Saturday, March 14, 2009

Patrice Brisebois

999 Not Out


I'm not sure whether you'd call this a tribute, perhaps more of a synopsis.

I am not qualified to do a Brisebois tribute, you see, and I would only mess it up. So, instead I will tell you about my 19 years with Patrice Brisebois – with my memories, my interpretations and my feelings.

Early days

Blue chip beginnings
It must be said that Patrice Brisebois was one more in a long line of bluechip defenceman prospects to come through the Montreal Canadiens system back in 1990. That is the reason, Serge Savard and staff must be forgiven for overlooking no less than 3 superstars in Pavel Bure, Sergei fedorov and Nicklas Lidstrom to get Patrice.

In 1989, Patrice was the Canadiens dream come true: a French Canadian, goalscoring defenceman who was winning competitions. By the end of that season, he had racked up 30 goals and 109 points in 98 junior games and had competed for the Memorial Cup for the first time with the Laval Titan.

I have to admit that even I was a big fan back then, and I still have his QMJHL rookie card signed in a case somewhere, I think.

Excellent progression

The good times didn't stop at the draft for Patrice, as he would go on to play for Team Canada twice in the next two years, winning 2 gold medals – beating Jagr's Czech team and Pavel Bure's USSR no less. After the two stints for Canada, he also played in 10 NHL games as a 19-year old (which, if you remember Serge Savard's model of player development, was quite a feat). To top it off, there were two Memorial Cup finals in 2 years, the second one with him as a tournament all-star. If that's not enough to impress the socks off any scout, he raked in the CHL defenceman of the year award in 1991 as well. Just a quick run-down for those who prefer bullets:

– 2 WJC gold medals
– 3 Memorial Cup finals
– 1 CHL defenceman of the year
– 1 Memorial Cup All-Star team
– 65 goals and 258 points in 208 junior games
– 11 points at both WJCs and Memorial Cups in 13 and 14 games, respectively

This guy was the Carey Price of his age – a shoe in to be a star...

NHL debuts
Following his tour with Montreal in 1990-91, he saw a bit more replacement work in 1991-92. In all, there were 26 regular season games, and more importantly, Patrice featured in all 11 playoff games that spring for the Habs as they lost to the Bruins in round 2. As the Canadiens 6th scorer that post-season, it seemed as if he was about to leap-frog Mathieu Schneider and JJ Daigneault in the depth chart.

The next season, Patrice did make the team and had a good season. However, he did not make the immediate jump into the limelight, as Schneider and Eric Desjardins became the pair to carry the Canadiens when the going got tough. Nonetheless, Brisebois played 70 games in 1992-93, chipping in 10 goals and 21 assists. He was an integral player in the Cup run (playing in all 20 playoff games), taking his new backseat role in stride, it seemed.

The graduation

The Stanley Cup run of 1993 (in Patrice's rookie season) has been the pinnacle of his NHL achievements to date. As so many a veteran will tell you – the thought that Cups would be so hard to come by after that first one didn't cross the mind at the time. It was perhaps fitting, that Patrice was at his best though, at that time, in a system where he could use his talents without being overstretched. On a team with 4 defencemen ahead of him in playing time, a goalie that could stop seemingly anything – Patrice could play at forward from the back as he had done so well in junior.

As things started to go wrong for the Canadiens, things looked quite rosy for Patrice. He played a lot, despite some injuries. A pivotal moment in his career would come in the spring of 1995. February 9th of that year, Serge Savard made an infamous trade that sent Eric Desjardins, John Leclair and Gilbert Dionne away for Mark Recchi. April 5th, Savard would trade his other defensive stud as Mathieu Schneider and Muller were swapped for Pierre Turgeon and Vladimir Malakhov. Those trades had two impacts for Brisebois. Out Desjardins, Schneider and Haller (summer 1994) in Malakhov, Racine and other spare parts meant that Brisebois was being entrusted with a new brief as top 3 defender. He handled the brief OK for a while. But it was a lot to ask of a forward playing on D (essentially) to fill out major minutes after what happened that next December – when the man who masked so many defensive deficiencies was traded for Jocelyn Thibault, Rucinsky and Kovalenko.

Once Patrick Roy departs, the Canadiens become a bit of a mish mash for the next few years. They still had the offensive firepower with Damphousse, Turgeon, Recchi and belatedly Koivu, to carry some wins – and there were good seasons in 1996 and 1998; but their defence was buckling. Brisebois continued to contribute offensively, but began to struggle to protect a net not filled by Patrick Roy.

By 1998, after all Rejean Houle's other inane moves, Brisbois was left as the major star player from La Belle Province. This pressure brought pressure sure, but perhaps more significantly it brought ego to the year-on, year-off Brisebois.

Highlights of the rest of the decade for Brisebois included several 30+ point seasons (every other year, really) and numerous game-winning goals, despite few meaningful wins. Patrice was a plus player over this time as well, no small feat.

Of these ten years, this is all the NHLPA Legends site had to say:
"As the franchise struggled in the late 1990s, Brisebois was a constant on the defensive brigade. He set a personal high with 15 goals in 2000-01 and was an integral part of the club's playoff hopes in 2001-02."

It's a telling quote, given the site is trying to position each player in the most positive light. There's just not much to say. Not much we'd like to recall... In preparation for this piece, I also read some of the books I have on the shelf. One, Canadiens Legends, even has an entry for Brisebois. After reading it, I almost felt sorry for the guy as it showcased how the sweet ride of his career was over after year one, and has been filled with trouble ever since.

If you think about it, though, Serge Savard drafted Brisebois to fit in behind Desjardins, Schneider and other solid defenceman; and he had the best goaltender to ever play the game. Things looked solid, and a gamble on a defenceman who was much better going forward than skating backwards was a worthwhile gamble. Who knew he would be the last man standing on this defence stood in front of two projects learning to play goal?

Based on a mercurial junior career and rise to success in the big league, there was hope that Brisebois could fill in the position of top defenceman on a top team. Alas, he was never able to reach those heights. He probably should never have been asked or expected to do so.

The contract

No discussion of Brisebois' career would be complete without talk of the contract that came late in his first Montreal stint.

It was the winter of 2001, that new GM Andre Savard decided to make his mark on the Montreal Canadiens for brand new owner George Gillett. Patrice was taken aside and offered an extension on his current offer. probably surprised enough to receive any offer after his -31 season, Patrice jumped on a fully out-of-whack biggest Canadiens contract offer in history ($12 million over 3 years). At the time it was an absurd move for a defenceman that had just been given a raise to $2.5 million a year the spring before following his worst ever season. To add insult to fans' injury, he was also given a no-trade clause.

If ego was a problem before, it was getting out of control not long after. There were incidents off the ice (like urinating at the Canadiens golf tournament and nearly running over Jack Todd), but on the ice Patrice seemed to lord his money over people. Mistakes he made were met with shrugs, and mistakes from others with scolding.

Patrice played out 2002 as more of a bit-part player once Jose Theodore took over. 2002 will certainly never be remembered for defensive play and his 2 goals in the 24-game final push showed how the Canadiens had learned to live with him in the defensive zone and without his contributions up front. So when Patrice came back the next season with less than stellar play, and his customary year off in his 2-year cycle; people were starting to be a little less than impressed with the highest paid player on the team.

By this point, Patrice was being booed every game. Whether it was the booing or the years catching up with him, one thing was abundantly clear – the offensive defence star from 1991 was gone. By February, the pressure had taken its toll. Brisebois took leave for heart problems brought on by stress. No one could forget his ill-advised trip to France against doctor's orders in that time.

The final year of his no-trade clause opened with a condemnation of the general booing from Bob Gainey. It initially stopped the booing and seemed to lift a weight from Patrice's shoulders. I wouldn't say he suddenly fulfilled all the promise of 15 years earlier; but in the least he proved less of a constant distraction and managed to minimise the damage he did so the Canadiens could make the playoffs.

Those playoffs would be the last time (or so we thought) that Patrice would step on the ice for the Canadiens. In a rather anti-climactic end, Patrice was told the Canadiens would rather not pick up their option for the next season. The untradeable defenceman was gone, for a while anyway.

The Canadiens dollar
More Canadiens dollars have ended up in Patrice Brisebois' garage than probably should have. In fact, he is among the best compensated (by the Canadiens) players of all time. If estimates from 2004 are to be trusted (and I don't see why they wouldn't be), together with his $2.9 million from the past two seasons, Brisebois will have cost the Habs over $22 million for a career. Only Saku Koivu has made more.

The returns

A more recent history of the Patrice Brisebois stories is highlighted by his re-signing and re-signing again with his Canadiens. In fact, the Canadiens rescued him from outright retirement as another team had run out of patience and use for him in 2006.

It has been a nice story for the player, but I think many of us wonder whether the Canadiens exist to please the alums of the team, or indeed to win. Signed both times ahead of younger and more intriguing options, he was sold to us as a cheap 8th defenceman. Yet both times, he was given bonuses to negate any notion of value for money. And both times he has been deployed as a 5th or 6th when push came to shove.

Last season, this was met with stoicism – one season, we can bear it. This season, I can't tell you how many times I've read "1000 games, can we get it over with?", or "Can we get this retirement pushed forward?".

In fairness to the player, he has done what the coaches asked and can't be blamed for their weaknesses. He has also tried his utmost (I think) to keep his game simpler and limit the flashbacks of 1996-2004 to a minimum. One highlight was a playoff game with a timely winning goal. There have been lowlights too.

The booing

It is a very common misconception nowadays that Brisebois started getting booed after he was awarded the biggest (and most ridiculously out of whack) contract in Montreal Canadiens history. This is simply untrue. And it does nothing but attempt to gloss over the fact that people were booing Brisebois for his mistakes (presumably in hopes that a GM might trade him?) long before he made $4 million a year. The booing began before that point, for certain, in a futile effort to get incapable GMs to do something about our number one defenceman position. It was only intensified by that ridiculous contract.

In fact, in 1998-99, when awarded a whopping $1.8 million a year, he was already the second best compensated defenceman on the team. That contract was three years in length at a nice $6 million in all. If being overpaid was the source of the boos, it had its origin in that contract of 1998.

As I pointed to above, Brisebois' play and his ego were on separate courses from about 1995 (post-Roy). It could be said that he was thrust unfairly into both ice time and spotlight he couldn't handle. And perhaps it would have been something to be forgiven given a show of a little humility. No show was ever forthcoming, not back then anyway. The booing he received was as much due to the response he gave to errors (both his and others) as it was to his play.

The situation as it currently stands is completely different. Brisebois to his credit has been knocked down a few notches. Humility is now part of his vocabulary, at least some of the time. Any booing (or hand wringing at this blog, for example) is probably more frustration for Bob Gainey at having signed the veteran in place of other more attractive or forward-looking options.

Awaiting the 1000th

It was clever how Carbonneau sat Brisebois for this road trip. How clever will it be to bring him back just when O'Byrne has started to play well? He'll be back though, as sure as Carey Price will be the only one to reap the benefit of the win-you're in policy...

When he plays in Montreal, he will receive thunderous cheers. Why not? His achievement is monumental (consider this player and then consider how few players reach 1000 games – monumental doesn't even do it justice).

Many will be cheering in hope that it will be the end. However, I think we're deluded if we think that. Has he already played his last playoff game? Will he be satisfied with 1000 regular season games, when 1000 with the Canadiens is so close? (he's at 974 right now!)

If he reaches that milestone he will be the 12th player in the history of the team to do so. His company would include 9 players whose numbers are retired along with 2 whose were not:

1436 – Henri Richard
1405 – Larry Robinson
1342 – Bob Gainey
1287 – Jean Beliveau
1131 – Claude Provost
1115 – Yvan Cournoyer
1111 – Maurice Richard
1073 – Guy Carbonneau
1040 – Serge Savard
1025 – Guy Lafleur
1013 – Doug Harvey

Will I cheer Brisebois? Probably. 1000 games is nothing to sneeze at. Oh, go on, you'll cheer too. It'll be a strange feeling...

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