Bergeron, Fernandez begin long road back from the sidelines

BOSTON -- At the start of every season you'd need all your fingers and toes, and then some, to count the number of NHL players who are on a mission. Players who have something to prove, who fell short of expectations, who met expectations but want to achieve more; players who received a big contract and must prove it was money well spent; or players whose contracts are coming to the end and must prove their future worth.

And then there are those players whose season begins with something more instinctual: the desire to prove they are healed. Broken bones have mended, twisted and torn ligaments have grown strong and swollen brains have returned to normal.

Every year, there are players like teammates Patrice Bergeron and Manny Fernandez, who must prove their injuries have not robbed them of their futures and their careers.

This is their story -- or, at the very least, the first chapter of their journey back.

"I thought he was dead"

Patrice Bergeron is sitting outside the TD Banknorth Garden on a low stone wall talking about the uncertain convergence of his past and future. Every once in awhile, he looks up at a giant poster on one corner of the building featuring the likenesses of Boston Bruins teammates Marc Savard, Zdeno Chara and himself.

"WE WANT IT AS BAD AS YOU," the ad campaign proclaims.

Wanting it bad doesn't even start to tell the story.

For a little while after it happened, Bergeron mistakenly thought he'd just come on the ice on a line change. It was only after he watched the replay that he realized he'd been on the ice for some time and had taken a draw in the Philadelphia Flyers zone before the hit.

He couldn't remember how he'd ended up in the corner, even though it was obvious from the replays he was chasing the puck.

"I remember waking up when [Bruins head trainer] Don DelNegro was yelling my name. That's when I woke up," Bergeron recalled of the night of Oct. 27, 2007. "I was aware of stuff, but I was kind of a little foggy."

Did he think he'd get right up and come back out on his next shift?

Uh, no.

"I knew right away. First of all, my neck was killing me. I was scared about that," Bergeron said. "I could see the doctors and the trainers moving pretty carefully, so that was kind of scary, too."

Then he saw the stretcher and knew it was bad.

Up in his box, GM Peter Chiarelli watched as Philadelphia defenseman Randy Jones drove his forearm into the back of Bergeron's head, sending the Bruins' forward into the end boards.

"My first thought? I thought he was dead. I'd thought he'd broken his neck," Chiarelli said in a recent interview.

Later at the hospital, Chiarelli stood next to Bergeron as the young man lay on a gurney. Bergeron had feeling and movement in his extremities, but Chiarelli thought about how it could have been so much worse. "I remember thinking 'This guy's lucky to be alive'," he said.

Bergeron was in the hospital for only one day.

His brother Guillaume, 24, was in Boston. So were Bergeron's parents -- Sylvie, a social worker, and Gerard, a Quebec City public works employee -- and Bergeron's girlfriend, Stephanie.

After a time, they would all return to Quebec with the exception of Bergeron's mother, which was a good thing because, for a long time, Bergeron couldn't do much of anything.

Television? No. The flickering images and fluctuating light gave him headaches and made him nauseous, at least for the first couple of weeks.

Reading was worse.

Conversations were OK, as long as Bergeron didn't have to think too hard on a topic.

Fresh air was good, too, but the sunlight splashing down on his condo patio made him feel sick, so he often waited in the darkened condo, mostly lying down, until it was dark enough to go back outside.

For a while, he couldn't walk from one end of his condo to the other without feeling fatigued. When he could actually go for a walk, he found early on that he couldn't exactly remember everything.

One day, he and his mother went for a walk. She locked the condo and gave Bergeron the keys, but when they got home he had no idea where the keys were.

He started leaving things in plain sight so he wouldn't put them somewhere and forget them.

Fernandez's heart-breaking decision

Unlike Bergeron, Fernandez wasn't set back by one cataclysmic moment. It was a series of tweaks and tears that led to last season's decision: Fernandez would have surgery on his left MCL after just four games.

The origins of the injury date back to midway through his final season in Minnesota in 2006-07. He felt a twinge during a game against Dallas in January 2007. It was around the All-Star break, so he rested it and then he went back into action and almost immediately felt it go.

"I ripped it entirely," Fernandez told ESPN.com.

Fernandez was diagnosed with a third-degree tear of the MCL and was out for a month. "It didn't feel great, but I kept on pushing," he said.

He further injured the knee and missed the final month of the regular season.

There was more than a little irony at play when Fernandez showed up in Ottawa during the 2007 Stanley Cup finals to accept the William Jennings Award with teammate Niklas Backstrom for allowing the fewest goals in the NHL.

Fernandez played so well in Minnesota, the Wild dealt former goaltending partner Dwayne Roloson to Edmonton. But as Fernandez battled the injury, he found himself supplanted by newcomer Backstrom. A few weeks later, Fernandez was obtained by the Bruins, a team desperate for a No. 1 goalie to guide them back to the postseason.

When training camp rolled around last fall, Fernandez knew the expectations were high; he also believed he was physically ill-prepared for the job.

"I barely worked out because I felt that my knee wasn't ready," he said.

MRIs revealed no damage, but Fernandez felt out of sorts, worrying about the knee and altering his style to keep pressure off his left leg.

"I wasn't myself at all," he said. "I couldn't push off. It just felt like my knee was going to rip every time."

Team doctors injected fluid into the knee to try to get a better picture of what was going on, and found that half the ligament wasn't attached to bone. Fernandez and Chiarelli talked, and the goalie decided he would try and continue to play, hoping to put surgery off until the end of the season. But in the interim, he suffered a herniated disc on his right side, in part because he was overcompensating for his wonky left knee.

"I became this odd non-butterfly butterfly goalie," he said.

Fernandez opened the season giving up four goals on 18 shots as the Bruins lost their opener to Dallas. A week later, he gave up six goals on 31 shots, but got the win over Los Angeles. He stopped all 26 shots in a shutout victory over the New York Islanders. Then, two days later, he gave up six goals on 20 shots in a loss to Montreal that would be his final appearance of the season. It was Oct. 22.

Fernandez again met with team officials and they decided enough was enough; Fernandez would undergo season-ending surgery Dec. 12 at Massachusetts General Hospital. Having already missed half a season to injury, the decision was devastating both mentally and physically for the 34-year-old.

"It was really a heartbreaking decision," he said. "I didn't think I was prepared to hear that, because I knew how hard the road is to get back. It was overwhelming. … Here I was with brand-new guys -- I barely knew the guys -- and you're off for almost a year."

After the surgery, the pain was excruciating. He said it would take him 15 minutes to get his leg into bed. He wore two pairs of workout pants, both with zippers near the ankles, because it was so painful to get in and out of clothes. Despite the pain, doctors told Fernandez they wanted him to start using the knee as quickly as possible, even if it meant just putting some weight on it instead of using crutches. Twice a day, Fernandez was working the knee with sessions of physiotherapy, workouts in the pool, rubdowns.

"You don't know the pain until you're in it," he said. "I couldn't even move. I couldn't put weight on it."

Fernandez eschewed painkillers -- "no pills, the painkillers went right out the window" -- which exacerbated the pain.

Lying down made Fernandez the most comfortable, but that wasn't part of the rehabilitation program. Whenever he stood up, the blood would rush into his knee.

"It felt like it was going to explode," he said. "Basically, your knee is going ballistic and you've got a beach ball down there."

Within the first week after surgery, doctors drained his knee, taking out about a water bottle's worth of fluid. After that, they went at it hard to bring the knee back into shape.

One day, he could bend his knee five percent more, then 10 percent, then to a 90-degree angle. One day, he could get into the shower without his crutches. And so on.

Fernandez returned to the ice near the end of the regular season, but just in skates. Then he skated with gloves, then with pads, then with full gear. Then he practiced and stopped shots while standing, not going down.

The process was all about degrees of success.

The beginning of a comeback

About a week and a half after the hit, Bergeron visited his teammates for the first time since the incident. His mother drove him to the arena, even though he's only a short walk away. He didn't want to waste his energy. By the time he walked through the front door and pushed the elevator button to get up to the dressing room, he could feel himself starting to fold and called DelNegro and asked for help.

The trainer brought a wheelchair, and that was how Bergeron, the Bruins' emerging young leader, their dynamic scoring forward and, in all likelihood, a future captain, was reunited with his teammates -- in a wheelchair.

It was a sobering moment for the 23-year-old.

"It was kind of a slap in the face," he said.

His teammates were very careful around him; they wanted to hug him and welcome him but were a bit afraid, as though he might break like a porcelain doll. It was just another reminder of how much had changed in that one moment in the corner of the rink.
Still, right from the beginning, Bergeron thought it would only be a matter of time before he'd be back playing.

He felt lousy the first couple of weeks, but he figured it would pass. The thought sustained him, but it was also something that made his life intensely frustrating as the prize of playing again continued to recede from view with each passing week.

Instead of following a defined line to recuperation that usually marks a broken bone or a twisted ligament, there was something more uncertain about Bergeron's situation.

He would feel poorly -- recurring headaches, dizziness, nausea -- then feel a little better. He came to understand the symptoms weren't gone, just resting somewhere. Feeling better always came with the knowledge that feeling bad again was just around the corner. It was worse when he took the good moments as a sign that he was actually healing; he did things he shouldn't have, like walking too much or moving too fast.

Then his symptoms would return with a vengeance, as though punishing Bergeron for being so optimistic.

"You seem like you're in this cycle and you can't get out of it," he said.

Doctors told him repeatedly: "Don't do anything. Stay still. Rest. Heal."

Yet it is anathema to a pro athlete, especially one like Bergeron who was just coming into his own as an NHL star, to do nothing. Bergeron's life had been all about movement, about improving, about pushing forward.

"I didn't want to [rest]. I was going crazy," he said.

Bergeron, who compiled an impressive 189 points in 239 games, talked to other hockey people about how they dealt with similar situations. He spoke to Eric Lindros, whose career was marred by multiple concussions. He talked to former Quebec Nordiques star Michel Goulet, whose career was ended by a concussion in 1994. He talked to Cam Neely, whose career was cut short by a serious knee injury.

DelNegro suggested Bergeron start keeping a diary. The Bruins forward noted how he felt every day, good or bad; what symptoms he had and how severe they were. The diary acted as a personalized medical chart, a reminder of where he'd been and where he was.

He did things that allowed him to lightly test the connection between brain and movement, thought and action, like tossing a tennis ball from hand to hand. He did some baking, making things like muffins. He learned that when his body told him to back off, he needed to do just that. In February, when he hit the wall and took a slide backward, he did nothing in terms of trying to get better. But then, slowly, things got better.

He began to think that coming back was possible. As the Bruins hung tough in the Eastern Conference playoff race, Bergeron began to think playoffs. He took the morning skate before Game 2 of the Bruins' first-round series against Montreal, and every game after. At one point, he asked teammate Andrew Alberts, who had also been recovering from injury, to hit him so he could know he was ready.

"I was just itching. I thought I felt fine," Bergeron said. "I thought, 'I'm ready.' And my heart wanted me to play. I missed the game so much."

He also missed being part of the Bruins' gritty playoff drive.

"I just felt so useless. I couldn't help them," he said.

He started calling the team's doctors and neurologists on a daily basis. "I was calling on my cell, 'What do you think? Can I play?'" Bergeron said with a grin.

In the end, though, the timing wasn't right. He had lost so much weight (15 pounds), had no timing and no way of stepping into the playoffs; team officials ultimately made the decision that he shouldn't play.

"My legs were so skinny," Bergeron said. "My muscles just sort of melted from not doing anything."

Ready to return

After the Bruins were dispatched by the Canadiens in seven games last April, Bergeron and Fernandez turned their attention to the 2008-09 season.

Bergeron took most of May off and was given clearance to start working out with an eye to returning to active duty. He skated regularly in Quebec -- no contact, but good, spirited sessions of shinny. He attended the Bruins' summer development camp for rookies and prospects.

He returned to Boston for good about two weeks before the start of training camp and has been skating with his teammates in nearby Wilmington.

"He's 100 percent," said Bruins coach Claude Julien.

Bergeron wasn't the only one who showed up at the prospects camp. Fernandez was there as well, following a pattern that had seen him recovering at almost the same rate as Bergeron, though they had suffered vastly different injuries.

"Manny's healthy and is in a good frame of mind," Chiarelli said recently.

Chiarelli acknowledged Fernandez's reputation has been that of an emotionally fragile netminder.

"But I can only speak to what I've seen," Chiarelli said. "He said he was injured, and he was. And he worked like a b------ and he wanted to come back and I saw what he did this summer."

Both are expected in the Bruins' lineup at the start of the regular season, and have already made successful appearances in the preseason. In a game Monday against Montreal, Bergeron had a goal and three assists, while Fernandez made 10 saves on 12 shots.

What about those head games?

Bergeron insists he is not afraid and doesn't worry about being hit or changing his game.
He is preparing as he would for any other season.

Is he different? Change is inevitable when you take away a young man's raison d'etre and trap him in a black hole for the better part of a year. He said he has a renewed appreciation of how much he loves the game, an appreciation that comes in a way that only those who come close to losing it understand.

Bergeron insists he never once thought he was done. Not once.

"It never crossed my mind," he said.

Ask the same questions of Fernandez and the answers are markedly different. If Bergeron is quiet and thoughtful, Fernandez is emotive, radiating nerves and uncertainty.

It's who he is.

"[The knee] is still painful, but I know that it's going to hold on," he said. "I know it can take the load."

If Fernandez is uncertain about anything, it's about what he is now.

"It's really a tough situation. It's tough to say where I'm at," he acknowledged. "I have no idea where I'm at. I have no idea where my game is at."

Sometimes, playing over the summer, he would make a save that reminded him of how he was before all this happened -- he was a top-flight NHL goaltender. He needs to find out if he can feel that way all the time, or even enough of the time. There's almost a stream of consciousness as Fernandez considers what comes next.

"It came easily. I know it was there. Now, I don't know if it's there. I hope it's there. I hope it's still the same. But what if I get out there and it isn't?" he said. "I need a lot of work. I know that. Everybody knows that. Basically, I'm telling you, I'm going to feel like a rookie."

And so begins the long road back for Bergeron and Fernandez, a path marked as much by uncertainty as by hope.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.