Ultimate Perseverance: the Bryan Berard Story

In today’s article, we look back at the life and career of former New York Islanders defenceman Bryan Berard. From his early life growing up in Rhode Island to becoming a young star in the NHL, we reflect on his journey in which he showed ultimate perseverance by returning to the league following a life-altering injury.

Early Life

Born on March 5, 1977, Berard was raised in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. With many French Canadian descendants in Woonsocket, there was naturally a rivalry between Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins fans within the town. However, he chose to be different as his favourite childhood team was the Pittsburgh Penguins, and his favourite player was Mario Lemieux.

Growing up, Berard’s best friend was future NHL goaltender Brian Boucher. With a fiercely competitive nature, the two friends pushed each other to be the best they could be. As a result, both kids excelled at multiple sports and even played on the same baseball team, where they won the Rhode Island state title.

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Bryan was one of six siblings growing up in the Berard household. His father, Wally, was a mechanic and owned his shop in Berard’s younger days. His father’s garage was broken into numerous times until he was finally forced to close the doors. Boucher’s parents helped immensely as they often brought him to minor hockey tournaments when his parents couldn’t.

Berard’s Minor Hockey Days

Watching his father play hockey for the first time left a lasting impression on the young Berard. From then on, he decided he wanted to be a hockey player. He began with the Woonsocket North Stars learn-to-skate program. The youngster was always playing with his siblings and childhood friends in a community with many outdoor rinks and frozen ponds. He first played organized hockey as a six-year-old, and from the beginning, he played defence.

As a 12-year-old, Berard won his fondest childhood trophy, the ESSO Cup, while playing for the Mass Bay Chiefs, a AAA team out of Boston. His team featured another future NHL defenceman, Tom Poti, and his friend Boucher was the goalie. Berard was named tournament MVP, which was exciting for the young man as Don Cherry handed out the hardware.

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Bryan Berard playing for Mount Saint Charles in 1993

By grades seven and eight, Berard had played on three hockey teams. He then made the USA Select-16 and USA Select-17 teams, providing more exposure for the young star defenceman. Then, in a tournament played in La Copa, Mexico, with the Select-17s, he got his first taste of competition against the most skilled players in the world his age. This included the likes of Jarome Iginla, Wade Redden and Shane Doan. Following the tournament, he decided that he needed to jump into Major Junior hockey to progress his career.

Berard informed his parents of his new goal to play in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). However, his mother, Pam, was adamant that her son finish high school before moving on to the OHL.

Berard Shines in the OHL

After satisfying his mom’s request and receiving his high-school diploma, Berard set his sights on the OHL. He was most intrigued by playing for the Detroit Junior Red Wings after going to watch a game with his family. However, they held the 15th overall pick in the 1994 OHL Priority Draft, and Berard was ranked among the top 3 to be selected. With this in mind, the Berard family reached out to Mike Milbury, the coach at Boston College. As a result, the young star signed a letter of intent with them, so if Detroit didn’t draft him in the OHL, he could attend Boston College for the upcoming season.

Bryan Berard Toronto Maple Leafs
Bryan Berard of the Toronto Maple Leafs, 1999 Quarter Finals of the NHL playoffs. (Photo by Graig Abel/Getty Images)

As fate would have it, OHL teams that drafted ahead of the Red Wings were deterred by the letter of intent and opted not to select the blossoming defenceman. Instead, Jim Rutherford, then general manager of the Junior Red Wings, selected Berard, and the rest is history. The decision to join the Red Wings was instrumental to his development as the team played and practiced at the Joe Louis Arena, allowing him to get to know some of the Red Wings’ NHL club players.

According to his biography “Relentless” co-written by Jim Lang, Berard met Paul Coffey there, who instructed the equipment manager to put a bigger skate blade on his skates. The longer blades, Coffey told Berard, would allow him to generate more glide speed in his stride, and after trying them out, he used that skate setup for the rest of his career.

The 17-year-old Berard joined the Red Wings for the 1994-95 season and played remarkably well. He became the third defenceman in OHL history to be named Rookie of the Year as he posted 20 goals and 55 assists for 75 points in 58 regular season games.

He also helped guide the Red Wings to an OHL Championship as they became the first American team to win the league title. He put up stellar numbers in the playoffs and posted four goals and 20 assists in 21 games.

Berard played a second season in the OHL and continued his elite level of play, scoring 31 goals and adding 58 assists for a total of 89 points in 56 games, and was named the OHL’s and CHL’s Defenseman of the Year for the 1995-96 season. He also represented Team USA at the U20 World Junior Championship during his junior seasons and was named captain for the 1996 WJC.

NHL Draft & Subsequent Trade

After his spectacular rookie season in the OHL, at the 1995 NHL Entry Draft, Berard was selected first overall by the Ottawa Senators. However, he would never play an NHL game for them. Despite a strong showing at his first NHL training camp with Ottawa, the Senators’ front office and Berard’s agent Tom Laidlaw, could not negotiate his rookie contract as the Senators couldn’t afford to pay potential bonuses that he would’ve been eligible to receive. As a result, he decided to return to junior in hopes the Senators would trade him elsewhere.

Related: The Boss of Long Island: Mike Bossy’s Life Story

Halfway through the NHL season, Berard was finally traded as the Senators sent Don Beaupre, Martin Straka and Berard to the New York Islanders in exchange for Damian Rhodes and Wade Redden, who was the second overall pick of the 1995 Draft. So finally, Berard was ready to make his NHL debut.

New York Islanders

Berard made his NHL debut in the 1996-97 season with the New York Islanders. He achieved a career-high in points during his rookie season, scoring eight goals and adding 40 assists for 48 points in 82 games. The 6-foot-2 defenceman also added to his hardware by winning the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s Rookie of the Year (from ‘Leetch and Berard Are Given Awards,’ New York Times, June 20, 1997).

During his second season with the Islanders, general manager Mike Milbury was shaking things up on Long Island as he traded Bryan McCabe and Todd Bertuzzi to the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for Trevor Linden. The season was tough for the team, and Milbury pointed out deficiencies in Berard’s defensive side of the game. However, his numbers relatively mirrored his rookie season, as he posted 14 goals and 32 assists for 46 points in 75 games. Also, during his second season, he once again represented his country while playing for the US Olympic team in the 1998 Nagano Games.

Bryan Berard New York Islanders
Bryan Berard, New York Islanders (Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)

By the 1998-99 season, Berard was feeling at home with the Islanders and never expected to be traded. However, Milbury had other plans for the team; on Jan. 9, 1999, he traded him to the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for goaltender Felix Potvin. He had played 31 games for the Islanders until the trade, notching four goals and 11 assists.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Bryan Berard is just one of many NHLers who have suffered significant eye injuries that a visor would have prevented (THW Archives)

Berard was an excellent addition to a strong Maple Leafs team. Following the trade, he continued to put up similar numbers, scoring five goals and adding 14 assists in 38 games. He also got his first taste of NHL playoff hockey as the Leafs advanced to the Eastern Conference Final that season. In 17 playoff games, he scored one goal and chipped in eight assists.

Berard looked as if he would be a mainstay on the Maple Leafs blue line for years to come when the infamous incident temporarily brought his career to a temporary halt. In a game against the Ottawa Senators on March 11, 2000, Marian Hossa clipped Berard with a follow-through, and the toe of his stick connected with his right eye, immediately dropping the Leafs’ defenceman. He suffered a pressure cut resulting in severe damage to his retina and nearly lost it entirely due to the incident.

Making a Comeback

After seven surgeries on the eye in hopes of regaining enough vision to return to the NHL, Berard was finally given the go-ahead to start being active again, as he made small steps working toward a potential return to hockey. First, he played catch with his younger brother for hours to improve his depth perception. Then, after beginning light cardio workouts, he worked his way back to skating. As he wasn’t ready to do so with the Leafs or any NHL team, he reached out to Providence College and skated with them until the NCAA forced the team not to allow him to practice with them. He then returned to his roots and skated at his old high school rink, progressing each day.

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Highlights of Berard’s Career

Berard reached a point where he was again in good shape and, with some connections, persuaded Herb Brooks to allow him to skate at the 2002 Team USA Olympic team’s training camp. After the camp was finished, the defenceman was convinced that he could play in the NHL again.

Berard’s abilities garnered the attention of New York Rangers general manager Glen Sather, who signed Berard to a pro tryout contract ahead of the 2001-02 season. He played well enough that it turned into a one-year, $2 million contract. However, the season demonstrated that Berard wasn’t near the level of play he was before the injury, as he scored only two goals and added 21 assists in 82 games.

Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks & Columbus Blue Jackets

Following his comeback season, Berard was signed to a one-year deal by the Boston Bruins. His level of play began to return to levels seen before his eye injury. Playing in 80 games for the Bruins, he scored ten goals and added 28 assists for 38 points. With the defenceman rediscovering his game, they were interested in retaining his services for the next season. However, when a deal couldn’t be reached, he went to arbitration, where he was awarded $2.51 million, a price too steep for the Bruins to pay (from ‘Bruins reject arbitrator’s salary award for Berard,’ SouthCoast Today, Aug. 13, 2003).

Ahead of the 2003-04 season, Berard found himself a free agent once again and one week into the season, the Chicago Blackhawks signed him to a one-year $2.01 million contract and named an alternate captain. His season in Chicago saw his offensive production hit career-high levels, as he scored 13 goals and 34 assists for 47 points in just 58 games. By season’s end, he was named the recipient of the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, given to the player who best demonstrates perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.

The 2004-05 NHL Lockout ended any hopes for Berard to return to the Blackhawks as Dale Tallon had taken over as their new GM. Instead, the Columbus Blue Jackets came calling about the defenceman’s services and signed him to a two-year contract. In his first season, he scored 12 goals and added 20 assists for 32 points. However, the 30-year-old began to develop chronic back problems and was limited to just 44 games. His back required surgery to repair herniated discs, ending his 2005-06 season. He played just 11 games for the Blue Jackets in the final year of his contract.

Return to Long Island & Life After Hockey

Berard’s career would come full circle as he returned to Long Island for what turned out to be his final NHL season. He played 54 games for the Islanders in the 2007-08 season and scored five goals and 17 assists. With his back ailing him and steady criticism from head coach Ted Nolan, Berard knew his time was done in the NHL. By the age of 31, he had played his last NHL game. He headed over to play one season in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) before officially hanging up his skates.

Life After Hockey

Unfortunately for Berard, he was a victim of fraud and lost all the investments and savings from his NHL career. His financial advisor, Phil Kenner, was under an FBI investigation and eventually was arrested in 2013 and sentenced to 17 years in prison for his fraudulent activity.

In 2011, Berard was a contestant on CBC’s Battle of the Blades. He was paired up with Marie-France Dubrueil and the duo finished in second place.

In 2014, he started working for a wealth management company named Whale Rock Point Partners. His position was to develop new clients for the company. He is currently listed as part of the team specializing in retirement solutions.

According to TMZ, Berard filed a lawsuit against the NHL in 2018, claiming the league failed to protect him from multiple head injuries he sustained throughout his career. That same year, he was inducted into the Rhode Island Hockey Hall of Fame.

Berard now resides in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, with the hope of one day working for an NHL franchise in a player development role. Nonetheless, his comeback story was truly inspirational, as Berard showed the world what is possible through hard work and perseverance.

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