After missing the playoffs the past four years, the New York Rangers sit atop the Eastern Conference. Forwards Eric Lindros and Theo Fleury have rebounded from concussions and substance abuse, respectively, to average a point each a game. Goalie Mike Richter has recovered from knee surgery to enjoy his best season since he led the Rangers to the Stanley Cup in 1994.
But no Ranger is enjoying the season more than defenseman Bryan Berard. He doesn’t have great numbers (no goals, five assists and a plus-6 defensive rating while averaging 20:37 minutes through the Rangers’ first 23 games). But Berard’s satisfied smile in the locker room before last night’s game against the Washington Capitals at MCI Center derived from his presence in the lineup.
After all, Berard had been told time and again that his hockey career was over. On March 11, 2000, Ottawa’s Marian Hossa accidentally jammed his stick into then-Maple Leaf Berard’s right eye. For a time, doctors thought Berard would lose his eye. Last fall, after the sixth of seven operations, his vision in the eye was 20/600, well short of the 20/400 necessary for the NHL to let him return.
“A year ago, I didn’t think I would be in this position,” Berard said. “I was skating at Providence College and thinking about trying to come back, but after the holidays, I stopped. I thought it was pretty much over with. My sight wasn’t getting much better.”
Then Berard learned of a hard contact lens that would improve his vision enough to meet the league minimum. He began skating again last spring.
“At first, I was just trying to get back into good shape, but after the season, guys started coming back [to New England] to train for this year, and when I began skating with them, I began thinking again about playing,” Berard said.
Agent Tom Laidlaw wrangled Berard an invitation to the U.S. Olympic camp in Colorado Springs, Colo., in August. Berard played so well that the Rangers offered him a tryout, and when he delivered terrific performances in the next two preseason games, they gave him a four-year, $11.75million contract. (He’s using his salary to pay back the $6.5million disability payout he received from his insurance company.)
“It has to be one of the best feel-good stories of the last few years,” Rangers coach Ron Low said. “I was skeptical at first, but I knew Bryan had unbelievable talent. You just wondered how much his reduced vision would affect him. Here’s a guy who was supposedly clinically blind in one eye, and he has come back and is playing pretty darn well. But it just goes to show you how much stuff you do in this game by feel. You rely on instincts that have been there your whole life.”
Hockey always had come easily for Berard. The Woonsocket, R.I., native was the top pick in the 1995 draft just the second American so designated.
Berard won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie with the New York Islanders in 1997. Desperate for goalie help two years later, the Islanders dealt Berard to the Maple Leafs for Felix Potvin. Toronto, which missed the playoffs in 1998, reached the Eastern Conference finals in Berard’s first season there. And the Leafs were en route to the Northeast Division title when Berard was injured with four weeks left in the 1999-2000 season.
“I knew that if there was any chance that Bryan could play again, he would take it because he loves the game,” said Rangers defenseman Brian Leetch, who was at the Olympic tryouts with Berard. “I’m surprised that his eye has recovered so well, but Bryan’s skill level was so high to start with that even if he lost a little because of his vision, his instincts for the game would remain. The only difference that I see in Bryan since he was injured is that he wears a [face] shield on the ice now.”
Berard isn’t the offensive force he was with the Islanders he scored 14 goals and 46 points in 1997-1998 but his game was already changing before the injury. In 64 games during his final season with the Leafs, Berard had just three goals and 30 points. That more conservative style was also reflected in his solid plus-11 defensive rating.
“My body adjusted during the year and a half I spent away from the game,” said Berard, who is able to drive and read. “The doctors said I probably lost 10 percent of my vision. My left eye does most of the work, and I don’t know the difference. The contact lens helps my eye with light, magnifies my vision a little and gives me the pupil I lost in the accident. If my game has changed, it’s because of experience. I’m taking fewer chances offensively. I’m not handling the puck as well as I want to. There’s still a little bit of rust.”
Said Low: “Bryan’s still feeling his way a little. I expect him to do more things offensively as the year goes along. Don’t forget Bryan has a lot of upside. He’s only 24.”
Berard might never be the All-Star he was expected to be; Rangers observers say he often seems out of sync on the ice. But it’s a triumph of the spirit that he’s out there competing against the best players in the world again.
“I definitely took hockey for granted before,” said Berard, who is looking to get involved with a sight-related charity. “But when you’re away from something you miss, you learn to appreciate it and respect it a lot more. I’m much happier now.”