Do not expect Patrice Bergeron to jump up on a soapbox this season, and flash his Stanley Cup ring around as he calls for a ban on the most obvious source of head hits in the NHL: the staged, bare-knuckle fight that pulls you and everyone else out of their seat.
He’ll be there alongside Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby whenever the topic turns to zero-tolerance on hits to the head in the flow of the game, willing to assist as you’d expect from somebody who has suffered three known concussions in seven NHL seasons. One caused the now 26-year-old Boston Bruins forward to miss most of 2007-08, and another occurred during the playoffs last season, forcing him to miss the start of the conference final against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Most importantly, perhaps, Bergeron is willing to put his recovery from postconcussion syndrome in a context easily relatable after the off-season deaths of NHL enforcers Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak left everyone wondering whether there was a link between off-ice psychological issues and on-ice roles. (Oh, let’s just say it: Suspecting, not wondering.)
“I was meeting with psychologists as part of the recovery, more about just getting advice than anything else,” Bergeron said earlier this month in New York, referring to his recovery process. “I know people who have gone through depression after suffering concussions. Right now, I’m not worried about it. But it’s something I know I’m going to have to be careful about.”
Bergeron is the best-case scenario for Crosby or any other player who finds themselves part of the NHL’s concussion body count, somebody who took a long time to recover but hit the ground running, winning an Olympic gold medal in 2010 and later a Stanley Cup. Still, it’s not all that easy to get your head back in the game even after you’ve taken that first big, welcome-back hit. Just as returning to a normal life off the ice didn’t really come until the day Bergeron took the boldest of bold steps.
“I hadn’t driven my car for a long time,” Bergeron said quietly. “So, I thought: ‘Okay, let’s see how this goes.’ So I drove around my block in Boston. When you’re driving, you have to be aware of a lot of things, right? I did that and I felt fine. I felt that was it.
“That first year, it’s not easy because nothing’s the same when you come back. Your numbers aren’t the same, the rhythm’s just not there,” he said. “You’re always facing frustration. You’re always trying to stay positive.”
Bergeron smiled when he was told that Aaron Hill, the former Toronto Blue Jays second baseman who is now in a pennant hunt with the Arizona Diamondbacks and whose career was once put in dry dock due to a freak concussion, has said one of his first tangible signs of recovery from postconcussion syndrome was the ability to take his dog for a walk without vomiting.
“With a concussion … everyone is on their own,” Bergeron said. “The symptoms are different for everyone. Just like Sid. It’s not like a broken leg or broken arm.”
The exhibition season is now in full swing, as is the annual rite of redefining how you can attempt to hurt somebody within the rules without addressing fighting. So the NHL will remain the team sport that glorifies fighting on its website and on arena videoboards.
“As of now, I don’t see it [changing]” Bergeron said. “I know fans like fighting. It gets your teammates going. There’s so many things that go into it … so many issues around head shots and around fighting that we’re going to be talking about it for years.”