WILMINGTON - Thin of frame and clear of both eye and mind (other than evening headaches), a gaunt Patrice Bergeron skated yesterday for the second time in as many days, which means the 22-year-old Bruins center is at least two baby steps toward returning to the lineup.
Two small steps for Bergeron, one giant leap for Bruins Nation?
"It's a boost of confidence for the team," said veteran defenseman Aaron Ward. "When you see a guy get over adversity, especially at this stage of the season, it gives the team a boost."
Bergeron, who had been off skates since sustaining a Grade 3 concussion Oct. 27, was on the ice for approximately 10 minutes Sunday, and increased that to 20 minutes yesterday, skating on his own inside Ristuccia Arena following the Bruins' late-morning workout. It was a leisurely session, one in which Bergeron didn't break a sweat as he skated in circles, stretched muscles, and fired pucks into an open net.
The Bruins, with their playoff hopes very much alive after taking 9 of a possible 10 points on a just-concluded five-game road trip, will be back on Garden ice tonight with the Ottawa Senators in town. Meanwhile, Bergeron, if he is not set back by headaches and other postconcussion symptoms, hopes to skate again on his own, and perhaps build on the 30-minute base he established the last two days.
"I am here, and I am on my skates," said Bergeron, who was injured when drilled into the boards by Flyers defenseman Randy Jones. "But I have to be smart."
In other words, there is no knowing whether Bergeron will be able to make it back to the lineup this season or would be more prudent to resume serious workouts when training camp rolls around in September. He has dropped 15 pounds from his playing weight of 195, and it likely will take him weeks to build back the weight, muscle, and stamina necessary to play in the NHL, especially at this time of the season. Getting back into the game in October, when everyone is starting up their games again, is vastly different than jumping back in during March, April, or May with a Stanley Cup awaiting at the finish line.
"I'd like to be back as soon as I can," said Bergeron. "I want to get back in as soon as I am ready. But at the same time, I don't want to push myself."
Bergeron took the ice at 12:16 p.m. and exited at 12:36, spending most of the time shooting wristers into the net. A couple of teammates, including Dennis Wideman, made a point of popping out of the dressing room to watch him.
"I've been away so long," said Bergeron. "You realize how much you miss it. It's my passion."
It is also his livelihood, and Bergeron knows that a career can be truncated when looking for shortcuts around head injuries. He will proceed with due caution, his timeline left open, to the point where Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli maintains that he doesn't expect Bergeron to play again this season.
What Bergeron knows today is that he is feeling better, stronger, and has been able to add light skating to a workout routine that includes various low-impact exercises. Provided he has no setbacks, he'll try to increase the workload.
For now, he remains a slave to how his body and brain respond, but they are no longer the brutal masters they were for the first couple of months following the injury. He can drive a car again, something he was unable to do for nearly two months. He also feels better when just watching games.
"The first time I was watching games," he said, "I was a little nervous watching guys go in corners and get hit.
"I don't feel like I'm going to be scared getting back. I am always happy when I can play hockey, obviously. It's my passion. I know I was lucky [not to be hurt worse], and I'm thankful to be back."
As Bergeron finished up his workout, coach Claude Julien meandered into his daily meeting with reporters.
"We could have canceled this," said Julien, noting the blandness of an everyday update in comparison to the sight of Bergeron skating just a few feet away. "The interest is out there."