“I don’t know how they’re going to use me but you know I’m going to give everything for [the Canadiens], my heart and soul. I always did that.”
Patrice Brisebois, August 4th, 2007
The free agent signing of Patrice Brisebois over the summer created little excitement amongst fans or the media of the Montreal Canadiens. After all, this was a group that had been hungering a month earlier for Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey to land the proverbial big fish. Left starving in the wake of Gainey’s failure to sign any players they deemed worthy of the word superstar, the last player that many clamored to see rejoin the team was Patrice Brisebois.
In the last decade and a half, few players have ignited the passions of the team’s fan base like Brisebois, and seemingly for all the wrong reasons. Sadly for Brisebois his first tenure with the team coincided with the Canadiens fall from grace, from a Stanley Cup championship in 1993 to a long stretch of mediocrity that followed. Unwittingly, Brisebois became the symbol for the fans frustration, a target for the team’s failure to meet the expectations of their followers. Fans who had grown accustomed to winning were suddenly seeing their beloved Canadiens, the most successful franchise in hockey history, become one the league’s perennial underachievers. Brisebois’ time with the team saw the team struggle to just make the playoffs, something that had once been as expected as spring in Montreal.
And there stood Brisebois alone on the ice, for many a symbol of all that had gone wrong with their beloved Canadiens. A symbol of enduring frustration, a player to mock with snickering monikers like “Breeze-by.”
Drafted in the second round of the 1989 NHL entry draft with the 30th overall selection, Brisebois’ junior career was to say the least, a study in success. Becoming one of those rare players to play in three Memorial Cups with the Laval Titans, Brisebois also represented Canada in back to back World Junior Championships and was named the best major junior defenseman in Canada in 1991. After scoring 370 points in his four junior seasons, Brisebois made the leap to the Canadiens. Expectations to say the least were high, with the recent departures of both Larry Robinson and Chris Chelios; many looked to Brisebois as the Canadiens next great star on the blue line.
For whatever reason it didn’t happen. Brisebois became a steady, solid defenseman who manned the point on the Habs power play, but his career quickly became about what he wasn’t as opposed to what he was. Many in the media questioned his commitment to the game, thought his play lacked passion, and from there the perception grew that Brisebois was a skilled but soft player, a player whose character was seen as lacking.
Undoubtedly, the Canadiens slide into mediocrity did not help his cause, and as the years went by and memories of the Habs last Stanley Cup grew more distant, his status as the lone holdover from the 1993 Stanley Cup champions became a millstone around his neck, a reminder of what had once been, of days when the future seemed full of possibilities; days when there was optimism as opposed to the gloom that now enveloped the both the franchise and it’s players.
It is hard to imagine a player who has been booed at home more often and with more venom than Brisebois. After signing a new contract with the Canadiens that paid him $4 million dollars per season, Brisebois became a target for all of those disenchanted with the once mighty Habs. On a team that was not living up to the expectations of the media and the fans, Brisebois and his contract were seen as the ultimate waste, an overpaid player, leading a cast of underachievers.
In 2000-01 the Canadiens once again failed to make the playoffs, and Brisebois with his -31 plus/minus rating was singled out by an increasingly bitter and venomous crowd who loudly booed him every time he skated on the ice, every time he touched the puck, and especially when he gambled on the ice and lost. To say that the fans had turned on him would be an understatement; instead it appeared that they had given up on him. In their eyes he could do no right.
After bottoming out, both Brisebois and the Habs were able to bounce back with first round playoff victories in 2002 and 2004, with Brisebois posting respectable numbers while adapting his game and taking a more conservative approach. However, when his contract expired at the end of the 2004 playoffs there was very little enthusiasm for bringing him back. Once a player filled with much promise, he had now become a replaceable veteran, one of those players whose contract outweighed what was perceived as his contribution.
With all of the feel of a mercy killing, Brisebois’ career in Montreal mercifully came to an end. There was no fanfare surrounding his departure, just that lingering sentiment of a potential unfulfilled.
Landing in Colorado, Brisebois signed a two year contract, undoubtedly looking forward to languishing in the background, as opposed to being under the constant glare of the spotlight as he had been in Montreal. Colorado represented a chance for Brisebois to revive his career, as well as an opportunity for him to win that long, elusive second Stanley Cup. Regrettably, for both Brisebois and the Avalanche, that’s not how it worked out. Not only did the Avalanche not win the Stanley Cup, but Brisebois suffered a serious back injury in a game on December 27th against the Dallas Stars. The injury ended Brisebois’ season, and with his contract up at the end of 2007, the Avalanche decided not to resign the now 36 year old veteran.
A career that had once been full of such promise had seemingly come to an inglorious end, until that surprise phone call from Montreal Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey over the summer.
When Gainey announced the resigning of Brisebois a collective moan could be heard from many fans as well as those in the media. In a city craving a winner there was a sense that this was a step sideways, if not backwards. After all, didn’t the Canadiens, a team stacked with youthful prospects; really require Brisebois’ services even at only $700,000 a season? In response, Gainey felt that the Habs required a veteran presence to help tutor the younger players as well as provide valuable experience in game situations. Both Guy Carbonneau, the Canadiens head coach, and Kirk Muller, the teams assistant coach also vouched publicly for Brisebois, a former teammate, and along with both of them, a member of the Canadiens last Stanley Cup championship team.
In a season, that has seen the Canadiens take the unexpected leap to the top of the Eastern Conference, Brisebois has largely remained in the background. Playing in only half of the team’s games, he accepted his reduced role with silence and has never betrayed any signs of frustration. The fans and the media for the most part have been accepting, realizing that Brisebois, now entering the twilight of his career is no longer the polarizing figure of his younger days.
With all of that being said, the name of Patrice Brisebois was not discussed much leading up to the Canadiens first round playoff series against the Boston Bruins. Amongst all the stars on the Canadiens, Brisebois had become a secondary figure, relagated to the background, thought to be essentially a non-factor.
Over the last six days Patrice Brisebois has unexpectedly and shockingly thrust himself back into the spotlight. Inserted into the lineup in game number one because of his experience, Brisebois has exceeded all expectations, turning back the clock and playing at a level that hasn’t been seen from him in recent memory.
Four games into the series and Brisebois has been one of the Habs best skaters, tied for the team lead in points, and topped it off by scoring what may have been the biggest goal of his career last night in Montreal’s 1-0 win over the Bruins in game four. And while, his offense has been impressive, it is his overall play which should also garner notice. In a series that has quickly become a highly physical encounter, with every inch of the ice being contested, Brisebois, a player always considered soft has shown his grit, a grit not many thought he possessed.
Long thought of as a player lacking in character, Brisebois is proving the doubters wrong. Those who felt that his signing this summer was superfluous have now been silenced, because when it mattered most, Patrice Brisebois has stepped up to the plate.
Perhaps it is the realization that this may be his last chance to sip from Lord Stanley’s mug again, that has reinvigorated Brisebois, that feeling that this is his one last hurrah. That a player who has always epitomized a promise unfulfilled is getting his chance to right all of the wrongs, a chance to have the final say. A chance to ride into the sunset perched above a car in late May along St. Catherine Street, soaking in the adoration of a Stanley Cup victory celebration.
It is a ride he took once before, long ago, and it is taking that ride again that fuels the fire that burns deep inside.