Patrice Bergeron received countless awards across his transcendent hockey career, with the 2011 Stanley Cup championship and a record six Selke Trophies all but guaranteeing his eventual entry into the Hall of Fame. He is one of the sport’s all-time greats, as iconic to the Bruins as Tom Brady to the Patriots or David Ortiz to the Red Sox, a towering figure whose exploits and reputation will live forever in New England lore.
But it was a different kind of honor Bergeron accepted Thursday night at a downtown Boston hotel that says as much about the legacy he leaves to his sport. In receiving the Concussion Legacy Foundation’s Impact Award, Bergeron opened a window into the person who, at the age of 22, showed a wisdom and willingness to do what was hard but what was right, a decision that continues to resonate in important and lasting ways.
“At first I didn’t feel like I deserved an award,’’ the recently retired Bruin said inside the Fairmont Copley Plaza ballroom. “But when they talked to me about the hope it can give the younger generation, the way it can make people realize how important it is to take time to heal from concussions, I understood.’’
It’s never easy to open up about the lowest points of our lives, and it’s certainly made harder when one of those valleys happens for the world to see. But that’s how it was for Bergeron in 2007, when just 10 games into his fourth season he sustained a brutal hit from Flyers defenseman Randy Jones, one that sent him head-first into the boards.
As Bergeron and his wife, Stephanie, sat through a replay of the incident Thursday, a showing he agreed to when asked by event organizers, the fear and concern of that night flooded back. The sight of Bergeron lying on the ice, nearly motionless and flat on his back until a stretcher took him to the hospital, made it all too clear why Bergeron would miss the remainder of that season, out of the game until his brain fully healed.
But that benefit of hindsight was not so readily apparent 16 years ago. As Bergeron sat for an interview with heralded NFL reporter and event emcee Andrea Kremer, he remembered how hard it was not to play, the guilt he felt at letting teammates down, the pressure that came with every well-intentioned question about how he felt. “At the time I was scared of the unknown, what the steps should be, a question of, ‘What now?’ ’’ he said. “But I was always trying to think about my future first and foremost.’’
And that future was in serious peril. Dr. Robert Cantu, a co-founder of the CLF along with football-player-turned-wrestler-turned doctor Chris Nowinski, himself a concussion sufferer, recounted his initial visit with Bergeron.
“He had 22 of 26 possible symptoms and almost all of them were in the 5-6 severe rating category,’’ Cantu told the audience. “He was 22 years old, in his fourth season, and the waiting was the hardest part. In 2007, opposition was still there. But Patrice was special. He missed 72 games. By the playoffs, his concussion was better, but his physical conditioning was not there. That was hard, knowing his concussion was better, but that it still wasn’t wise for him to play.’’
And so he didn’t. And time would prove him so right. “Patrice had four more concussions over his career, and each one was less severe than the last,’’ Cantu said. “That wouldn’t have happened without recovery from the first one.’’
And therein lies the lesson. Brain injuries may not be as visible as a broken bone or a snapped ligament, and the sad truth is that many of the worst cases cannot be diagnosed until after death.
That’s why the work of the CLF is so important, with an ever-growing circle of Legacy Families who have donated loved ones’ brains for research into the degenerative brain condition known as CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).
More than 60 of those family members were in the audience Thursday, wiping away tears as photos of those lost scrolled by on a video screen. There were stories of heartbreak, from the father of young Colin Meany, a teenage hockey player from New Jersey who took his own life after hiding two years of depression and pain from concussions. But there was inspiration, too, in Colin’s dad turning that tragedy into so much awareness and fundraising, efforts that are directly helping the CLF with efforts such as the recent addition of a help line (concussionfoundation.org), or with personal testimonies such as Bergeron’s.
“That’s why I did this — I feel it’s part of my journey and talking to kids and anyone willing to listen is important,’’ Bergeron said. “Not all of the stories worked out like mine.’’
The ongoing advancements in concussion research ensures a discussion that will continue for generations, an evolution that has already taken us from the dark ages of ignorance to the current one of increased awareness. As the CLF celebrated 16 years of fulfilling its stated mission of changing the concussion culture, preventing CTE and protecting young athletes is so important to keeping this vitally important conversation alive.
“I can relate, I can totally relate,’’ said former NFL and Boston College quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, in the audience as a supporter. “It’s cool to see the medical community and sports community working together. When I started in the NFL in 1998 you wouldn’t dream of being the person who said, ‘I have a brain injury’ or ‘I have a concussion.’ The coaches, the trainers, the doctors, your teammates would ask and the acceptable answer was always, ‘I’m good.’
“I’m proud that the NFL and NFLPA made it cool to be honest with the medical staff, that we changed the culture in football.’’
Again, the power of personal example. As Bergeron smiled his way through Kremer’s initial question about the life of an NHL retiree, he joked about how much family life he had to catch up on, how he now works for five-star ratings as the Uber driver for his kids, how sleep is at a premium with a newborn in the house.
It was touching and lovely, and yet I couldn’t help but think of how differently it might have turned out had he not stood up for himself all those years ago.
“You always have to be patient and listen to your body. I know it’s hard,’’ Bergeron said. “There’s hope, and I’m a perfect example of it.’’
Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her @Globe_Tara.