Even back when Danny Briere was lighting up opponents as a junior player, a box in his bedroom held all the reasons why he’d never make it in the National Hockey League. It was filled with articles quoting NHL people – executives, players, you name it – who all said he was too small and too fragile, that he couldn’t handle the physical toll and the giant defensemen that would come his way in the NHL.
But Briere was determined to prove them wrong. Whenever his road to the NHL hit a bump, he’d take out one of those articles and read it. Just like that, it would renew his motivation to make it to hockey’s biggest stage.
It didn’t happen immediately, but eventually it did happen. And because Briere pushed through those obstacles, he was able to put together a 973-game NHL career that officially concluded this week when he announced his retirement.
“I still love the game, and I wish I was still playing,” Briere said in a press conference on Tuesday at The Virtua Center Flyers Skate Zone in Voorhees. “It wasn’t just about myself and about playing. There was more involved in my decision. So yes, I was going back and forth many, many times. But there’s no doubt in my mind. I’m very comfortable with the decision.”
Briere scored 416 points in 198 games for Drummondville of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, so it’s hard to look back and imagine that kind of offensive prowess wouldn’t continue at least somewhat in the NHL. But such was the sentiment at the time. It was 1998, which was a different era in the NHL – one where it was entirely legal for a defenseman to just grab a player along the boards and stop him from reaching a puck in the corner.
That type of play did indeed stymie Briere in the early part of his career. In 82 games over his first three seasons, he only put up 10 goals and 15 assists. Just a couple weeks into the 2000-01 season, the Phoenix Coyotes put him on waivers – and there were no takers. He ended up back in the American Hockey League, where he’d been the league’s rookie of the year just three years earlier.
“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 said. “It took me three years of ups and downs before I was able to get back up for good. 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.”
In 2003, Briere was traded to Buffalo. But it was another two years and a full-season lockout before his career took off. In addition to his hard work, Briere benefitted greatly from the NHL’s crackdown on the clutch-and-grab style of play that had been prevalent in the game prior to the lockout.
“As soon as we started playing, there was a big difference,” he said. “They were calling penalties as soon as the stick got up to your waist. I felt for so many years the battle was to get to the puck. When we came back after the new rules, the battle was once you got to the puck as far as physically fighting off bigger guys than you. That was a big advantage for the smaller, more quicker guys.”
That change led to Briere posting 153 points in 129 games over the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons, while helping Buffalo to the Eastern Conference Finals both years. Briere then became a free agent, and was one of the biggest names available in the summer of 2007 along with Sabres teammate Chris Drury and New Jersey’s Scott Gomez.
“I really believed that something was going to happen and I was going to be a Sabre,” Briere said. “In the last week when I started realizing it wasn’t happening and I had to open up my mind to it a little bit, I started looking at teams, and I remember I was hoping the Flyers would be one of the teams. I didn’t know if they were interested, but I was hoping they’d come up with an offer.”
Not only were the Flyers interested, but Briere was their main target. As the morning of July 1, 2007 ticked by, the team’s brain trust gathered in then-GM Paul Holmgren’s office. Gomez and Drury were options, the group agreed, but Briere was their first choice. High-fives abounded shortly after noon when the group received word that Briere had chosen Philadelphia.
“I remember when he came in a few days later, he sat in my office and he thanked me, and I think I said no, thank you for coming,” Holmgren said. “Remember, the year before was a tough year for the Flyers. I think signing Danny that day back in 2007 kind of turned things around for us almost immediately heading into that next season. It was a huge day.”
As it turned out, Briere had no qualms whatsoever about Philadelphia’s hiccup of a season in 2006-07.
“People sometimes don’t realize what Homer was building,” Briere said. “You look at the year before, the trade for Upshall and Coburn. The week before, they got the rights to Hartnell and Timonen. So that’s four new players. Marty Biron was at the trade deadline - that’s five. On that same day there’s a trade for Lupul and Jason Smith. We’re now at seven new guys. I had a chance to play against Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, and you knew it was just a matter of time for them to take over. So now you’re at nine top-end players. With me joining, that’s 10. So that’s half the team. That’s not even counting Derian Hatcher, Simon Gagne, Mike Knuble… I could keep going down the list. So there was no doubt in my mind that the team was really turning around and it was my best chance to win.”
Briere went on to spend six years with the Flyers, including an All-Star season in 2010-11. He never quite replicated the regular season numbers from his last two years in Buffalo, but what he did do was establish himself as one of the most memorable playoff performers in Philadelphia sports history. He scored nine playoff game-winning-goals over his career, the second most in Flyers history. His 72 playoff points in 68 games made him one of just five players in team history to average more than a point per playoff game. And his franchise-record performance in the 2010 playoffs, when he recorded 30 points in 23 games, also goes down as his own favorite career moment.
“It was tough losing two wins away from achieving the ultimate dream,” Briere said. “But that two month stretch – making the playoffs on a shootout the last day of the season against possibly the best shootout goalie in the league and taking that all the way to two wins away from the Stanley Cup was the best two months of my career.”
Now, Briere will take some time to be with his family after spending most of the last two years away from his three boys, Caelan, Carson and Cameron. Then, he says, he’ll figure out what’s next.
“A big part of my reason for putting a stop now is having the chance to spend more time with them,” Briere said. “The boys are all in high school, they don’t have lot of time left at home, and I don’t want to miss any more time with them. I want to be there to watch them grow up, watch them play their sports, hockey and lacrosse or whatever else they decide to join. After that, in the next few days, weeks, I’m hoping to sit down with Homer and maybe go over different options about what might I possibly be doing around here and helping out with the Flyers hopefully.”