Steve Simmons
Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin watches his team play during this year’s playoffs.Photo by Ryan Remiorz /THE CANADIAN PRESS
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Marc Bergevins playing career had almost come to an end when Phil Esposito rescued him and signed him as a free agent to play for the expansion franchise called the Tampa Bay Lightning.
That happened to be for the 1992-93 National Hockey League season. It also happened to be the most recent time the Montreal Canadiens have won the Stanley Cup.
I was kind of going nowhere, Bergevin, now the general manager of the Canadiens playing Tampa Bay for the Stanley Cup, remembered on Sunday. My last year in Hartford, I was sent to the minors. I had lost my dad just about then. That was a tough time for me.
Going to Tampa kind of restarted my career, to be honest. I loved my time there. We played in that small barn, I think we could put 7,500 people in there. I remember thinking: This isnt a hockey town but this just might work here.
We played Chicago on opening night and beat them 7-3. Everybody remembers that Chris Kontos scored four goals for us. What nobody remembers is that I was the first defenceman in Lightning history to score a goal that night. Ive carried that around with me for a long time.
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Now, all these years later, its kind of strange whats happened. Tampas not exactly a hockey hotbed but its become one of the great franchises in the game. And what a great team they have.
Bergevin has been an acquired taste in his years with the Canadiens bold, controversial, passionate, unconventional but never, until now, finding the kind of success that forms the basis of reputations of top-end general managers. Those who coached him or played with him in Tampa had no clue he would end up in management.
A comedian, maybe? A personality wearing a bright red suit? The suit he is known for and wears now is not exactly the button-down image of the every-day sporting executive.
I never would have expected this, said Terry Crisp, the Nashville broadcaster who coached Bergevin for three seasons in Tampa. He was such a free spirit and a funny guy to be around. I love the guy, to be honest. Hes probably one of the most pleasant, colourful, guys Ive ever worked with or coached.
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I played alongside Bobby Plager in St. Louis and he was the funny man of all funny men. Next in line for me is Bergevin. He was non-stop.
Before the Lightning ever played a game, a few players, coaches and management flew to Chicago to meet with potential sponsors for the team.
Were standing in the lobby of the Drake Hotel, getting our keys, and Marc turned and walked away, said Crisp. Were talking with one of these sponsors, trying to tell him why he should pick us, and when he walked towards the elevator and all you could hear was clink, clink, clink.
Somehow, Marc had taken the hook off those velvet ropes you see in hotels, hooked it on to the trench coat of the sponsor and, when he turned to go to the elevator, he was dragging those posts along with him. You talk to that sponsor later, and all he could do was laugh.
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Another time, Crisp said, one of our players was bragging about these new shoes he had bought. Beautiful shoes. Still in the box. And when we sat down to eat, the player went to show off his new shoes and couldnt find them. Now hes screaming and yelling: Where are my shoes? Turns out Bergie had taken the shoes and made them into a centrepiece for the table. You couldnt see the shoes because of the fruit and flowers and all that was around it. Thats the kind of thing he did on a regular basis. It kept everybody loose.
Crisp used to name breakouts after players. He had his Bergevin breakout.
It went D to D and back to D and then up the wing, he explained. When Bergevin sees me today, the first thing he says is: D to D and back to D. All these years later, I know at least one guy was listening to me.
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Kontos spent just one NHL season playing with Bergevin in Tampa and never once thought he was playing with a future general manager.
I could have seen him as a coach because he was a real student of the game, said Kontos. But a GM? I didnt see that coming, partly because he was such a happy-go-lucky guy. I thought he was going to be a comedian. He was a prankster and he never shut it down. He always wanted to be the funniest guy in the room.
When I see him on TV now, wearing that bright red coat, and seeing him fist-pumping, Im thinking: Thats the Bergy I know. Thats his personality coming out.
The Bergy he knows was this close to being fired at the end of the opening round of the playoffs. Had the Canadiens lost to the Maple Leafs, its almost certain Bergevin would have been let go as GM. But his employment status didnt change. The Habs beat the Leafs and they havent stopped winning since and the firing, when it comes, will wait for another time.
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The first game we played in Tampa, I scored four goals, said Kontos looking back. My godfather, Gus, was there and after the third goal, he threw his hat on the ice. They didnt know what a hat trick was. Security tried to throw my godfather out of the building until (GM) Phil Esposito stepped in and stopped him.
We played at the state fairgrounds then and they had all these ponds behind the arena. You could go fishing for bass between games. We did that a lot. I have a lot of memories from that first season. For all the things that happened. And now I can tell people: I played with Marc Bergevin.
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