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Q&A: Montreal Impact captain Patrice Bernier on his retirement

MONTREAL – Patrice Bernier is calling it a career.

Before entering retirement, the veteran midfielder will make one last appearance on Sunday when the Montreal Impact host the New England Revolution in their regular-season finale.

Bernier, a 38-year-old Quebec native, started out with the Impact in 2000 when they played in the old USL A-League, before rejoining the club in 2012 for its first season in MLS. Needless to say, he’s endeared himself to soccer fans in Montreal, and is very much considered the face of the Impact franchise.

In the buildup to Bernier’s final game as a professional this weekend, he chatted one-on-one with Sportsnet about his distinguished playing career for club and country, his legacy and what’s next for him.

How are you living these last days as a professional soccer player?

Right now, just like any other end of season, because of the fact, I think, that I announced my retirement early in the season. At some point in the middle of the season I told myself, ‘maybe I could keep playing,’ but in the last few weeks, once I told myself it’s done, I’ve been able to recollect. I was able to play back, not just seasons, but the whole process of becoming a player, everything with my father, my wife, my friends. It allowed me to let go slowly. That last day, I don’t know how I’m going to live it, of course it’s going to be emotional. That game I think will be something to realize that ‘yeah, you’re not going to play again,’ but I’m just enjoying the last days. I’m not looking at every moment as the last one.

I imagine it must be difficult. This is a huge transition. You’ve been playing for almost 20 years.

It’s not easy. For me it’s the kid who’s playing. You dream to play as a pro. You hope to play as long as possible. I’m happy, I’m privileged, because I was able to play 18 seasons. To play a very long time. A lot of guys I’ve played with have retired a long time ago. It’s not easy, because you have to say goodbye to a dream. You’re not saying goodbye just to a career. You worked to be here; now you have to wake up and realize that you have to do something else, because it’s a young man’s game.

I go back to playing with my mom in the basement; my father teaching me all sorts of things, my friends dreaming to be pro. I was the only one to play a very long time. My wife, because she’s seen my career way before it started. She was there to see my raw potential, and to see what I am now. The coaches that I’ve had. Just recollected the other day, I remember that when I signed, [Valerio] Gazzola was coming in, because the first coach [Eddie Firmani] had been fired in my first year in 2000. Bob Lilley, I learned a lot from him in my last year before leaving for Europe. Colin Miller, he gave me my shot, first call-up [with Canada] at the international level.

The career is great, there’s a lot of moments I’m always going to remember as a player, but I remember the things that lead me to become a professional, in a place where it wasn’t very hopeful to say that you’re going to have a career in soccer, and you’re going to earn a living from it, and become who I’ve become here in Montreal and finish off at home. Not many players have that chance to be able to play and have somewhat of a send-off at home and to be able to help the club that you started off with to grow.

Looking back on your career, what moments stand out for you?
There are so many. Going to Europe, playing in Europa League. I got to knock out Galatasaray. I got to play there in an insane environment. These are the games you watch on TV, and I was able play. This was first round in Europa League in 2005. I didn’t score the goal, but I took the shot that qualified us—it deflected off the heel of Stephen Ademolu, who’s Canadian also. Istanbul is fantastic. You cannot describe what it is like to play in that environment. Then after knocking them out we played AS Roma at home, [Francesco] Totti didn’t play, but [Daniele] De Rossi was there, they had [Samuel] Kuffour, Christian Panucci was still playing, [coach Luciano] Spalletti was in his first season, so the team was at its prime. They had a fantastic team. In the end, when I was there I was like, ‘man I was watching these guys playing on TV; now I’m playing against them.’

My first international cap, in 2003. I played versus Czech Republic, ranked third in the world. Pavel Nedved was about to win the Ballon d’Or.

Gold Cup 2007. Even if we didn’t win. I felt like there was something, a spark that had been ignited with the national team. There wasn’t social media, so we didn’t talk about it as much, but I think it was one of those generations that I think we missed out on possibilities of making it to the World Cup.

My first game with the Impact. This is way back! I think we played Pittsburgh. Then 2002. I had a fantastic season before I left [for Europe]. I played with Eddy Sebrango up front. He had 18 goals, I had like 10 assists. I was playing behind him as a number 10. I played with Mauro [Biello]. It’s funny because I played with him and now he’s coaching me. We were on the field together and now he’s the coach and I’m the captain.

I had two Danish cups in Denmark [with FC Nordsjaelland]. I think it was probably my best years as a professional. I did very well in Norway [with Moss F.K and Tromso]. I could have gone to Besiktas. My club refused to sell me to them. My career could have gone in a different way. I was in Norway in Tromso. This was 2005. My career could have gone in another complete direction. Before, in Germany, even though my time with Kaiserslautern wasn’t great, it was fantastic to be in one of the top football countries and to live what football really is when you feel it in the atmosphere.

And then here. The first time I signed [in MLS]. The first goal in 2012 against Kansas City, from the penalty spot, a 2-1 win. Being team MVP that season. Then playoffs in 2013. Going to the All-Star game. Playing with [Marco] Di Vaio, and [Alessandro] Nesta. It was funny because I was talking with Marco’s father and I was telling him, ‘I used to watch TeleItalia in the mornings, watch games he [Di Vaio] was playing, and now I’m playing with him on the same team.’ And then you think okay, you’re probably not going to get stars like that [again] and then Didier Drogba drops out of the sky in Montreal.

And 2015. That season wasn’t great, in terms of being on the bench the whole year, but ending it strong that way, scoring those goals in the playoffs [against Toronto and Columbus] and the fans, the way that season I was supported, that for sure I will never forget. Every time I was coming on the field, the fans were giving me a small ovation, a lot of support. They could have just brushed me aside, but they stood by me. I’ll never forget.

And 2016. Almost going all the way to the [MLS Cup] final. There are so many moments. Too many.

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Do you have any regrets, anything that’s still heavy on the mind?
No. I don’t see myself as someone who looks back and says, ‘I wish.’ I think some of the negatives made me stronger. Simple as that. I broke my leg twice in 2011. I didn’t think I was going to come back to be the player that I was, to be the same. Mentally that gave me a blow. And I had no contract. You’re past 30. You’ve gotten injured several times and you start having question marks about yourself. And clubs start having questions about you. In 2015, you see that you can play but you’re not playing. But this is all part of professional life. There’s no player in the history of football who’s never been on the bench, who’s never been injured. You’re not a starter for your whole career.

How does one have a career this long? What has been the key to your success?
Early on, I played hockey and soccer, so I was always in sports. I was always fit. And when I stopped playing hockey, I started getting some injuries that I never had. And I realized that hockey was bringing me some sort of training that I could use for soccer. So, I started doing my own workouts. I had a friend who was a gym instructor in Brossard and every off-season I would work with him and I developed things to do and I never stopped. I never stopped. I realized that as a professional, even if you have one month off or two months off, you can’t stop. There’s always someone else working even harder than you. Trying to take your spot. Or coming in and doing better. So, I developed this attitude that you have to work all the time. I lived a life where I constantly took care of myself. I always looked at how I could be fitter, to always be on point physically.

Clearly you’re someone who’s mentally tough. How have you managed the mental side? Do you meditate, for example?
Maybe you could call it meditation; I would say I visualize a lot. I try to anticipate what could be. Especially when I turned 30. I knew what it meant. You’re 30. It motivated me to say, ‘no, that’s just something people say.’ If I have the right state of mind and I train properly, then I’m able to maintain the same level for a long time. I’ll be able to play until I’m 38 and still show that I can be on the field.

The wisdom of being in the game longer helps. You know there’s a cycle. You know there’s always opportunities. But I also like challenges. Everybody talks about these last six years [with the Impact] and the ups and downs … careers are up and down, and I like challenges. If I’m given a challenge, I want to prove myself, show that I’m better, overcome what the obstacle is.

As for your next step, you’re going to coach in the Impact’s academy. When does that journey start for you?
That’s something I still have to talk about [with the club]. I will be joining very soon, but I just got to process being a player. I don’t know if they want me to join right away or if there’s going to be a transition period, but I have to process not being a player and have a break, so that once I start something I’ll be fully read to dive in. My contract ends at the end of December, so I’ll have two months to think about what’s next.

What would you like your legacy to be? How would you want to be remembered?
What I really wanted to do when I came [to MLS} was to … I know a lot of times, even in other sports, when you’re a Quebec kid, and you’re playing at home, there’s a double standard. ‘Are you here because you’re from the place and you can speak the language, or are you here because you’re good?’ Me, I wanted to prove that you could come from here and be a good player, and you can be recognized in the league, and people can appreciate what you do. What I would say my legacy is, is to say, you don’t have to dream to just play hockey—you can dream to be a soccer player, and perform for the Montreal Impact or go abroad and perform on the European stage, no matter if you don’t come from a prominent soccer country. I think my legacy is that, that a Quebec kid can play and perform and be a key player. And be a star in the league.