EL SEGUNDO, CA — About this time last year, highly-touted Los Angeles Kings goaltending prospect Jonathan Bernier showed up at the Kings annual development camp for their young prospects with a bit of a chip on his shoulder.
During last year’s development camp, I asked Bernier how he would feel if the Kings decided to send him to the minors even if he performed well at their 2008 training camp.
“I’ll be mad, really mad,” said the very confident, if not brash, young goaltending prospect.
As it turned out, Bernier suffered an injury during training camp and did not get a chance to be mad, at least, not for that reason. But in any case, it was a rather ominous sign of things to come from Bernier, who had an up-and-down 2008-09 season because he was disappointed about not being able to crack the Kings roster out of training camp and later in the season, he was upset about netminder Jonathan Quick getting called up from the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League [the Kings’ primary minor league affiliate] instead of him.
Somewhat reminiscent of a temper tantrum, isn’t it? Well, maybe not quite that extreme, but Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi indicated that Bernier’s attitude was poor, especially for a young player who has the National Hockey League in his sights.
“Remember, he went down back to junior, pouted for awhile and everything else,” Lombardi said in an interview on June 13. “Even this year, when we called up Quick, [Bernier] did not work hard in practice. He thought this was going to be an easy ride to the NHL.”
“[Bernier has] always been one of the top goaltenders in Canada his whole life,” Lombardi added. “It’s all been fairly easy because he’s so talented and he thought he would go right to the Kings. When it didn’t happen, he didn’t want to work hard. One of the biggest complaints we had was, ‘you’re not coming up here until you learn to work hard in practice.’ He didn’t do it. When we called up Quick, he kind of went the other way on us. We actually called up [former Kings goalie prospect] Danny Taylor. We played him in Manchester.”
Then the Kings laid down the law.
“[We told Bernier], ‘no more free rides,’” said Lombardi. “You’re a first round pick and that’s great, but you’ve got to get it done. To his credit, in the last month, it’s like the light bulb went off and he said, ‘OK, I’ve got to start looking at myself here and start competing.’”
Bernier acknowledged that he did not handle those situations well.
“I was upset for sure,” said Bernier. “Especially since my goal was to make the team out of training camp last year. But then I got hurt and things changed. I think playing a little bit of games at nineteen years old [when he made his debut with the Kings at the start of the 2007-08 season] made me more confident for the next year, so when Quick got called up, I was pretty upset. I was wondering what more I needed to do. But at the same time, I don’t think I needed to do more stuff. I just needed to play my game.”
“It was really disappointing when I got sent down [to start the season],” added Bernier. “[Quick getting called up] was the toughest one. That was my lowest of the season, but after that, I battled hard and came back strong.”
Indeed, Bernier re-focused himself on his game and almost backstopped the Monarchs into the AHL playoffs.
“I felt like I finished on a good note at the end of the season,” he said. “The last two months, I felt pretty good. It was a tough one but I think it was beneficial.”
“It was good for me, too,” he added. “I played a lot of games down there and learned a lot at the pro level.”
Speaking of tough, it was Kings assistant general manager Ron Hextall who got tough with Bernier.
“I had a long chat with Ron Hextall,” Bernier explained. “He’s an old goalie. He told me that if I want to get back [to the Kings], I need to work harder in practice and that’s what I did.”
“I remember Hextall [later] went down [to Manchester] and said, ‘wow…what a change,’” said Lombardi. “He’s working his tail off in practice, he almost got that team in the playoffs, he played really well down the stretch in some big games. Now we can say, ‘OK…now he’s starting to figure it out.’”
Indeed, Bernier appears to have not only learned some valuable lessons but he has also grown up more than a bit since this time last year.
“I think he really grew last year playing in Manchester,” said Kings goaltending coach Bill Ranford. “You know, you learn to be a pro. You’re on your own, cooking your own meals. Having to learn that lifestyle. He was probably a little disappointed when Quick got the call instead of him and that took him a little bit to get over. But the way he finished the year, giving Manchester a chance to get into the playoffs. That’s what we expect out of him.”
“It was a really tough year for me but I think if I look back in five years I’ll probably say it was the best year for me because I learned a lot last year,” Bernier stressed. “It was probably the first year I faced adversity. [Prior to last season], it was always easy to get into the net. But last year, I had to fight to get into the net with Jonathan Quick, at first. I played more after that. It was my first year that was up and down, so it was good for me to have those challenges.”
“When it doesn’t go your way, I think you just need to work harder in practice,” Bernier elaborated. “You can’t let the mental aspects of your game go away. If you work hard in practice, everything’s going to come back your way.”
Looking ahead, Bernier is hoping to make the Kings’ 2009-10 roster out of training camp, but has a new perspective if he does not.
“You’re never happy to go down,” he said. “I’ll come to [training] camp and show what I can do. If I can stay healthy in camp, I’ll try to do my best and stay here, for sure.”
“[But] I know how to handle it now,” he emphasized. “Last year was a tough one but I’ll be back on my feet quicker than I was last year.”
Raw audio of interview with Jonathan Bernier (audio quality is not that great…sorry)
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