May 1, 2001
SPORTS OF THE TIMES
By DAVE ANDERSON
His name was on the Maple Leafs' ticket list last Saturday night:
Bryan Berard. Unobtrusively, he watched the Devils' 6-5 overtime
victory and mentioned that he might be in Toronto for tonight's
resumption of the Eastern Conference semifinals in the Stanley Cup
"Whenever he's around," his former teammate Tie Domi said, "he always
makes sure to see the guys."
The guys. Not so much playing hockey with the guys, but going to eat
with the guys, hanging out with them. The camaraderie with the guys.
That's what Berard misses the most. That's usually what an athlete in
any sport misses the most when his career is over.
And at 24, with virtually no sight in his right eye, Berard's
National Hockey League career is over only four seasons after he was
the rookie of the year with the Islanders.
During the 14 months since Berard, then the Maple Leafs' best young
defenseman, was accidentally bloodied in the right eye by Marian
Hossa's stick blade in Ottawa, he has had six eye operations. But the
N.H.L. demands at least 20/400 vision in each eye and Berard can't
see that well out of his right eye.
The bylaws are understandable. If a player is virtually blind in one
eye, the N.H.L. doesn't want him on the ice risking the possible loss
of his sight in the other eye.
And so Berard, instead of being a factor in this playoff series with
the Devils, is mostly at home in Rhode Island, learning to live with
virtually no vision in his right eye and trying to decide what to do
with his life. His agent, Tom Laidlaw, has offered to hire him. He
has been approached by USA Hockey, which he represented on the 1998
Winter Olympic team, to consider being a coach.
Money should not be a factor in Berard's eventual decision. He is
owed a tax-free $6 million disability payment from the N.H.L.'s
"He's adjusting," Laidlaw said. "He's driving a car and riding his
motorcycle. He's playing golf and tennis. But when he played Ping-
Pong, he had trouble with his depth perception of the moving ball.
And when he tried to play pickup hockey, he had trouble battling one
on one in the corners."
Berard is keeping a low profile. No interviews. No television
appearances. Just an occasional visit to a Maple Leafs game or a
phone call from some of the guys like Domi, Mats Sundin, Jonas
"He stopped to see us at a game in Florida and one in Toronto," Domi
said. "He's fine, he's seeing more of his girlfriend, he's going to
be a good golfer, but it's a shame he can't play. He was so skilled."
At 6 feet 1 and 195 pounds, Berard, the No. 1 overall choice in the
1995 draft, was a tactical defenseman. In his four seasons, he had 34
goals and 124 assists. Toronto acquired him from the Islanders during
the 1998-99 season in a trade for goaltender Fé¬©x Potvin.
Ken Dryden, the Hall of Fame goaltender who is now the Maple Leafs'
president, phones Berard every so often.
"Bryan always sounds good," Dryden said, "but he's not terrifically
expressive, so I can never tell what he's feeling. He always says
he's fine, he's making the best of it. I've never heard him complain
or whine or gnash his teeth over what happened."
On the ice, Berard's smoothness often hid his drive.
"Bryan was so skilled, so explosive, you didn't notice his
competitiveness," Dryden said. "Nothing was a big deal to him because
he could always remake things. But that quality can serve him very
well in whatever he does now."
When Berard attended last June's N.H.L. awards night in Toronto, he
received a warm ovation.
"The reception Bryan got surprised him and pleased him; he was
beaming," Dryden said. "One of the nice things to come out of this
was he realized how many people really care for him."
The Maple Leafs would surely be a better team if Berard were still
wearing a blue-and- white uniform.
"The thing you miss with Bryan is that sense of promise; every team
needs that," Dryden said. "By promise, I mean the possibility of a
player improving not just a little, but by leaps and bounds. Older
players see that promise and realize they want to be around when all
that promise is fulfilled. That makes older players feel young again.
"You don't replace that with a 31-year-old free agent."
Just as you don't replace 20/20 vision in somebody's right eye.