Michel Briere will long be remembered as the hero of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ first-ever playoff series victory.
And a player whose life ended far too soon.
The 26th pick in the 1969 Entry Draft, Briere scored 12 goals and a team-leading 32 assists in his rookie season and the Penguins were counting on him going into their first-round series against the Oakland Seals in the spring of 1970.
Briere lived up to the task, scoring in overtime of Game 4 to complete a sweep and set up a second-round matchup with the St. Louis Blues.
It was then Briere’s offensive blossom came to full bloom. Though the Penguins would lose in six games to the favoured Blues, Briere would score four more goals in the six games – including two game-winners – and finish the playoffs with a team-leading eight points.
Tragically, Briere would never play another game. Two weeks after his final playoff game and only three weeks from his wedding day, he suffered a serious injury in a car accident near his home. He never regained full consciousness and underwent four operations over several months before succumbing to his injury on April 13th, 1971, almost 11 months after the accident. He was only 21.
"Michel was a great kid," recalls Red Kelly, the Penguins coach at the time. "When a player has heart – and not everybody has that, but he had that – you’re hard to beat. He had that shiftiness … and they couldn’t scare him. He was fearless. He knew hockey. He had hockey sense. I thought the world of him."
"We would have been a much better team the next year if we had had him," Kelly says. "Michel was a great loss. When you lose somebody like Briere, who was a star in his first year, you just can’t fill that hole. It was a struggle."
It’s been suggested the Penguins really didn’t overcome the loss of Briere until 1986, when they drafted another French centre, Mario Lemieux.
On Jan. 5, 2001, the Penguins retired Briere’s jersey No. 21, the only Penguin other than Lemieux so honoured.
– PERRY LEFKO