Tuesday

Interview With Perry Berezan

GreatestHockeyLegends.com thanks Frederick Lavallee for the following interview with Perry Berezan:

2011 has been quite the year for this little French writer from Montreal, Quebec. Had the chance to interview four former NHLers, and I, of course, wanted a fifth one. I like to read those old NHL Yearbooks, especially since they started at about the same time I started watching hockey. I will always remember that 1991 Minnesota North Stars run to the Stanley Cup finals, and I told myself : ‘’ Why not try and interview a player from that roster? ‘’

I peeked at the forwards, and noticed that familiar name : Perry Berezan. Yeah, remembered him from the Flames, North Stars and Sharks. Played two times in the Stanley Cup Finals, and for an expansion team, interesting! And so, I e-mailed him. And less than 12 hours later, I had my answer...

‘’ Frederick, thanks for taking interest in an old slug.

I’d be happy to speak to you. Call me Tuesday at... ‘’ – Perry Berezan

I was shocked. I called, and was asked by Berezan if I’d prefer meeting him, because he’d come to Montreal a month after. I said yes without any hesitation. He liked my devotion and passion and was willing to take some time to meet and share some thoughts about his career, and the choices that he made in life. And so, it all happened October 21st right here in my hometown of Montreal.

Perry Berezan was born on December 5th 1964, in Edmonton, Alberta. Like many other Canadian hockey kids, he learned to skate early on an outdoor rink close to his home. His dad put him on the ice with his first pair of skates when he was 4 years old...

‘’ I just ran on the ice. Instead of falling, I just ran. Didn’t skate, didn’t walk, but it was pretty obvious to me that I wanted to play. I started playing hockey with some neighbors when I was five and I remember scoring my first goal on a breakaway by sliding in the net with the puck. One of the moms would give 10 cents per goal to kids and I remember telling myself : ‘’ I can get ten cents! ‘’. I was so excited! ‘’ says a laughing Berezan.

He played his minor hockey (up to the age of 15) in the Northeastern part of Edmonton, where he lived in a lower-middle class neighbourhood. He just loved playing. Practiced a lot of different sports and he just craved for more. But that desire especially showed in the form of...running!

‘’ In grade 7, one of the Phys Ed teachers wanted to start the 500 kilometers club, to see if people would follow. I had to get up early before school to run. I remember wanting to do a thousand! I had such a drive. My Junior High would be running in the morning, just because I had to, and then play with soccer or basketball teams, or track teams, and in the winter, during the evening, it would be hockey! ‘’

Berezan would get a shot at playing in the Alberta Junior Hockey League at age 15, but he was cut from his team. He went back to the midget level, and went back up with the Saint-Albert Saints the next year, where he would meet a coach that would have a great influence on his early career. This very coach is the father of Edmonton Oilers Hall-Of-Famer Mark Messier, Doug...

‘’ I would call it my first experience of professional hockey. Doug was as influencial on me as anyone else. He prepared me for pro hockey more than anyone. I played 112 games total that year, we won a couple of championships (BC and Alberta). Those days back then...lots of brawling, fighting, biting...bench clearing brawls. Doug scared the living daylights out of his players between periods, before games, after games. He built and put together a tough team, and I lived a pretty sheltered life at home. That year, I experienced things I thought I would never experience... ‘’ Berezan says, and he goes on...

‘’ When I got through University and joined the Flames during that Flames-Oilers rivalry, I wasn’t afraid of anything. I got to know Mark (Messier) a little before because Doug was my coach, and having played against him, I can say he was as scary and as tough as they get, I was ready! ‘’

The former AJHL Saints center decided to pursue an education by studying Business at the University of North Dakota. As he was slowly getting ready to go play hockey at North Dakota, Berezan got a very special phone call during a work shift at the factory where he worked...

‘’ I was working in Fort Saskatchewan in a warehouse for a mine. I’d run parts back and forth to help the guys that needed it at the mine...one day, my supervisor called me to tell me someone wanted to speak to me on the phone. He reminded me that I was not on break and I had to make it quick. I took the phone, and it was CBC. They told me I was drafted by the Flames and they wanted to interview me. I told them I had to go back to work and that they should call me after. So that’s what they did, since I was not on break and didn’t have time at work. I called my parents during break... ‘’

Being drafted was a good thing in Berezan’s career: it goes without saying. He was a 3rd round pick of the Flames in the 1983 NHL Entry Draft. But at the time, even though he was happy about it, the former defensive forward was not celebrating all that much, as he had another objective in mind...

‘’ Being drafted almost was a non-event. I was happy I was drafted, but I didn’t want to celebrate too much. It wasn’t really a goal to play in the NHL at that time. My goal was to play university hockey. I wanted to be the best university player I could be. Getting to university, I just wanted to be in the best shape I could be... ‘’

Back then, Berezan loved to run, and break his own limits. He was driven to do more than anyone else, whether it was about running or playing sports, he had to show the best shape possible and be the best he could be. But that turned out to be a strange thing when he started university...

‘’ I got there and saw those U.S. kids...they were big, talented and strong. I was a little intimidated, until we started doing the pre-season workouts. One of the things we had to do was to run three laps of stairs in the old Ralph Engelstad Arena. I used to run stairs all the time in the summer when I was living in Edmonton. I thought it would be a piece of cake and it was, I lapped half the team! People were mad at me and they thought I was cocky, asking me what was wrong with me. I remember saying ‘’ No, what’s wrong with you? ‘’ ...but I started to realize that even though I was not necessarily better than other people, I certainly was in better shape! ‘’ says the proud Edmonton native, who completed his degree about twelve years after leaving North Dakota the first time.

He ended up playing two seasons there with the likes of future NHLers such as Rick Zombo, Tony Hrkac, Jon Casey, and another player who would turn up to become a business partner in the future, Gord Sherven. The former North Star was quite solid and a great scorer, amassing 110 points in 86 games over the two seasons he played there.

As he was halfway through his second season at North Dakota, just before Christmas, he was going down to the rink early before a game, coming down from the hotel, in an elevator. Then, it stopped and two well-dressed men came in...Those faces were somewhat familiar to Berezan, but he was not sure...

‘’ It was Flames GM Cliff Fletcher and his assistant Al McNeil, but I didn’t recognize them at the time. I played my game that night, and when it ended, there were those two guys again! They introduced themselves and they were quite clear: they told me that the Flames coach at the time, Bob Johnson, liked what he saw and wanted me to join the Flames when my season was over at North Dakota. So they asked me to call my agent, but I didn’t have one, I was in school! That’s when I realized that I was going to play in the NHL. I thought it was only for the best players, how could I be in that group? But I joined the Flames at the end of my season, played right away, and fit in right away as well...‘’

He played his first nine games during the end of the 1984-85 season, amassing five points, including three goals. His first goal was an empty-netter, and he couldn’t remember the first goalie he beat. It was on March 20th, 1985 in Calgary in a 7-4 Flames win.

‘’ The Leafs had a couple of goalies that year, and I just can’t remember who it was. I had a great game, lots of shots, and I received a pass from Mike Eaves on a two on one to score. I just had to throw it in the net! ‘’ says the one who used to wear number 21 with the Flames.

He would have the chance to play his first full season with the Flames in 1985-86, scoring 12 goals and 33 points in 55 games. It was a great first season offensively, but Berezan played with a stacked Flames team, and so, his chances of being that offensive Top 6 forward were slim. But he found his role, and got regular ice time. His coach had confidence in him and played him in all situations...

The 1985-86 season will forever remain a part of Perry’s greatest hockey memories. That year, the Flames played a memorable 7-game series against their arch-rivals from Alberta, the Edmonton Oilers. The Oilers were the two-time defending Stanley Cup champs, and were looking for a third one in a row. With about eight minutes left in the third period of game 7, the score was tied at two. Berezan was on the ice when a line change was called, so he dumped the puck deep in the Oilers zone, and headed back to the bench...a couple seconds later, Steve Smith tried a pass across the crease, the puck hit Grant Fuhr and ricocheted right into the Oilers net...

‘’ It’s pretty amazing to be known for a goal you didn’t even score! I remember I would always play well in Edmonton. I played with John Tonelli and Lanny McDonald...we were all in a mental zone at the time. I was just trying to do the smart thing and dump it in and Steve threw it in his own net. Back then, the Oilers had the greatest transition game in hockey. And instead of going behind the net, the defenseman would try to reach a winger at the red line, and then the winger would just tip it to a streaking player down the middle for a fast and massive entrance in the offensive zone. ‘’ mentioned the former NCAA player. And he added this...

‘’ So all Steve Smith was doing was basically organizing the Oilers rush down the ice. But he fanned on the puck a little and Grant Fuhr was way too far ahead of his net. So it was Grant’s fault but ultimately, Steve got blamed for it. Mike Vernon stood on his head for the remaining 8 minutes and that was it. We were taking on the Blues in the Conference Finals. ‘’

The Flames beat the Blues in a tough 7 game series as well. The Flames thought it was all over when they led game 6 by a score of 5-2, but the Blues came back from the deficit to win in overtime and force a game 7. Fortunately, the Flames won 2-1 in the last game to get the chance to play against the Montreal Canadiens for the Stanley Cup.

‘’ Badger Bob Johnson put me in the starting lineup for the first game at the Forum. I tried to take everything in stride...I couldn’t be intimidated with a ‘’deer in the headlights’’ look, because I needed to keep my focus to perform. But I remember standing on that blue line for Oh Canada, going through my personal routine. And for a second, I thought: ‘’ Holy cow. I’m at the Montreal Forum for the Stanley Cup Finals! ‘’ but I had to get back my focus, to stay in the moment. ‘’ said a proud Perry Berezan.

Unfortunately, the Flames didn’t win the Cup in 1986. They won the first game, but lost the other four. And so, the Canadiens took Stanley to Montreal and the Flames were left disappointed. The teams that show the most character, heart and willingness to go to war usually win in the end...

‘’ Being my first year, going to the Finals...I learned quickly. You cannot start celebrating , you cannot pat yourself on the back. You just have to keep your focus and work your *ss off and do anything it takes to be a successful playoff team. Those teams that can do that and come together can succeed. But it’s hard for some teams to come together in the playoffs...just look at the Washington Capitals, for example. ‘’ and he continues...

‘’ Talented teams, but some guys are not willing to go to war, and you need everyone to go to war. Some guys learn it early, some learn it over time, and some will never learn. Some playoff guys are going to be terrible forever because they are not willing to give it all. The teams that do will win, just like the Boston Bruins last year. ‘’

Speaking of character, Berezan was directly involved in a hard rivalry. He was born and raised in Edmonton...but he wore the Flames red shirt when it all took place during his NHL years. As of today, the Battle of Alberta still is a great rivalry. Those geographic rivalries often give the fans great hockey to watch...

‘’ The Battle of Alberta! I loved every game. For an Edmonton boy to be playing in Calgary was a thrill. I had some of my best games as a pro in Edmonton in front of my family. Of course playing against Gretzky and the rest of those Oilers made it easy to get pumped up whether it was exhibition, regular season or playoffs. Badger Bob loved preparing us for the Oilers games so

each time our entire team was ready to go to war and do whatever it took to win. Unfortunately for us the Oilers were so talented and so good that we only got by them once in the playoffs. ‘’

Playing with the Flames organization from 1985 to 1989, Perry Berezan had a lot of nice things to say about his former team. He praises ‘’ Badger ‘’ Bob Johnson for the chance he was given to play early in his career and for the role he discovered for himself in the NHL...Johnson was the coach of the Wisconsin Badgers (NCAA) between 1966 and 1982. He won three national championships there. It was he who followed Berezan’s career at North Dakota and asked the Flames GM Cliff Fletcher to sign him to play with the Flames in 1985...

‘’ Bob used to be a college coach, so he was signing and bringing a lot of college players in. He gave me every single opportunity in the world to play. He played me in all types of situations and he would tell the press he had confidence in me because I could take the faceoff, play left wing, right wing, on the penalty kill or the power play. He gave me a ton of confidence and he praised me so much for my defensive abilities as a forward...I knew what my role was...‘’ says Perry about his former coach. And then, he goes on with an interesting thought...

‘’ I knew I couldn’t be a great goal scorer in the NHL, I was never that talented. I could skate, so maybe I’d be better off as a good penalty killer and a defensive forward. I couldn’t score, I just didn’t have the gifts. But every team can’t have just goal scorers on their roster! Even if you got six or seven, only three or four can really be your guys. You’ve got to fit into a role...and intuition was telling me that that was not where I was heading. I saw Brett Hull start his career in Calgary, then being sent down to the minors. My first full year in Calgary, I was up playing for the Flames, while future all-stars like Brett Hull, Gary Roberts, Theo Fleury and Brian Bradley were all playing in the minors. ‘’ continued the former IHLer, before finishing with the following on that matter...

‘’ What does that tell you? Tells you that if you find a role and you’re good at it, there’s no room for those other guys. They’re competing for the top two lines. I found my spot, I was reliable, and if Badger didn’t give me the opportunity, maybe I would have never gotten it elsewhere and I could’ve been in the minor leagues for my whole career, who knows? ‘’

Perry also has good memories of the organization in general. He was always treated with respect by the Flames and he is still part of them today...

‘’ The people there were great, leadership wise. The organization...Cliff Fletcher was like a father to me. I would go talk to him and it would feel like I was talking to my dad. It was a family atmosphere. Lanny McDonald, Jim Peplinski, Tim Hunter, Doug Risebrough...these guys were incredible leaders and our teams were really tight because of it... ‘’

Berezan would have to deal with injuries between the 1986-87 and 1988-89 seasons, playing a total of 88 games with the Flames only. He got traded to Minnesota in March of 1989, just before Calgary won the Stanley Cup. And where he found leadership and unity in Calgary, he was shocked by what he found in Minnesota...

‘’ When I got with the North Stars, I realized not everyone was like the Flames. That team was a bunch of misfits, selfish players. Then Bob Gainey came for my second year in Minnesota for his

first professional year of coaching. We went to the Stanley Cup Finals that year. Why? Because Bob understood leadership, and how to put together a team. You know, Bob was an a**hole at times.... ‘’ said the former North Star. But he had more to say on Gainey...

‘’ You can’t be a nice guy and succeed in anything all the time. Gainey is as credible and genuine as they get. If it means stepping over somebody, he doesn’t care. He wants to get something accomplished. I learned so much about life, just from seeing Bob pull our misfit, selfish group together. ‘Cause that’s what it was: a bunch of guys who had no idea what winning was about. ‘’

Learning from all the great leaders he played with in Montreal, Bob Gainey gained Perry Berezan’s respect behind the North Stars bench, with Doug Jarvis and Andy Murray as his assistants. Not a bad set of coaches!

‘’ Bob transformed the North Stars organization in a matter of months. We squeaked into the playoffs in the last game of the season. We then beat the Black Hawks in six games, and then the Blues and the Oilers. Jon Casey was standing on his head, Gaetan Duchesne played his role, there were guys with reputations, but Bob put everyone together and put them in their roles. ‘’ concluded on the subject Berezan, whose spot in the regular lineup was taken by Marc Bureau for the 1991 playoffs, resulting in him playing only one game in the playoffs.

‘’ Yeah I talk about Bob Gainey with such respect, but I hated him back at the time! But looking back, I have tons of respect for what he did. ‘’ says the laughing former St. Albert Saint.

It was hard for Berezan not to be playing during the playoffs. But he had the chance to play one game, against the Pittsburgh Penguins, during the Finals. Just like 1986, Berezan was a part of history without even intending to.

‘’ The game I played was that infamous game when Mario Lemieux scored that highlight goal that you can see every time on Hockey Night in Canada. I was on the ice when it happened. I was on a rush for the Penguins net, took a shot, and then, the defenseman just tapped it to Mario, who went all the way through our defence and beat Jon Casey. The magic stopped after that game...our bubble literally burst. And they crushed us after that to win... ‘’

That game would be the last one after two seasons with the North Stars. GM Bobby Clarke wanted to buy out Berezan’s contract...

“I had two years left to my contract and Bobby Clarke called me into his office during training camp. It was not a good sign, as he was not exactly the fatherly figure that Cliff Fletcher was. He wanted to buy out my contract for two thirds of the amount, which I refused. If you want to buy out a contract after July 1st, it has to be paid in full. I was a little intimidated and he threatened to keep me in the minors for the remainder of my contract. I was making about 170,000$ a year back then. It was not a same amount as today, but still, the rules stated that was all mine. My agent started negotiating with him...‘’

Jack Ferreira was the Sharks GM, and a former member of the North Stars organization. He was interested in Perry’s services, and he wanted to tick off Bobby Clarke. So the North Stars

resigned their former no. 21’s contract, and the veteran center was signed by the newly arrived San Jose Sharks, an expansion team...

‘’ I had a great time there. They played me a lot. But I hated losing, but our fans would be cheering us all the time. They didn’t really know hockey, they were just fans who were happy they had a team. We could basically do no wrong. George Kingston and Bob Murdoch, our coaches, decided early that it was going be a fun atmosphere. So they stressed a lot on that aspect. We had some all-stars, like Doug Wilson and Kelly Kisio. But there was a bunch of guys on that team who wouldn’t have played anywhere else. It was a good two years, but it was hard losing. ‘’ says the honest former Shark, who says he had his best year there in 1991-92 despite a brutal first season from the San Jose team.

As fans, we often hear about players who do not seem to care about losing...as long as they play and get paid. A lot of fans will say that such hockey players exist, while others, like me, tend to think that everybody hates losing and that no one gets accustomed to it. Some people just have more will then others, but Berezan burst my bubble...

‘’ It does exist. There are still players that are so gifted and everything had come easy to them. If you get 6-7 million dollars a year because you are that gifted, what is your motivation now? Those types of players are out there...and they need a kick to change. Some of them just never will... ‘’

Being a winner and a great leader, Bob Gainey was that type of coach who would kick a guy in the butt to make him work harder...

‘’ Bob Gainey completely changed Mike Modano. When you interview Mike Modano Fred, you ask him what influence Bob had on his career. Bob was so hard on Mike, and Mike hated Bob for a while. But he is his biggest influence because Mike was soft. But compared to Bob, everyone is. That guy is as hard as they get. But if you get those soft players, you’ve got to try and transform them, make them miserable for a while. And Bob could spot them from a mile...Ken Hitchcock is in the same mold. Those are people that, if hired at the right time, can do wonders. They don’t always last long, but they transform players ‘’

During the course of his second year with San Jose, Perry played his last game in pro hockey. He sustained an ankle injury shooting basketball with Brian Hayward and he played throughout training camp with an injured ankle...having a history of injuries, it was getting harder and harder for Berezan to bounce back...

‘’ The writing seemed to be on the wall. I was going have to do some amazing things to come back. Shortly after, my wife was diagnosed with MS. I was mentally fried. I was done. You have to snap out of it...you start to feel sorry for yourself for some reason. There are times when we all want to feel sorry for ourselves. And I went through it. I’d go on a road trip and my wife would cry. She had symptoms, we had a new baby...I didn’t want to play anymore. I was not motivated...and the Sharks could tell... ‘’ says former Lanny McDonald’s linemate in Calgary.

After a shaky season debut, he got sent down to Kansas City in the IHL. Kevin Constantine tried to knock some motivation back into Berezan, and it seemed to work, because he got called up again. But his fate seemed to be written in stone already...

‘’ We were playing in Calgary against the Flames, and Ronnie Stern and I collided and went knee-to-knee. He blew up my MCL. I remember laying on the stretcher in the dressing room and telling myself I was done. I couldn’t go on anymore... ‘’

And so, his career finished on a stretcher. After he decided that his career was over, he called back at North Dakota and he wanted to finish his Business Degree. Which he did...

‘’ I had decided what to do with my life. I finished my degree and I’ve never looked back because I was mentally fried. But I’m much more fortunate now, because I can make good money being a stockbroker and do it for the rest of my life. I don’t have to worry about injuries, being away from my family, being fired, having a coach telling me I’m no good...all that went away. While I miss the atmosphere and the competitive nature, I’m happy with what I got now. ‘’

Perry Berezan is a very lucky guy. He worked hard to get where he is now and that has nothing to do with luck, but he’s one of the few who actually can carry on with his life after and NHL career without too much trouble...

‘’ Out of ten pro hockey players, within two years after their playing careers, eight will end up being either bankrupt, divorced, or not working. That means only two ‘’get through’’ the first two years without too much hurt in the process. That’s tough, absolutely terrible! ‘’

Now everything’s great for the father of three. He used to do some color commentary on the TV and radio for the Flames, and, of course, he’s happy working with Greg Sherven, a former North Dakota teammate, in the Calgary area. He’s also involved a lot in his community, having won the Calgary Rotary Club 2009’s Integrity Award, for the work he does with charity.

‘’ The Flames have a terrific Alumni Association. When I was playing for the Flames, I remember after a practice seeing Jim Peplinski close to a white board with names on it. Then he’d tell players that they’d have to go there and there at this or that date. It was a player, not a PR guy. I thought it was like this everywhere. Our team at the time did so much stuff outside, and I did so much charity stuff back then, I grew to like it a lot. Other cities didn’t do that nearly as much. And when I retired...we picked up where we left off with the Alumni and we still do so much today. I love to organize and be part of doing events and raising money. And even if it’s not money, a lot of people just love that we spend the time to help them ‘’ says a proud Berezan, who does a lot still today.

Since he has the chance to be with Flames players frequently, I asked him what player he hasn’t played with, that he would’ve like to play with the most. I was proud when he told me that was the first time somebody asked him that, and he replied with something that surprised me just as much...

‘’ Because I grew up in Edmonton, and that I joined the Flames Alumni, I had the chance to work with former Oilers a lot as well. And there are a lot of good people amongst them. Playing with

Wayne Gretzky would have to be on the top of my list...because I admired him on the ice and also off the ice... ‘’ and, again, he goes on with an interesting anecdote...

‘’ I had to give a speech at an NHLPA meeting on career transition, and the line I had for them was : when you’re a 50-goal scorer in the NHL and an a**hole, people will remember you are a 50-goal scorer. But when you retire, you’re just an a**hole. So remember how you treat other people when you’re playing, because you’ll get that back when you retire ‘’ says the thoughtful man, who is as generous in person as he seems when you don’t know him.

As of December 22nd, 2011, Perry Berezan still lives in Calgary, where he works as a stockbroker and is happily married with his wife and has three children. He celebrated his 47th birthday on December 5th. I would like to thank him for his kindness and the time he took for this interview. It was a great thrill meeting a player already in just my fifth interview.

Perry is very grateful for the chance he was given by Badger Bob Johnson when he started his career. And even though I haven’t started mine yet, I’ve got to say I’m as grateful for having the chance of meeting the former two-time Stanley Cup finalist for a very fascinating hour about his career, life, and thoughts.

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