Briere’s underappreciated career nearing its close

DENVER — Every day Daniel Briere enters the Pepsi Center for Colorado Avalanche practices or games, he walks past the visiting locker room where he lost his NHL innocence.

At age 37, with his role diminished and his contract expiring at the end of the season, you might even say he’s walking the full circle of his NHL life.

"I do think about it every time I see that locker room," Briere said. "It is kind of strange that I ended up back here."

On March 10, 2003, immediately following a 2-2 tie with Colorado in Denver, Briere was called into the Phoenix coaches’ room. With his Coyotes jersey and equipment still on, Briere sat down in front of grim-faced Bob Francis and absorbed the hardest news of his five-year-old NHL career: He’d been traded.

"There were a lot of rumors flying, so I kind of looked at him for a minute with a lump in my throat and I said, ‘Not Buffalo,’ " Briere recalled. "Buffalo had a bad reputation with the players. It was not seen as a very good team to go to."

That made Francis’ task doubly difficult. It was Buffalo. The Coyotes had acquired center Chris Gratton to add size up the middle, along with a fourth-round pick from the Sabres for Briere and a third-round pick. 

As the rest of the Coyotes boarded a bus for the Denver airport, Briere stood outside in the cold with his bag, tears streaming down his cheeks as he spoke to a Valley reporter.

"It’s a terrible feeling being told you were traded because, in that moment, you feel rejected," said Briere, whom the Coyotes selected 24th overall in 1996. "They’re telling you they don’t want you any more."

The feeling quickly passed when Briere arrived in Buffalo and discovered the franchise was nothing like what he had heard. In his first full season, he scored 28 goals and put up a then-career-high 65 points. But when the 2004-05 lockout had ended, the rules had changed to open up the game for smaller players by limiting clutching and grabbing. 

COYOTES at AVALANCHE

When: 7 p.m. Monday
Where: Pepsi Center, Denver
TV: FOX Sports Arizona
Records: Coyotes 20-30-7, Avalanche 23-22-11
Season series: Colorado leads 1-0
Injuries: Arizona RW Mikkel Boedker (splenectomy) is out indefinitely. C Martin Hanzal (back surgery) is likely out for the season. Colorado: F Patrick Bordeleau (fractured kneecap), D Erik Johnson (knee), F Jamie McGinn (back surgery), F Borna Rendulic (broken leg), D Ryan Wilson (shoulder) and F Jesse Winchester (concussion) are on injured reserve.
Quick facts: Colorado snapped a four-game losing streak with a 4-1 win over Dallas on Saturday but the Avs are still eight points off the Western-Conference playoff pace. … Thirty-seven-year-old Jarome Iginla leads Colorado with 18 goals and is tied with Alex Tanguay for the team lead in points (38). Iginla has two goals and five points in his last three games. … Avs LW Cody McLeod became the first Colorado player to record 30 penalty minutes in a game (Saturday vs. Dallas) since Chris McAllister had 31 on Feb. 20, 2004 at Dallas. Somehow, McLeod was named the first star of the game.

When Briere finally got a chance to play a full season with the new rules in 2006-07, he put up the kind of numbers then-Buffalo GM Darcy Regier had dreamed he might in a new setting. Briere scored 32 goals and set career highs for assists (63) and points (95). Buffalo advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals for a second straight year before falling to Ottawa.

"I had the benefit of seeing him in the World Junior tournament camp," said Regier, now the Coyotes assistant GM. "I remember how dynamic he was. He was small, but he was also like, ‘wow.’ Those things stick with you, so we hoped he could get that dynamic element back when we made the trade."

"I don’t think anyone’s ever convinced that’s what’s going to happen, but that’s what you’re betting on: That he can get that back and that we can help him get that back, because we needed that type of player."

At the end of that season, Briere became a free agent. While speculation had him returning to his hometown of Montreal (he finally did last season), Briere signed with Philadelphia and played in his first Stanley Cup Final in 2010, when the Flyers fell to the Blackhawks in six games.

Along the way, Briere made a name for himself as a clutch playoff performer. Up until last season when his role was diminished with the Canadiens, Briere was averaging a point per game in the postseason, something only 33 players in the history of the game have done. In 124 career postseason games, he has 116 points.

"He’s a pretty fierce competitor. He rises to the challenge. He got better when things got tougher," Regier said. "When you talk about people fulfilling their potential, he did a pretty good job in that department."

The only remaining Coyote from Briere’s time in Phoenix acknowledges all that, but that’s not what made the greatest impression on Shane Doan.

"He has an uncanny ability to score goals, and it’s impossible not to recognize what he’s done in the playoffs," Doan said. "Saying all that, he is a 100 times better person, and he’s an amazing father to his three sons. To me, that’s so much more important."

Doan and Briere shared similar trials early in their career. Both were demoted to the Coyotes’ AHL affiliate in Springfield, Massachusetts, where they had a chance to play together and forge a friendship that both consider among their closest despite 12 years of separation.

"I enjoyed being around him on a daily basis, and I miss him. I still miss him," Doan said. "It’s especially tough when you see a friend get traded, but I’m glad he’s had the career he’s had."

Briere has no idea what the future holds. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and he hasn’t had the opportunities in Colorado he had elsewhere (he was a healthy scratch on Saturday). With many teams bumping up against the cap and many teams trying to get younger and faster, he understands this could be the end of the line.

"I really have no clue at this point what’s going to happen, and I don’t want to be one of those guys who’s constantly thinking about what’s happening next," he said. "I want to live in the moment and enjoy what’s happening now."

Like many players, Briere has thoughts about entering management when his playing days are over. But there is also the lure of spending more time with his sons, Caelan (16), Carson (15) and Cameron (13), back in the Philadelphia area where his ex-wife, Sylvie, lives. 

It’s an odd thought to Doan that the guy he first met at World Junior camp — the guy who spoke broken English and "looked like he was 11" — could be retiring before him. 

"I hope he plays forever, and he will even if he retires," Doan said. "We’ll still both be playing and we’ll still have fun. It’s just that no one will be watching." 

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