It hurt to move. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to sleep.
It hurt to do just about anything.
Leading up to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals against Chicago in 2013, I was walking around everywhere like an old man. I had to be really careful whenever I tried to get around so I wouldn’t shift my torso too much. I had a cracked rib and torn cartilage, and if I felt my ribs move at all while I was walking, the pain would just about knock the wind out of me.
If I’m being honest, the thought of sitting out never really crossed my mind. We were about to play in a must-win game. We had everything to lose.
I thought back to 2009, when Mark Recchi joined our team during the trade deadline. I was 23, still figuring everything out, and he was put on my line. This was a guy who had been playing in the NHL for 20 years. When all was said and done, he’d lace up his skates for more than 1,600 games while winning three Stanley Cups. He had a career that I wanted to emulate — that any young player would want to emulate. And it just so happened that he was a really great guy who was selfless with his knowledge.
That first season he was with us, we played the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round of the playoffs. Before one of the games during the series, Mark was sick. Like really sick. He had kidney stones, and he couldn’t stop throwing up. Right up until we took the ice, I watched him struggle just to sit upright.
But when the puck dropped, he went out there and played his game.
I was on the ice with him as his centerman and I could hardly believe what I was watching. This guy who had been in agony just moments before was out there beating people to pucks and finishing checks. He was leaving it all out there, even when it seemed like he had nothing more to give.
That showed me something. It showed me what playoff hockey was really about — the sacrifices that need to be made.
Fast-forward to Game 6 in 2013, I knew that I wasn’t right. I was in a lot of pain …. but it didn’t matter. I was playing. No question. I wasn’t sitting this one out.
It wasn’t about appearing tough or anything like that. I didn’t think about that at all. I was just following the lead of Recchs and so many of the guys before him who I’d looked up to. I knew this wasn’t something I could miss.
Not after three playoff series. Not when we were that close to the Cup.
But when the game started, I began to feel worse and worse. Still, I tried to ignore it. We were two months into the playoffs — of course, I was feeling tired. Shift by shift, I made it through the game, which we ended up losing in a heartbreaker — not that anybody reading this needs to be reminded.
When it was all over, I shook hands with the guys on the other team and then sort of stumbled back to the locker room. The trainers evaluated me, and then I ended up at the hospital where they determined I had suffered a punctured lung.
But …. I’d do it all again.
The cracked ribs, the cartilage, even the punctured lung. I’d do it all again in a second.
I’d do it again because I had learned from others the sacrifices you need to make as a team in order to win in the playoffs.
I’d do it again because my teammates and I knew what it felt like to hoist the Cup. That feeling of celebrating a lifelong ambition and the bond it creates is something that’s truly indescribable.
But most of all, I’d do it all again because I know a pain that hurts so much more than any of those injuries:
The pain of not making the playoffs at all.
I was barely a legal adult when I first joined the Bruins in 2003. I was excited, but at the same time I didn’t really know anything about life in Boston. I had grown up a Nordiques fan, which meant I hated the Canadiens — so at least I knew I had something in common with the people there.
Learning to play at this level was a huge challenge on its own, but complicating things even more was the fact that I knew very little English.
I pretty much only had the basics down: hello, goodbye, thank you, backcheck and whatever else I could remember from the English classes that I hadn’t paid enough attention to while I was growing up in Quebec.
Early on there were so many times when I’d go to restaurants and I wouldn’t know how to pronounce anything on the menu. But on top of that my accent was superthick, so even if I made a go of it, there was pretty much no shot that the server would understand what I was trying to say. So I made a habit of just ordering the same thing as the person sitting next to me. I figured it would just be simpler that way. Granted the system had its flaws, but I ate.
Sometime during my rookie year, I was doing an interview on camera and I was trying to describe the feeling of playing in the NHL as “unbelievable.” The only problem was my English was nooot advanced enough for me to pronounce the word unbelievable. I mean, I could barely order a meal at that point much less pronounce five-syllable words. On camera interviews made me super nervous for that reason, and that wasn’t good because when I was nervous my English somehow got 10 times worse.
So during that interview, I found myself staring down the barrel of a camera sounding like a baby attempting to say his first words.
“Unbu-lu-lu … uhhh….”
“It was great!”
Don’t know where the tape of that interview is. Hopefully in a trash dump somewhere.
If you’re a teenager thrown into that situation, where you’re trying to make sense of so many things, it can cause you to struggle. But I was lucky to join a team that was full of veterans who understood how to mentor young guys. The average age on the team when I joined was around 28, so if I wanted advice from an experienced vet, I just had to turn to whoever was next to me. And there were some real beauties on that team.
We had Felix Potvin, “the Cat.” Supergood guy. But also pros like Joe Thornton, Glen Murray, Sean O’Donnell and Ted Donato, just to name a few.
They were all really helpful, but the first guy who really took me under his wing in a really significant way was Martin Lapointe.
Martin didn’t just show me how to be a professional hockey player, he kind of walked me through how to be a functioning adult. This was a grown man with a wife and kids and he let me move in with him. He showed me how to open up a bank account, register for social security and even buy a car from a dealership. And also, he never gave me a hard time about my English. He was just there to help when I needed it. I know he didn’t have to do all that stuff. It wasn’t something that was in his contract. But the longer I’m in the league, the more I understand why he did.
Great teams aren’t successful because they have the best snipers or the most talented goalies. Those things help, but they’ll only get you so far. Great teams are successful because they’re great teams. There’s a consistency across the entire roster — across the entire organization, even. Everyone is on the same page, doing the right things to lift each other up.
Over the years we developed a culture where as a team, our focus wasn’t on making the playoffs. We were out to win the Cup. The fact that we’d be in the hunt was almost an afterthought — we were more concerned with what changes and adjustments we needed to make to be successful once the playoffs started.
So to miss the playoffs the past two seasons was something completely foreign to the core guys on the team. We were accustomed to being contenders every year, and to not even be involved definitely shook us. And as a result we needed to make a change.
It was really hard to see Claude get let go in February. I learned a lot from having him as my coach these past few years. I don’t think I’d be the player I am today if it wasn’t for him. And I also know that we’ll always share a certain bond because of all the success we experienced together. And flat out, he’s a really great coach. So when he was let go, we knew it wasn’t a reflection of him so much as it was a reflection of how we were doing as a team. It was a wake-up call. We had to be more accountable. We had to be better players and better leaders.
And I’m proud of how we responded.
We started playing faster, more focused. And we also played tougher. We started making the plays we needed to in order to beat good teams.
And now, we’re back where we belong.