With Anze Kopitar already playing in Sweden and Alec Martinez recently joining TPS Turku in Finland, goalie Jonathan Bernier became the third member of the LA Kings to head overseas when he agreed to a deal with Heilbronner Falken of Germany’s Tier II league last week.
“I tried to go to Switzerland first, but there are some really good goalies there so it was hard to find a job,” he shared with us. “Realistically, this wasn’t my first preference. I tried to go to Riga in the KHL (Kontinental Hockey League). Actually, I had an offer with Salzburg (Austria) too. But, ultimately, I signed here.”
In typical Bernier fashion, he was honest throughout our conversation. He’s rarely hidden his feelings since being selected 11th overall by the Kings at the 2006 NHL Draft.
“I haven’t played that much in the last two years. So, I really wanted to go to a team where I could play as much as I could and practice every day like a training camp,” he said, as he began to explain what led him to eventually signing with his new team. “I knew it was a really good league. So, I thought this would be a really good fit for me. Plus, I knew a few of the guys who were playing here. I also played with Michel Leveille in Manchester.”
After playing 54 and 58 games in back-to-back seasons with the Monarchs, he’s only seen action in 41 games total since becoming Jonathan Quick’s back-up two years ago. Thus, this is a chance for him to get in some extra ice-time and continue perfecting his craft.
Following an initial phone call, the entire deal came together fairly quickly. Bernier was first notified of the team’s interest last Monday – after which he says he immediately went online to look at their roster, curious to see if he recognized a name or two.
“It definitely helps when you know someone,” Bernier said, followed by his trademark laugh.
After boarding a flight to Frankfurt on Wednesday, he went right to work. There was practice at 10 AM on Thursday, followed by a noon press conference with the local media. “I tried to stay up, but I was in bed at nine,” he said.
Prior to getting ready for his first game on Friday, he called us up to talk about his whirlwind week, but the conversation wasn’t complete without touching on the trade he requested earlier in the summer.
“I’m not here so teams can get a read on me,” said the 24-year-old netminder. “Teams know what I can do. So, it’s just for me. I want to play – that’s why I play hockey, for the games. To be in LA the last couple of years and to be lucky enough to win a Stanley Cup at my age is pretty amazing, but I still think if I can get a fair chance and try to play as a number one (with another NHL team), it would be a lot of fun.”
For now, he’ll be starting between the pipes in Heilbronn, a city about an hour north of Stuttgart. Like other NHLers, once the lockout is over, he’ll be returning to North America to play in the world’s top hockey league. Exactly what city that might be in, though, is still up for some debate.
“I hope that another team in the NHL is going to come to an agreement with the Kings. But if not, I’d be very happy to go back to LA and see my teammates that I won the Stanley Cup with. It’s definitely a great city, a great organization, everything is great about it. It’s just that I just want to play.”
Those sentiments are pretty much what he says he shared with Kings GM Dean Lombardi and VP Ron Hextall earlier this summer.
“They know that. They wouldn’t have drafted me as a first round pick if they didn’t think I wanted to play,” said Bernier. “They know that I’m a competitive guy and I want to play as much as my body allows me to. So Dean knows, Ron knows, that I want to play.”
Unlike the always popular quarterback controversies in the NFL, Bernier says he has plenty of love for Quick.
“There’s nothing they can do about what Quick has done so far, both in Manchester and at the NHL level. He’s been unbelievable and he deserved what he signed for after the year he had last season.”
Of course, there’s a ‘but’ that goes along with that. “But for me, if there’s no room in LA, that’s what I told Dean – ‘If you guys are going with Quick, I’m totally fine with that, but I’d appreciate it if I can go somewhere else and prove myself.’”
If he does end up leaving the Kings, he’ll be taking a small – and permanent – reminder with him.
“I got a few more this summer,” he said of his ever-growing tattoo collection. He already had a giant lion, similar to the one on his mask and now this – “I did one with the Stanley Cup. It’s on my right rib. But, it’s not the logo of the Stanley Cup, it’s done in (script). I tired to do something a little different. If I come back to LA, you can see it [laughter].”
Like many of the other Kings’ players we’ve spoken with lately, becoming a Stanley Cup Champion didn’t really crystallize for Bernier until he had his day with the most famous trophy in sports.
“I think the biggest thing is when you see the look on the faces of your parents and your friends,” he said while reminiscing. “The smile when they see the Stanley Cup – that’s when you really realize you’ve won something big. Obviously, there’s a lot of work that goes into winning it, but when you can bring it home to your family and friends, that’s something real special.”
Unlike some of his teammates, who wish they might have scheduled things a bit differently, Bernier is content with how things unfolded on his ‘Day with the Cup.’
“If you win it a second time, maybe you change a few things. But, as a first time winner, probably not. You’re trying to share it with everyone, so that’s why the day goes by so fast. But in the end, you have to give back to the city where you’re from and your family and friends. So, everything was perfect for me.”
Perhaps the only thing missing was that he had the Cup before it was inscribed with the names of the 2011-12 LA Kings.
“I’ve seen a few pictures with my name on it,” he remarked. “It’s pretty special. I got lucky with my name too. I’m kind of in the middle of it. So on the picture you see it more!”
Now, back to the immediate future and playing hockey in Germany. Besides looking over the rosters online, what type of prep work has he put in regarding some of his upcoming opponents?
“None really,” said the native of Laval, an outer suburb of Montreal. “I think the most important thing for a goalie is just to feed off of, not only your d-men, but the whole team and how they play. What kind of chances do they give up, you know? That’s going to be a big adjustment for me. When you change teams, shots will come from a different area and even on the (penalty kill), maybe it’s going to be more aggressive or more open. That’s the type of thing you have to look for.”
Regardless of the adjustments, he just wants to play as much as he can and for now, he’s not going to think about how his situation with the Kings might unfold once the lockout is over.
“I can’t control that. That’s out of my reach. So wherever I end up at – LA or someplace else – I’m gonna work hard in practice and every time I get to play I have to be as good as possible.”
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