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Briere: Against The Odds

by Ryan Boulding / Colorado Avalanche

Sometimes expectations in life can just get in the way.

For former Colorado Avalanche forward and veteran hockey player Daniel Briere, expectations could have limited what turned out to be a lengthy and productive career playing at the highest level of his sport.

Reflecting on the past during the twilight of his time spent in the NHL, Briere admitted that he never saw himself skating in the game as long as he did.

“Honestly, I’ve played a lot longer than I ever expected. I remember when I was 21, 22 and I kept saying ‘When I get to my 30’s… at 32 that’s the latest I’m going to play. I want to go on and enjoy my life,” Briere said prior to taking the ice in Denver for his final professional contest on April 11. “Here I am, 37 years old and still playing, so I’ve been fortunate, very lucky in my career to play for all those years. I’ve played for some great organizations.”

Briere’s legacy at the top tier of the sport started with hard work and dedication. The 5-foot-9 forward knew he had much to prove to those thinking his small stature would prevent him from excelling in a league of gladiators, and he set about changing perceptions while playing for the Drummondville Voltigeurs in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

“There were a few articles, and I don’t want to go back on who said it, but NHL executives or experts or ex-players who made some comments and had seen me play,” Briere said during his retirement press conference in Philadelphia on Tuesday. “Most of the people all said that I was too small, too fragile to play in the NHL. I had a lot of those cut-out in my room.  I had a little box that I kept by my bed, that anytime things would get tough a little bit, that I would open and read. That was kind of my motivation at the time to prove them wrong.”

Briere put up 416 points (170 goals, 246 assists) in three seasons (198 games) of junior hockey, earning a first-round selection (24th overall) from the Phoenix Coyotes at the 1996 NHL Entry Draft.

Despite his good numbers at the professional level—the forward had 92 points (36 goals, 56 assists) in 68 games during his first year with the Springfield Falcons in the AHL—it took four campaigns to crack the Coyotes lineup for good. Once he did, Briere never looked back.

“We all hear the saying that it’s one thing to get to the NHL, it’s another thing to stay. One thing that I’m very proud of is that I tasted the NHL early on in my career, and it was taken away from me,” Briere told the media in Philly. “It took me three years of ups and downs before I was able to get back up for good.”

The Gatineau, Quebec, native went on to play in parts of 17 seasons in the NHL, putting up 696 points (307 goals, 389 assists) in 973 regular-season games. As impressive as those numbers are, Briere became widely known for his ability to find the back of the net in the postseason as well. He was ‘Mr. Clutch’ when the toughest, most intense hockey was being played, as evidenced by his 116 points (53 goals, 63 assists) in 124 playoff contests.

Being nearly a point-per-game player in the quest for the Stanley Cup, Briere was held to less than seven postseason points just three times in his career. That stretch of playoff prosperity includes an unfathomable 30-point (12 goals, 18 assists) effort through 23 games during the 2009-10 run to the Stanley Cup Final with the Philadelphia Flyers.

What made Briere so good during spring hockey? Not even he has an answer for that.

“I don’t think anybody can explain why it happens that way, why certain players come out that way and why other players it doesn’t work so well. I’ve been fortunate to be at the right place at the right time,” Briere said. “Throughout my career I’ve been asked that question a lot, and I wish I had a more clear-cut, defined answer. I can’t exactly put my finger on it. But it was also something that I’m very proud of and I really enjoy doing.

“I know when the game was on the line, I wanted to be the guy who was going to make the play. I wanted to have the puck, I wanted to find a way to make it happen.

“I learned a lot of that from Chris Drury, when I showed up in Buffalo, just watching him handle himself.  He was known earlier in his career [as] being a guy who could make it happen when it was demanded, almost. I learned a lot from him just on how he prepared and how he wanted to be the guy making the difference every chance. That’s kind of the attitude I adopted when we were in the shootout, when we were at the end of the game and we needed a goal, when we were in overtime, or a playoff game. I was constantly telling myself on the bench, I’m going to be the guy making the difference. And for whatever reason, when you believe it, a lot of the time, it happens.”

All of his success—the goals, the assists, the dependability—bookends a career that certainly had its highs and lows. Briere was drafted and then dropped into the AHL, traded from Phoenix to the Buffalo Sabres where he was later named team captain, played in two All-Star Games, fell two victories short of winning the Stanley Cup in 2010, was a compliance buyout by the Philadelphia Flyers, signed with his hometown Montreal Canadiens and was most recently traded to the Avalanche.

“There was a lot of tough times, tough moments… clearing waivers, when nobody picked me up. That’s another thing that I’m very proud, that I fought and never quit, and kept working hard to achieve my dream,” said Briere, whose job with the team began to change as he aged. “That became tougher… you know your role as you get older, and you’re not the go-to guy anymore on the team, but you still feel like you can do it in that one special moment. It became tough when you’re sitting on the bench, and you’re watching other guys. I guess it’s the competitive side. I just wanted to be the guy making the plays.”

As time went on, the player who had led the entire NHL with 30 points during the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs—including 12 points (three goals, nine assists) in the Final alone—slowly became the veteran sage, a guy looked upon to impart wisdom more than lead the team when the game was on the line.

“One of the things I’m most proud of is the fact that I’ve had the chance to experience all kinds of positions. When I started, yes I was a prospect, but I had to play in the minors. I had to work my way a few years on the fourth line in Phoenix before I was able to get my chance,” Briere told Altitude Radio’s Marc Moser before his final game. “I was also lucky to have the chance to experience the other side where I was the go-to guy in Buffalo and in Philly, and to finish the last two years playing in a different role, a more veteran role or a support role.

“I promised I would never complain about it and be a good soldier and a good teammate in any kind of situation. I think that’s what I’m most proud of in my career. I was able to play different roles, and it teaches you a lot about yourself and also it will hopefully help me in the future wherever I end up.”

It was in this capacity that Briere served out his final year in the league, helping bring leadership and perspective to a young Colorado Avalanche core. His time spent as a mentor allowed him to offer up his opinion on the state of his last NHL squad.

“For such a young team, we’re very mature and the guys are very respectful. We have a really good group of young guys, and that’s why I think this organization is set up very nicely for the future,” he said in April. “[There’s] a lot of character and you see it in a lot of the young guys, too. Guys that play with a lot of grit, they’re really respected veterans already at such a young age. You just start with our captain. He was the captain at 21 years old—that’s pretty impressive—and it goes down the list.

“I think this organization is set up very nicely, and it’s going to be a fun team to watch for many years.”

On the eve of his final game in the league, Briere stood on the precipice of retirement. Pondering his future and the potential for what could come next, his thoughts crept back to the nostalgic days of his youth and the seemingly swift transition that led him to the end of this chapter of his life.

“I remember when I was 20, 21, 22 years old looking at the older guys when they were going through their last few games, and I thought, ‘that’s so far away, I’m never going to get there,’” he mused.

After months of deliberation, weighing the idea of continuing to lace up the skates versus the desire to spend more time with his three sons, Briere knew that his playing days were over.

“It’s time to go,” he told the world during his press conference. “I’ve had an amazing journey, and I’m very comfortable with where I am at this point.  It’s just time for me to let someone take my spot.”

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