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Atlantic: Berard's got his eye on the prize

by Chuck Gormley
Bryan Berard has been down for the count so many times in his dozen years as an NHL player that it is almost unfathomable that he could pull himself up for a try at another season.

Yet Berard is in Philadelphia this fall, slogging through a tryout invitation, the second straight season he is trying to stay in the NHL as a walk-on.
"More than anything, I gave him a chance because he's always been a fighter -- not in a literal way, but in a spiritual way," Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren said. "There are a couple guys who could throw wrenches into the decisions we make on defense and he's one of them."

It wasn't supposed to be this difficult for Berard, 31. He should be savoring a career that started with incredible promise, not trying to once again save it.

"I just thought this was an opportunity," Berard said recently. "In the new NHL I know teams are looking for defensemen who can move the puck. I know I can still skate well and move the puck."

Berard's long journey from Calder Trophy winner to training camp walk-on is the product of incredible misfortune, as well as a testament to his remarkable fortitude.

Berard was the first pick in the 1995 Entry Draft, selected by the Ottawa Senators. But Berard forced a trade that saw him moved to the New York Islanders, where he took the League by storm that season, winning Rookie of the Year honors with what would become a career-high 48 points.

Two years later, as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Berard's promising career was put on life support when Ottawa forward Marian Hossa's stick, on the follow-through of a slap shot, struck Berard in the right eye.

Berard was told he might lose complete sight in his injured eye, but he refused to listen to those dire predictions and underwent seven separate surgeries to improve his vision to 20/400 with contact lenses.

In the end, Berard wanted to play hockey again so bad that he forfeited a $6.5 million insurance settlement by signing with the New York Rangers in 2001.

Berard played all 82 games for the Rangers in his comeback season, but managed just 23 points and was not re-signed. Boston was next to take a chance on him, and he responded with 38 points.

The Bruins also chose not to re-sign Berard, so the defenseman took his comeback act to Chicago for the 2003-04 season. There he enjoyed his best season offensively since his rookie season, finishing with 13 goals and 34 assists for the Hawks.

After the work stoppage in 2004, Berard signed a two-year deal with Columbus, but misfortune struck again. He managed 12 goals and 20 assists in 44 games before suffering a back injury that sidelined him for all but 11 games the following season.

Once his contract ran out in Columbus, Berard was back to scrambling for an NHL job. Last season he made the Islanders as a walk-on, but groin injuries limited his effectiveness and he spent much of the season in the doghouse of then-coach Ted Nolan.

"Teddy was known as a defensive-defenseman guy and my numbers (5 goals, 17 assists) weren't what I was used to," Berard said. "I'm not going to sit here and say it wasn't legit, but I thought I should have been playing.

"It was frustrating, but I'm used to it. I've been in the League long enough to know if I show what I've got, things will take care of themselves."

This summer, free of the nagging back and groin injuries, Berard devoted his summer to strength training and asked Holmgren for a training-camp tryout. Holmgren agreed, seeing no harm in giving Berard an opportunity to land a job on a blue line that already has seven players -- Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, Randy Jones, Steve Eminger, Ossi Vaananen, Ryan Parent and Lasse Kukkonen -- under contract.

"You always come to training camp with a couple guys you're excited about and he's certainly one of them," said Flyers coach John Stevens, whose minor-league career was ended by an eye injury. "He's a guy I'm excited to see and evaluate as we move through training camp."

Berard said his legs are stronger than they've been in years and he's anxious to show the Flyers he is far more than a wounded veteran trying to hang on past his prime.

"In the new NHL I know teams are looking for defensemen who can move the puck. I know I can still skate well and move the puck."Bryan Berard

He also doesn't want the eye injury to be part of the equation anymore.

"It's way behind me," he said. "It was eight years ago. It doesn't affect my game anymore. I can admit the first couple seasons it took my body some time to adjust to it. Now I don't notice. It's what I am and I just go out and play.

"It's a question a lot of people have in the back of their minds -- almost like it's a handicap. But it hasn't been. In the past three or four years it has not bothered my game at all."

Off the ice, Berard said his limited eyesight has no affect on his daily life and has not kept him from doing anything, including obtaining a motorcycle license.

"Your body can do some amazing things and there is nothing I can't do," he said. "I've had some tough injuries, but I love this game. It drives me to prove something again. I have a fire under my butt to go out there and show people who question whether I can still play."

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