We’ve already learned in this modern-day NHL to plug your ears and start chanting as loud as possible when others describe any particular NHL contract or player as “impossible to trade.” We know that isn’t true. Chris Pronger’s deal was traded last summer, and he was weeks away from making a Hockey Hall of Fame induction speech. David Clarkson was traded by the Maple Leafs to Columbus for a player never expecting to place skate-on-ice in competitive fashion ever again. We’ll always be surprised by some trades, but we should never be shocked. Whether always smart or not, NHL general managers are more creative, at least, than any of us think.
Halfway through last year, it was hard to envision the Leafs being able to “get rid” of Jonathan Bernier during the long, arduous, and yet, very necessary march to 30th place. Some that year saw Bernier spend time tending net for the AHL’s Toronto Marlies — his first minor league assignment since 2009-10, when stuck behind Jonathan Quick and Erik Ersberg (yes!!!) in the Kings system.
The writing was on the wall for Bernier’s time in Toronto, which held so much promise upon his acquisition in the summer of 2013, and for what still ended up being a discounted price. The on-ice performances didn’t help, but the beginning of the end for Bernier in Toronto as either a fan favourite, or even a steady starter happened while he was in a tuxedo, walking the red carpet at a charity event.
My parents were both teachers, and my father, a high school history teacher. Current events were quite “the thing” in my household from a very early age. I sometimes kick myself because I don’t tie my children down with ropes and make them watch “the news” at night with me. But sometimes I myself don’t pay enough attention because life gets so busy. But, suffice it to say, I knew who Nelson Mandela was at a very early age. You may have, as well.
It doesn’t make someone a bad person for not knowing Mandela’s history, but it does make someone an irreconcilable phony if they are attending a massive charity event in Mandela’s HONOUR, less than a year after his death, and you don’t have a clue as to who he was.
The video is still cringeworthy to watch, but while attending an MLSE event before a Raptors game, Jonathan Bernier put his foot in his mouth deeper than most athletes or members of the media, or, yes, even politicians (!) are ever able to. The event was called “Giants Of Africa,” spearheaded specifically by Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, born in Nigeria, and greatly appreciative of Mandela’s influence on culture, sport, and nationalism throughout not just South Africa, but an entire continent of countries.
There is still considerable debate on how “prepped” the celebrity attendees should have been about who Mandela was and what his lasting powerful legacy is. But what couldn’t have been foreseen is how ill-prepared Bernier was to roam a red carpet, teeming with cameras and reporters, just looking for “tape” of very famous-to-moderately famous human beings saying warm (and yes, accurate!) things about one of the most iconic and recognizable humans of the past 150 years.
Here is the then starting goalie of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ initial attempt at explaining what Nelson Mandela meant to him:
“Well obviously growing up, he’s one of the most known athletes in the world. A lot of impact in any kind of sport that he did, and even playing hockey, everyone knows him, right? From being the type of person that he was off the ice and on the ice. It’s unfortunate that he passed a year ago, but, he changed a lot while he was with us, and he’s a tremendous guy.”
No. No. No. It can’t be real. It was, and still is. Bernier gave it another go with another camera and microphone moments later:
“I just think the way he met that is, you know, to me growing up playing sports with my parents was something really special cause I could share, try to be a leader, try to share things and things like that where you know when you’re a group sport you need to do that right? Be as one, and I think that’s what he met, and I think sports is really powerful. A lot of people obviously love to play the game, it can be hockey, basketball football, a lot of people watch that, and I think that’s kind of the message I personally got from the…”
We’ve all been there but usually in our dreams. I have them where I have a microphone in front of me during my radio show, and nothing sensible comes out (yes, yes, I get it — you heard that show many times!). Ok, let’s try one more common nightmare — we’re writing an exam for a high school or university grade, and we haven’t been to class in months. The point being, you can’t do worse than Bernier did. Though my show took opinions for a couple days more on Bernier’s utterly cringeworthy ignorance than any hockey games played that December weekend, the bottom line is his quote utterly embarrassed his hockey club, Maple Leafs management, and people notably higher up at MLSE. Though Bernier made a public apology for sounding as he sounded, no one bought the concept that he just “had a bad day” or “froze up”. Only he walked himself into that situation. There are things in life where I explain, “you just have to know” — and this was one of them.
I know I heard from hockey fans who didn’t think this was “a big deal.” You’re entitled to that opinion, but let me assure you, Bernier’s comments were a source of considerable embarrassment to the Maple Leafs, the Raptors, and it set Brendan Shanahan into a mode of damage control. Whether it’s fair or not, his starting goalie got more attention at an event for a global icon (once the US-based blogs like Deadspin got a hold of the story) than the event or the global icon himself did that weekend.
On a Maple Leafs team that was being scorned quite regularly by its fans and those regularly covering them, this embarrassing episode helped no one. Weeks earlier, “Salutegate” was all the rage with debates about whether the Leafs’ leadership group had decided to snub fans intentionally after a rare home-ice win. The season had begun with many home losses culminating in Leafs sweaters being tossed onto the ice as gestures of utter frustration and vehement dislike of the product (and, yes, the players).
Bernier also never became warmly embraced by fans that happened to be big supporters of James Reimer, as a goalie or as a person. It’s not about one guy being a better person than the other, but Reimer dragged an underwhelming team into their only playoff appearance in the past twelve years. When the management at the time felt his efforts weren’t enough, Reimer was quickly supplanted via the Bernier trade to a likely backup scenario. As demonstrated by the five-year deal Reimer just received in Florida, it took but a few short years for Reimer to become a more valued goaltender around the league than Jonathan Bernier.
Look, some will see this as “piling on” Bernier. Some people want their sports mixed with, well, only sports. But I think we’ve all witnessed famous people shill and promote causes and charities and people, and they haven’t the foggiest idea why or what it’s all about. You and me both have probably been invited to or paid to play in charity golf outings, and we think we could stump in front of a reporter for 30-40 seconds about why we’re there and what the cause means to us, but we might struggle more than we think.
Still, this wasn’t that. Bernier can’t accept the invite to this well-publicized event about a monumentally important historical figure and not know who the hell he is. Can’t. Cannot. This isn’t a camera crew blitzing into the Leafs’ room after a morning skate, when, say, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter passes away (good news — he hasn’t) and hitting up American-born James van Riemsdyk and asking him about Carter’s legacy. You do get the difference, right?
Either way, even if it’s a small group of people, I reside in that particular group that felt Bernier never was able to escape his instantly-gained state of infamy after this. Efforts were made to trade Jonathan Bernier last offseason, and with no sensible takers, the Leafs protected their asset with a two-year extension and hoped for a bounce back season. It didn’t happen.
Yes, you’d be a cold soul not feeling at least something for Bernier, and I still do reading those humiliating quotes. There’s a different line I cringe about nearly every time I read them or see the video, but the balance of his time as a Maple Leaf truly began to tick away in the aftermath of that evening and the fallout from it. He’d play another 60-plus games with the Leafs over the course of the next sixteen months, but he’s probably as thrilled for a fresh start elsewhere as anyone. After that incident, I asked many who would know off the record if it essentially meant it was impossible for Bernier to be part of any significant rebuild or push back towards a return to glory for the team, and to a man, all acknowledged, it played a major role in an eventual separation.
Though I can be critical of the Bernier mistake, it’s fascinating that this issue was debated then and still can be now with such passion, and yet, we shouldn’t regard Bernier as a bad person, just a guy who thought he could feign an understanding for the camera and got burned. Ultimately, a botched quote isn’t in the same stratosphere as, say, a domestic violence arrest, sexual assault accusation, or DUI arrest, and I’ll root for Bernier in Anaheim to play better than he did here, and have more success than he did here. Mistakes are to be learned from, no matter how embarrassing they are.