All of Patrice Bernier’s contemporaries are gone. He’s the last man standing. The lone survivor.
After a two-year absence, the Montreal Impact captain was recently recalled by the Canadian national team and played in last month’s international friendly against Curacao.
Far from a one-off, Bernier is set to compete in his fourth CONCACAF Gold Cup for Canada this month, the Reds’ first major international tournament under newly-appointed coach Octavio Zambrano.
With 54 caps to his credit and having made his debut for Canada in 2003, Bernier, a native of Brossard, Que., is the most experienced player on a team that is in a period of transition and rebuilding. At 37, he is also the oldest member of Zambrano’s 23-man roster, which is mostly made up of young prospects who are just starting their international careers.
Whereas Bernier was once the wide-eyed youngster looking to make a name for himself on the national team, the soft-spoken midfielder is now the aged veteran looking to impart his wisdom to the next generation of Canadian talent. It’s taken some getting used to, Bernier admitted.
“It’s a different dynamic. I came up through the national team with Julian [de Guzman], Atiba [Hutchinson], Dwayne [De Rosario], Ali [Gerba] and Kevin [McKenna]. I spent almost a decade with those guys, going through the same things at the same time while playing for Canada,” Bernier told Sportsnet.
“Now I’m seeing what the future is of Team Canada with guys who are a decade younger than me, and some even younger. I see young players who don’t have many caps or international experience, but they’re also eager and have talent. In a sense, they’re like me 20 years ago, so I see a little bit of myself in them when I was their age – eager to have a professional career and represent our country.”
Canada kicks off its Gold Cup campaign on Friday with a match against French Guiana in Harrison, N.J., The Reds then take on Costa Rica (July 11 in Houston) and Honduras (July 14 in Frisco, Tex.,) as it attempts to qualify for the knockout round for the first time since 2009.
In order to do that, Canada will have to score goals (something it hasn’t done in the previous two Gold Cup tournaments) and win games (its last Gold Cup victory was in 2011).
Bernier, though, is hopeful that the goal drought will come to an end this summer thanks in large part to a crop of young attacking players that he feels has the potential to serve as the nucleus of the Canadian team for years to come.
“There’s a lot of good, young talent here, especially in attack. We’ve had a few good attacking players before on the national team, but never all together at the same time, and where you can look at it at and say, ‘we’re set for the next decade or so,’” Bernier said.
“You look at Alphonso Davies, Junior Hoilett, Raheem Edwards, [Anthony] Jackson-Hamel, Russell Teibert and Jonathan Osorio – it’s interesting to see all of these young players that are offensive-minded, and to start to think about how the team will look once they start to play together on a regular basis.”
He later added: “I know Gold Cups are something we haven’t done well in the recent past, but this could be a good first step for this group of young players – to build their strength of mind and belief we can compete against the best in CONCACAF.”
In preparation for the Gold Cup, Zambrano gathered his players for a quick training camp in Alliston, Ont., before travelling to Florida this week where the team played a scrimmage game against Nicaragua behind closed doors. During that time, Bernier has made it a point to mentor the youngsters on the squad as they get set to play in their first major international tournament.
“I was their age, so I know, and at that age, guys just want to play. You don’t want to talk – you want to do your talking on the field with the ball; you want to do your thing. But you can also learn from the veterans. I’ve seen a lot of things, so if I can say one thing to help them develop their game then I’ll do it. I have to. That’s my responsibility,” Bernier explained.
It’s a responsibility he shares with Zambrano, who reminds Bernier of former Canadian coach Stephen Hart. Like Hart did during his tenure, Zambrano wants Canada to play without fear and develop a ruthlessness on the pitch, and not be intimidated by the perennial powers of the CONCACAF region.
“Canadian soccer has a reputation. We work hard, we’re blue collar and we’re fair. But at the end of the day CONCACAF is like life – it’s not always fair. Sometimes you have to do what you have to do, so he talks a lot about developing that killer mentality,” Bernier explained.
After being appointed the new Canadian coach in March, Zambrano quickly reached out to Bernier to see if he’d be interested in returning to the national team. Before playing against Curacao last month, Bernier’s previous appearance for the Reds came in January, 2015. Though he had been largely ignored by Zambrano’s predecessor Benito Floro, Bernier accepted Zambrano’s invitation.
“I never shut the door on Canada. It’d been two years, but I was honest with myself. With my age, the national team has to think about the next World Cup cycle and focus on younger players. When the call came from Octavio, I told him I wanted to help,” Bernier said.
“In the past, like everybody else, I’ve seen the problems with Canadian soccer and questioned things. That’s why Octavio brought me in. He told me, ‘I don’t see your age, I see your performances,’ and he thought I was still performing well, and believed I could help him in the short-term.
“At my age, I could have easily said no thanks. But I want to be part of the solution instead of criticizing from the outside.”