Monday, March 2, 2009

The Journey of Sean Bergenheim

The Islanders drafted 18 year-old, Finnish Left Winger Sean Bergenheim in the 2002 Entry Draft with the 22nd pick. He was the face of the franchise’s future for about a nano-second. With everything else that went on in the Islanders organization, Sean was somewhat lost in the shuffle. But he was a happy, fresh faced kid about to start his career in the NHL. And I was there to see it.

He was wearing #47 when he hit the ice for a pre-season game in Bridgeport in October of 2003 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Legendary hockey icon Mario Lemieux played in that game. I watched this tenacious little boy battle one of hockey’s greats. He never backed down. He never gave up. He skated as if he was in overdrive the entire time he was on the ice. He stood out in an otherwise pointless preseason game. I knew he’d be a star. So did he.

I met him at the airport that year and asked him to sign my daughter’s jersey. He was surprised I wanted his autograph. I told him I knew he’d make it in this league. He smiled and thanked me. And that’s how it started -- when he became known as "My boy Sean."

Sean spent a lot of time being a yo-yo between teams and countries. Bridgeport, Jokerit, Uniondale, Russia, Sweden and even his Finnish National team for competitions. But he always had his eye on the NHL. That was and is his only goal.

He played well for the Sound Tigers making a name for himself with the fans and his opponents. He made the AHL All Star team the year of the work stoppage and was the only one to smile for the cameras when his name was called. He is exceptionally fan-friendly and good natured. Unless you’re in a competitor’s sweater and you have the puck. Then he will hunt you down like a heat-seeking missile and run you over.

He played with wild abandon. This also meant he spent a lot of time in the box. This didn’t sit well with his coaches. Every time he was brought back to Uniondale, he’d be disappointed at being sent back to Bridgeport.

Sean doesn’t know how to play fourth line minutes. That was all they had for him to play. Both Steve Stirling and Brad Shaw told me that having him relegated to that role was wasting him. Sean didn’t want to hear that. In all honesty, I didn’t either.

In January of 2006 he was on the bench during a horrific Islanders loss while I was on the jumbo-tron being interviewed by then Islanders in-arena announcer CJ Papa for my 2 minutes of recognition for my 2004 NHL 7th Man competition win. I had 15 seconds before the in-arena microphone shorted out. CJ asked me who my favorite Islander was and why. I answered adamantly “Jason Blake because of his work ethic.”

The crowd began to applaud so I spoke louder and continued “and Sean Bergenheim is RIGHT BEHIND HIM.” The microphone went dead and CJ, who dealt with that most nights, apologized.

The next day the Islanders held their annual STH Autograph Party. It had snowed over night, but I went anyway. The lines were long and there was no way I was going to be able to get many autographs. I kept one eye on my daughter as she was on another line while I waited to get to the front of the table where Sean and two of the Islanders other younger players were signing. I was shocked when he stopped me.

“You! You’re the lady on the jumbo-tron! I have to say Thank You!” He was only half smiling. I sensed something was not right.

I leaned over the table to speak to him. “Sean, I’ve told you since the first time I watched you play, you’re going to make it in this league. I’ve always known that.” I watched his eyes as he looked down to sign my media guide. He responded softly, “I wish others would see it as well.”
He couldn’t hide his disappointment.

I gently grabbed his arm and in my best motherly tone looked him in the eyes. “They will Sean. They will. I promise.” The boyish smile returned to his face. “I hope so. Thank you.”

They didn’t that January as Sean was placed back on the ferry to Bridgeport. He struggled, he pouted, he brooded; he gained 20 lbs of muscle and fought like a raging bull. He took bad advice from an agent and walked away from Garth Snow’s first contract offer of $500,000 and headed to Russia in October of 2006.

That didn’t last long. He signed with Frolunda of the Swedish Elite League where I managed to keep an eye on his progress through message board friends in Sweden. On the Island, they gave his number to Richard Park. I have photos of Sean looking like a billboard in those ads laden Swedish sweaters. He played 36 games, garnered 33 points and 80 penalty minutes. As well as he did there, he knew he wanted to be back in the NHL.

In June of 2007, he signed a one year deal with the Islanders. I was happy to see him at the STH event in September of ‘07 with a new number on his jersey. Once again, he thanked me for all the support I had given him. It made me wonder if he was on the internet Goggling his own name and finding my entries.

As part of the Blog Box experiment, I was able to see his year on the Islanders roster first hand. It was disappointing for both of us. He played 78 games and only had 22 points. Hearing those I truly respected in this business tell me “Your boy has no hockey sense.” pained me a great deal. Even though I never had a problem chastising his play in print, I never gave up on him. I knew the player he could be.

Bergenheim would always have flashes of brilliance followed by lapses of intelligence. One minute Scotty Bowman would be wondering out loud where the Islanders had been hiding him and the next minute his late game mistakes would cause the loss of two points. It has been a rollercoaster ride for everyone.
When contract time rolled around again this summer, I worried if his agent would once again battle with GM Garth Snow. Having had to do it once, I feared another round of negotiations would ship Bergenheim off to Europe or worse. The agent was fired, the deal was done and Garth Snow had managed to sign Sean to a 2-year contract. I must have thanked him a dozen times.

Certain changes seem to have done wonders for Sean who now has 18 points in 50 games. He still has 58 penalty minutes, but his play these last few games has improved considerably and he is more disciplined. No doubt, the biggest change in Bergenheim's game is due to first year NHL coach Scott Gordon.

Recently Stan Fischler asked Sean “What has come over you that you’re playing like a super-star?” Sean chuckled, “Thank you. I don’t really know. It feels good out there right now. The whole game feels much better. I really don’t know what it is.”

Sean was reminded about Scott Gordon’s movie meetings with him. Perhaps he didn’t want to discuss it with the media. Perhaps he didn’t know that Gordon had already explained these power-point training sessions during his post game saying "One of the things I talked about with him to get back in the line-up was his approach in the offensive zone and the things that he could do better with the puck and things I had seen other offensive players do. We sat down today and I showed him some clips of Kyle and why he's having success in the offensive zone and why he's getting more second and third opportunities. Bergie's done a great job at taking that to heart and going out there and doing it."

Sean's answer to Stan Fischler's question was “We had a few talks. Things weren’t going the way I wanted or the way he wanted. But I think we’ve turned a page here. Things are much better right now. It was a good conversation.”

Perhaps these conversations were the catalyst for his two goals, first star of the night game on the last day of February against the Buffalo Sabres. This is Scott Gordon’s strongest asset: his ability to teach and explain in painful detail what is expected and what needs to be done.

Sean Bergenheim may end up being his best pupil to date.


Dani said...

Every time I see Bergie do something awesome, I think of you. You always had faith in him. I'm glad to see he now gaining that faith in himself. :)

Islanders Outsider said...

Do something indeed! This is, of course, required reading in Bergenheim 101. Great stuff, Dee.