, though, he was downright dominant at times. With 62 points in 80 games, a league-best plus-38 rating and a 58.6 per cent success rate in the faceoff circle, Bergeron was the Bruins’ most important forward as they won the Presidents’ Trophy.
"I didn’t think a guy that’s already played eight or nine years can get better each and every year, but he is," winger Brad Marchand said in Toronto late in the regular season. "He’s the reason why we’ve won this many games this year and why we won the Cup. He’s a phenomenal player, a great leader, and every night he’s on the ice he’s a guy you want to follow."
At one time Bergeron was the player doing the following. Even though he was taught defensive responsibility while growing up in hockey, Bergeron looked to Ted Donato and others who were winning faceoffs and playing in their own end.
Now a veteran on the verge of beginning his US$52-million, eight-year contract signed last summer, Bergeron is now in the position of instilling those principles in younger teammates.
"I mean it’s how I play so I’m always trying to talk about that, talk about making sure we come back on the backcheck and we do the right thing defensively to create some offence," Bergeron said.
Bergeron doesn’t just help Bruins players. Red Wings centre Riley Sheahan, who was a key piece of their run to the playoffs, said he studies Bergeron’s game to improve his own.
Even players at other positions appreciate what Bergeron brings to the ice. Detroit defenceman Brendan Smith has noticed Bergeron’s game even more now that brother Reilly is his teammate in Boston.
"He reminds me of (Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg) because he’s so good defensively, he’s so good offensively," Smith said. "He’s above the play. He makes good decisions. He’s a second quick. He’s strong on the puck. He makes good reads. You go through the list about a player like Bergeron."
Brendan Smith said Reilly has picked up plenty of tidbits from Bergeron, and according to Julien he’s far from the only one who can say that.
"Anybody that plays with him and sees his work ethic doesn’t have a choice but to follow this guy," Julien said. "That just makes those players better. If we see a player that has skill and some potential, we know playing with Bergie that the other parts of his game will improve. That certainly is something we’ve always looked at."
Forget about younger players. Even as Bergeron is a well-established pro, he’s trying to tweak elements of his game that aren’t quite perfect.
"You’re always trying to work on things," Bergeron said. "Coaches are doing a great job of showing me some videos with my stick in the right position on the PK or whatnot. So I think you definitely improve every time you put some work into it."