Last season ended about as badly as one could end for Steve Bernier; not only did his team, the New Jersey Devils, lose in the Stanley Cup Finals but he was kicked out of the final game for a boarding major against Los Angeles Kings defenseman Rob Scuderi. The ensuing five-minute major penalty resulted in three Kings’ goals, sealing the Devils’ fate before they knew what hit them, as Bernier helplessly watched the conclusion of the game from the locker room.
After coming so close to his goal of winning the Stanley Cup, Bernier assured me that those memories are something that he will never forget until (hopefully) the day he does hold the big silver trophy over his head. “It will stay with me, and I hope I have another chance at it (with the Devils),” he said. “It’s a dream I have had since I was young and I was so close to getting it; but I didn’t get it. Everyday I think about it, but in a way that I want to do exactly what we did last year but just have a better finish in the Finals. I definitely use it as motivation.”
The Devils to a man defended Bernier, assuring him that the loss was not on him, as they (the NHL’s top penalty-killing team during the regular season) should have killed the penalty off and picked him up. “I was mad at myself,” he told THW after a recent game. “The team was obviously disappointed, but they gave me another chance, forgave me and I knew it right away, after that game was over.”
For Bernier after the loss, the uncertainty of his NHL future hung over his head — he was due to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. Sure, he had revived his career and found a niche in New Jersey playing on the fourth line alongside Ryan Carter and Stephen Gionta, but would they be willing to bring him back after the way the season ended? The answer was yes, and he never made it to unrestricted free agency, signing a deal with the Devils on June 29. “I knew a few weeks later when (GM) Lou (Lamoriello) called me for a contract; that says a lot as well,” Bernier said of the faith the franchise has showed in him. “It was a tough summer, mentally, but at the same time easier (with being signed to an NHL contract). I just needed to focus on what I need to do on the ice.”
“The only thing I had to do this summer was to work out and get ready for this season. I didn’t have to worry about where I’m going to be or anything like that,” said Bernier a veteran of four NHL teams before he joined the Devils on a tryout basis last summer, eventually signing a two-way deal. “Mentally it was refreshing and it was easier (on me) for sure.”
The 16th overall pick in 2003 (San Jose) has come a long way through peaks and valleys during his 8-year career, but now entering his second season (one calendar year) in New Jersey, Bernier feels as if he has really found a home. “I started my career on fire,” Bernier said with a smile. “I had an unbelievable season the first year in San Jose. Then it seemed I was moving a lot: different teams, different systems, different things to think about; but there are no excuses. I’m very happy with where I am right now — I found my game, the way I want to play in this league. I played the same way with the Sharks, except I was playing on the first two lines. Now here in New Jersey, I’m playing the exact same way, this is exactly what I want.”
This season, Bernier and his linemates have started to find their groove once again, and coach Pete DeBoer has not hesitated to play them against any of the opposition’s lines. “I’m comfortable playing those guys in any situation, against anybody,” said the Devils coach after a recent 3-1 win over the New York Rangers. “We had them out there tonight against (Rick) Nash, (Brad) Richards & (Marian) Gaborik. They aren’t a line that we have to try to hide from anybody — that’s a credit to them for playing the right way and they are a hard line to play against.”
During the playoffs the trio combined for perhaps the most unlikely 21 points (10g-11a) ever and was a key component as they dispatched the Panthers, Flyers and Rangers before losing to the Kings in 6 games. That was a main reason DeBoer had no problem reuniting them once the 2013 season began. “It took us a few games to get back on track for sure,” said Bernier, “even when we don’t score, we create a lot of momentum for our team with our shifts. That’s the way we need to play to help the team.”
Through the season’s first nine games Bernier has already potted three goals and sees regular ice-time on the Devils’ second power play unit. One can only imagine the personal hell that he has gone through since that ill-advised check in Game 6 of the Finals, but he is already making the team’s faith in him look like a smart move as he has become a nice piece in a solid team that is looking to avenge the ultimate disappointing ending.