Patrice Bergeron’s final hug on the ice on Sunday was reserved for Brad Marchand, his longtime linemate and friend. It was longer and tighter than the other hugs he shared with his teammates, and it brought Bergeron to tears as somber fans stood and cheered.
If it was Bergeron’s final moment in a Boston Bruins uniform, so ends a magnificent 19-year career that places him in the pantheon of great Boston athletes. He did not win as many championships as Bill Russell or Tom Brady. He was not a three-time most valuable player like Larry Bird. He was not as clutch as David Ortiz and did not change the game the way Bobby Orr did.
But somewhere on that glittering list stands Bergeron, one of the greatest two-way centers in hockey history. He is perhaps a few spots higher than he otherwise might be because of his unmistakable class and the fact that he played his entire career, at least, so far, for the Bruins.
“He is one of the best to ever play the game,” Marchand said in March, when the Bruins appeared invincible. “He’s also one of the best leaders ever. It’s hard for anyone to drag their feet when your best player and oldest guy is out there setting the example.”
Marchand and his teammates, including David Krejci, spoke openly all year about how this season was planned and organized by the Bruins to win the Stanley Cup for Bergeron in what might be the beloved captain’s final season. His age matches his iconic number, 37, which will eventually hang above the ice at TD Garden in Boston. He will also certainly be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame one day, but perhaps it will be with a tinge of disappointment — as there was with Orr — that there could have been more success, including this year.
Bergeron won a Stanley Cup with the Bruins in 2011 along with Marchand and Krejci, and that is more than some great players achieve. But the Bruins also lost in the finals in 2013 and 2019, and now there’s this, a particularly sorrowful and painful ending.
Perhaps he was crying Sunday night because of the immediate and colossal disappointment, and not because he knew it was his final N.H.L. game. Bergeron and the Bruins skated off the ice after a shocking, season-ending overtime loss to the Florida Panthers at home in Game 7 of their first-round playoff series. Afterward, Bergeron indicated the decision on his future had not been finalized.
“It hurts right now,” he said. “I’m going to have to step back and give it some thought with my family.”
Bergeron and his teammates had hoped, maybe even expected, to see their names carved into the Stanley Cup at the end of the playoffs. Instead, their names will be added to a short list of the most bitter Boston sports disappointments in recent memory, including their own Game 7 loss at home to the St. Louis Blues in the 2019 finals.
But because they had been so good and had the highest of expectations, this stunning outcome was slightly reminiscent of the loss of the undefeated 2007 Patriots to the Giants in the Super Bowl. This one came long before the final stage, but it was devastating, nonetheless.
In the regular season, the Bruins won 65 games, more than any other team in N.H.L. history, a record that now taunts them and their fans. On Sunday, after building a three-games-to-one lead in their series with Florida — and holding a 3-2 lead with one minute left in regulation — the Panthers pulled their goalie for a sixth skater and Brandon Montour scored to send the game to overtime. There, Carter Verhaeghe scored the winner for Florida, and the Bruins became the latest victim of the curse of the Presidents’ Trophy.
Since Chicago won the Stanley Cup in 2013, no team that led the league in wins (an accomplishment for which that dubious trophy is awarded) has won the Stanley Cup. Only four times has a team won both since the 2000-1 season, and the Bruins became the eighth straight Presidents’ Trophy winner to lose in the first or second round.
Perhaps they all suffered from bad luck, or perhaps there is something more substantive in those numbers. For some teams, it could be the lack of competitive games toward the end of the season. For others, it could have been overconfidence.
For the Bruins, it may have been the pursuit of history that did them in, and the weight of expectations. They led the league from beginning to end and secured a playoff spot before any other team. The Bruins won 16 of their last 17 games in the regular season, but eked out wins instead of dominating. They pushed to the final game, perhaps to add to their record, or in an attempt to stay sharp.
But come the playoffs, Florida was sharper, meaner and had more intent. The Bruins, with arguably the best and deepest defensive core in the league during the regular season, looked tentative and tight. They had difficulty breaking the puck out of their zone and made numerous uncharacteristic turnovers that led to goals.
Bergeron, who played in 78 of 82 games in the regular season, did not play in the first four games of the series because of a herniated disk that he may have suffered in the final regular-season game in Montreal on April 13. In the three playoff games he did skate, the Bruins lost.
“Obviously, it’s extremely disappointing,” he said, “especially with the team that we had.”
Bergeron, a second-round draft pick in 2003, joined the Bruins at age 18 and has played in 1,294 regular-season games. He has amassed 1,040 points in the regular season, including 427 goals, and he probably prevented a thousand or more by opponents (he had a plus-minus rating of +289).
He also had 128 points in 170 playoff games, and Zdeno Chara, the former Bruins captain, often lauded Bergeron as his effective co-captain.
Best known for his offensive and defensive wholeness, Bergeron won a record five Selke Trophies as the league’s best defensive forward, most recently in 2022, but is also one of league’s most expert face-off men. According to NHL.com, he won 14,837 face-offs in his career, more than any other player since 2005, and his 58.7 winning percentage is eighth best in history and highest among active players.
He also won two Olympic gold medals with Canada, in 2010 and 2014, and won a world championship in 2004, all while setting a shimmering example of professionalism.
After Sunday’s loss, Marchand was asked about Bergeron and the possibility that his friend’s career was over. Marchand grew emotional, appearing to fight back tears.
“There’s obviously too many memories to list,” Marchand said. “But the friendship we’ve built and the relationship we have has been special. So, hopefully, it’s not.”