Bryan Berard was selected with the first-overall pick in the 1995 NHL Draft by the Ottawa Senators, yet the retired defenceman never ended up playing a single game with the franchise.
The Woonsocket, R.I., native was coming off a 1994-95 season during which he had 75 points in 58 games with the Detroit Junior Red Wings in the Ontario Hockey League. He won an OHL championship under coach Paul Maurice as a first-team all-star and felt ready to make the jump straight to the NHL with the Senators.
Berard attended Sens training camp but the team decided to send him back to junior, which didn’t sit well with the blueliner, so he requested a trade.
“For me, it was a little bit of an ego thing,” Berard said Tuesday during an appearance on Hockey Central. “I wanted to play as an 18-year-old. I thought I was pretty much ready to play as an 18-year-old. We went into Ottawa’s camp and I had a pretty good camp.
“It really wasn’t anything against Ottawa or its fans, the organization was just in tough shape then.”
The Senators finished in last place in each of the franchise’s first four seasons after joining the league as an expansion team in 1992.
In theory, Berard should have made the 1995-96 roster and it should have been an easy contract negotiation. But, he said, “it’s like they just did not want to pay me that year.”
“I went into camp and thought I was easily — and I think people would admit — I was easily a top-four defenceman on that team,” he said.
Berard said he received information from a reporter that the team wasn’t planning on signing him for the 1995-96 season, in what was more of a business move than a hockey decision.
“I didn’t think it was a great spot for an 18-year-old kid to start, and my agent (Tom Laidlaw) agreed,” Berard explained. “It had nothing to do with Canada.”
Prior to Auston Matthews, Berard was the only American to be selected first overall by a Canadian franchise.
“I think a lot of people thought that this cocky, arrogant American didn’t want to play in Canada and that’s not true at all. I loved Toronto,” Berard said of the city where he later played two seasons before sustaining a career-altering eye injury. “It was by far the best place that I played. I still visit there often.
“It’s a great city and I love Canada so I think I got a little bit of a bad rap for that. But other than that I just went back to junior, took it as a positive, tried to get a little bit bigger and stronger and I knew I’d be ready for the NHL when I was 19.”
Berard’s rights were sent to the New York Islanders in January 1996 as part of a three-team trade that also involved the Maple Leafs. Wade Redden was the main piece that went to the Senators in the deal.
In his inaugural season with the Islanders in 1996-97, Berard finished eighth in scoring among defencemen and beat out Jarome Iginla for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie.