WILMINGTON -- The money is a measuring stick. Patrice Bergeron is only 21 years old, but nobody has to explain that to him. When the big dollars kick in, so do the enhanced expectations, and the heightened disappointment if certain requirements are not met.
Before the contract, he was a kid with exceptional skills and an unparalleled hockey IQ who represented hope for a franchise mired in mediocrity. Once he signed his five-year, $23.75 million contract with the Bruins in August, he was immediately upgraded to young star who must come through.
``You are right," said Bergeron, shortly before he left town for Boston's season opener tonight in Florida against the Panthers. ``I have to produce."
What will be enough to soothe the masses? Depends on whom you ask. Most Bruins fans merely want a consistent scorer who can guide Boston back into the postseason. But others will expect Eric Staal numbers. Staal, the second overall pick in the 2003 draft (the same draft in which Bergeron was selected 45th), scored 100 points for Carolina last season en route to the Hurricanes' march to the Stanley Cup.
Hurricanes fans have yet to match the fervor and passion of the Black and Gold. If you succeed, fans in this hockey hub will adore you like no other. But if you come up short, your life can be difficult. Bergeron witnessed that in his rookie season, when he lived with veteran Marty Lapointe.
Lapointe had inked a four-year, $20 million contract in 2001, but was plagued by injuries and did not fulfill the hopes of management or the fan base.
``My contract was definitely an issue," said Lapointe. ``Bergy and I didn't talk about it, because he probably felt it wasn't his place to say much. But he is the kind of person who sat back and took in everything that was happening.
``We'd leave the rink together after most every game. The autograph seekers would be there, and I'd stop, and try. But there always seemed to be one guy who wanted to say, `What makes you think you're worth $5 million?' From the outside looking in, it doesn't seem bad, but when you're in it, it can be tough."
Bergeron's pals back home in Quebec cracked open some Molsons and then began grilling their friend about what he should do with his new fortune. Buy a new car? A new house? No. The apartment in Boston, with a room set aside for visits from his parents, was sufficient. So was his SUV, an Aviator, which runs just fine.
Forget the boat, the watch, the trip, the designer suit, and the Jacuzzi, too.
The only thing Patrice Bergeron finally settled on was a box.
It's a luxury box, actually. Within days of signing his contract, he purchased a suite where he could host underprivileged or ill children.
``I love kids," he explained. ``I thought if I could bring sick kids or poor kids to a game maybe I could put a smile on their face, even if it's just for one day."
He will donate tickets to Children's Hospital Boston for the home opener and the Big Brothers Big Sisters program for the game after that. From there, he will rotate among deserving charities.
``I didn't buy anything for myself," he said. ``I'm trying to stay low-key. I don't want to change just for changing.
``I did want to do something for my parents. But every time I try, they say no. It's kind of crazy. They give and they give, but they won't take anything back."
The money is inconsequential to Bergeron's parents. They are comfortable, his mother, Sylvie, explained. They don't need a thing, except to ease their worries about their son being thrust into a pressure situation at such a young age.
``It's important for him to keep his head on his shoulders," Sylvie said. ``I want him to stay the same."
Her boy has never been boisterous. Even as a child, he was uncommonly attentive to his surroundings. He listened more than he talked, and learned more because of it. No wonder his vision on the ice is one of his most valued assets.
``He hears everyone around him," Sylvie said. ``He would come home and say, `I learned this today about my teammates. I learned to be patient today.'
``His expectations for himself have always been so high. When he goes onto the ice, he always wants to be perfect. For a mother, it seems a little too high. I tell him not to put too much pressure on himself."
The rejection was initially staggering.
``It was an awful day for him for about two or three hours," Sylvie said. ``But then, he came out of his room and said, `OK, that's the past now.' "
The next season, Bergeron made the Jets -- and dominated. From there, his career was firmly on the fast track. In 2003-04, he was the NHL's youngest player, posting 16 goals and 23 assists. Last season, Bergeron was touted as a key cog in the ``new-look" Bruins, rated in preseason as Cup contenders. Instead, they were dismal underachievers, and the face of the franchise, Joe Thornton, paid the price.
``Bergy's been through a lot in three years here," noted Glen Murray. ``He carried a bad team last year. We traded Joe, our best player, and they said, `There you go, Patrice.' He stepped in and was unbelievable after Joe left.
``And he took it all in stride. He can handle the pressure. He doesn't worry about much of anything."
That wasn't always true. As an 18-year-old rookie who spoke limited English, Bergeron felt blessed to be embraced by Lapointe, who invited him to live with his family. Bergeron volunteered to baby-sit, grocery shop, even wash windows.
``Marty was so great to me," Bergeron said. ``I could talk to him. He could tell if something was bothering me. We talked about pressure. He helped me with things off the ice. He opened a bank account for me."
Lapointe also included him in many social functions and marveled at his ability to maintain his composure.
``His maturity level was just so high for a kid that age," Lapointe said. ``Sometimes we'd go out after the game. I'd have a couple of friends with me, and we'd be having a few beers.
``Patrice might have a bottle in front of him, but all he did was smell the cap. Half the time he didn't even finish it. I was impressed by that. I don't like to think about how I would have handled that at 18."
Bergeron noted how Lapointe handled his own disappointments with grace. He listened as his friend and teammate reminded him never to let money dictate his happiness, or his true worth.
Now Bergeron hopes to pay that favor forward by investing in Phil Kessel, the new rookie who will join him on a line with winger Brad Boyes.
``I'm trying to be there for Phil, like Marty was for me," Bergeron said. ``We're very close in age, so I'm trying to be a friend more than a mentor."
The most prominent new face on the roster is Zdeno Chara, the imposing defenseman who was named team captain with Bergeron and Murray as alternate captains.
``What I noticed right away about Patrice was he was a very hard-working guy," Chara said. ``He wants to have a good practice every day. I was very happy to see our best player is also one of the most hard-working."
Bergeron watches his diet, exercise regimen, and extracurricular activities. Those are the notches on his measuring stick. The dollars are of no use in such matters. You can't buy goals, wins, or credibility.
``People will talk about the contract," Lapointe said. ``But let me tell you something. By the second or third year of that deal, Patrice will be underpaid."