Impact ready for emotional goodbye to Patrice Bernier

Montreal Impact captain Patrice Bernier. (Nathan Denette/CP)

MONTREAL — The last game of an otherwise dismal season for the Montreal Impact will be all about Patrice Bernier.

The 38-year-old midfielder, a national team stalwart and perhaps the best player ever produced in Quebec, will play his final game Sunday when the New England Revolution visit Saputo Stadium to close out the Major League Soccer regular season.

Neither the eighth-place Impact (11-16-6) nor the seventh-place Revolution (12-15-6) qualified for the playoffs, so there will be little else for fans to celebrate except the send-off for the Brossard, Que. native, who will be feted in a pre-match ceremony and make a good-bye lap of the field at the end, when his retirement becomes official.

"I decided to stop because I’m ready to stop but at the same time I’m sad," Bernier said this week. "It’s a young man’s game.

"You can’t play forever. I’m happy I lived it. Not too many players have been able to play 18 years, who are born here, played abroad and were able to come back."

Bernier, who is to become a coach in the club’s academy, has been a fan favourite since he returned to the Impact when the club joined Major League Soccer in 2012. He had started his pro career with the Impact in the defunct A-League in 2000 before heading off in 2003 to star for clubs in Norway, Germany and Denmark.

The prime years of his career were spent far from home, but he got to experience European soccer culture first hand. He played for Moss FK and Tromso in Norway, Kaiserlautern in Germany and he was named player of the year with the Nordsjaelland club in 2010 in Denmark, where he won two Danish Cups.

"My dream was to play in La Liga (Spain’s top league)," he said. "I’d have liked to go to bigger leagues.

"The possibility was there, but from where I started, to grow and improve and become a better player and establish myself in different countries and leave a mark — I’m happy with what I did. I’m Canadian and my passport is not a hockey passport, it’s a soccer passport, so it doesn’t have the same value."

His ticket may actually have come from hockey. He was a two-sport athlete as a teenager, playing two seasons in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with Val d’Or and Sherbrooke. His cousin, Maxime Fortunus, played nine games for the Dallas Stars and had a long minor-league career.

But five-foot-nine defencemen weren’t in demand in the 1990s and Bernier wisely opted for soccer, where he was a workhorse centre midfielder and polished playmaker.

Along with his club exploits, he also played 56 times for Canada, but never realized his dream of making it to a World Cup.

"We had a generation of players with Atiba Hutchinson, Julian de Guzman, Dwayne de Rosario, Ali Gerba, Paul Stalteri and others that had the potential to make it to the World Cup," he said. "But to represent my country 56 times was an honour and a privilege.

"To be able to play against Brazil, Spain, Portugal. I started my international career playing the Czech Republic when they were third in the world. I was playing against Pavel Nedved, who a few months later won the Ballon d’Or. So for a kid who watched it on the TV screen and dreamed of it, to have been able to do things like that, I’m quite proud and happy."

Bernier grew up with soccer. His Haitian-born father Jean Bernier was a coach who organized an annual tournament in Brossard. Patrice was a top player at each age group.

When he gave up hockey, he played soccer at Syracuse before joining the Impact, where he was immediately one of the best players on the field on a team that included the current Impact coach Mauro Biello.

But he was restless, looking to see how his skills matched up with European players.

"When I first played with him, he was a young player — very eager, very ambitious," said Biello. "He loved to train and be around the team.

"It was probably the stepping stone, the bit of experience he needed to get himself to Europe."

Bernier said it made him a better player when he returned to Montreal.

"I went out there, tested myself and realized I wasn’t that bad compared to guys who are born in countries where soccer is a religion," he said. "So I came back more refined, more complete, stronger mentally for sure.

"I came back knowing that I’m going to be a good player in this league because I was good in leagues that, at the time, were better than what MLS was."

It wasn’t all sunshine and roses. Bernier led the team with nine goals and was named Impact player of the year in 2012. He made the MLS all-star game the following season and was named captain in 2014.

But after the team sank to the bottom that season, coach Frank Klopas gave him only three starts in the first 20 games of 2015. That prompted a social media rant from his wife Melisa Barile accusing the coach of disrespect. Bernier had to take a few days away from the team to let the media storm pass.

Klopas, who had taken the Impact to the CONCACAF Champions League final, was replaced by Biello late in the season. The Impact went on a tear and Bernier scored twice in the playoffs as they made it to a conference semifinal for the first time.

Montreal went a step farther the next season, losing a thriller conference final in overtime to Toronto.

"It certainly had a lot of psychological tests," Bernier said of his Impact career.

He was a regular in the starting 11 and scored his first regular season goal in four years this season, but it wasn’t enough to get the Impact back in the playoffs. So Sunday will be his final game, his 151st in MLS.

"We all have it in our hearts to win this game for Patrice," said Belgian teammate Laurent Ciman. "He had a great career and he’s a great man, on and off the field."