For Team USA left winger Brett Berard, learning hockey was as natural as learning the alphabet - and in his case, the two were intrinsically linked. Berard's father, David, was an assistant coach at Providence College when a scouting trip to Toronto allowed him a visit to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Berard brought home a Toronto Maple Leafs mini-net as a souvenir for Brett, who was still a toddler at the time. Brett had a set of alphabet blocks, so David playfully shot one into the net with a mini-stick. And even though Brett hadn't turned two yet, the game was on.
"He would get all the blocks and move them to one end of the kitchen," David said. "Then he would walk into the net and try to shoot it in. Then he'd go back to the pile, come over and stickhandle another block into the net. He would literally do it for hours at a time. We'd be making dinner or watching TV and he'd be walking back and forth in the kitchen, putting the blocks in the net with his mini-stick. That was the first time, as a hockey coach, I thought 'Maybe he'll want to play when he gets a bit older.' He just had an affinity for it."
By three, Brett happily joined the local Learn to Skate program in Rhode Island and the rest is history. This summer, he was drafted in the fifth round by the New York Rangers and earned a spot on Team USA's world junior squad. Berard is the second-youngest player on the team, just two months older than 2021 draft prospect Matty Beniers, but the coach's son has already made an impact for the Americans.
Coming in at just 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds, Berard is nonetheless a tiger on the ice. The Providence College freshman is quick, skilled and tenacious, bringing a gritty element to the forecheck and the willingness to back up teammates in a scrum. Part of that sandpaper comes from a childhood where he always had a hockey buddy in younger brother Brady, a 2022 NHL draft prospect currently playing for the U.S. National Team Development Program - the same hothouse organization Brett played for the past two seasons.
"They very much love and respect each other," David said. "But they're ultra-competitive against each other. A lot of holes in the wall, a lot of broken windows from playing. A lot of fights, a lot of yelling and screaming, but I think that helped drive their competitiveness as individual players. They try to earn each other's respect. But they would also do anything for each other and they're best friends. They're very supportive of each other."
Brett has made the most of his world junior experience early on. Playing for his Providence College coach Nate Leaman, the left winger has already moved his way up the lineup and has been particularly effective on a trio with center John Farinacci (ARI) and right winger Bobby Brink (PHI). Berard posted four points in his first three games, while making opponents wince anytime they saw him bearing down on the puck. Getting a shot of confidence early certainly helps the world junior first-timer.
"It's huge," Berard said. "It's a long tournament and you want to build off each game. That's what I tried to do against Finland and Russia and I got rewarded. But I have to be my best every game."
Interestingly enough, Berard didn't always make his name with grit and tenacity - when he was a kid, he had enough skill to excel on his offensive talents. But when the youngster arrived at the NTDP in the fall of 2018, he was just 5-foot-7 and 130 pounds. Plus, he was surrounded by other top-end kids from across the country like Beniers, Jake Sanderson and Thomas Bordeleau. If Berard was going to thrive, he would have to add different elements to his game. Luckily, he also had a great new coach in Seth Appert.
"What I unbelievably appreciate that Seth did, is Seth helped define his identity and what he needed to be in order to become a good player at that level and in college," David said. "He worked really hard with Brett in adding those elements to his game. His tenacity and grit were always a part of him, but they didn't always have to come out. Seth brought that out of him and got him to buy in to playing a bit differently."
Now, NHLers such as Brad Marchand, Brendan Gallagher and Brayden Point were focal points and Berard began to embrace his inner thorn.
"It's not always butterflies and rainbows when you're trying to get a kid to do things differently," David said. "Seth is a great coach because he identified those things and got Brett to buy in. What makes me proud as a dad is that Brett was coachable and he understood he had to make changes - and now he's benefitting from the changes he made."
As for Berard choosing Providence College, it was never really a debate - even though David is now in his seventh season as head coach of Holy Cross. Not only did David play at Providence himself, but once Brady gets on campus in a couple years, the whole clan will have been Friars, since mom Lynne also went to school there. The kids grew up going to Providence games and skating at the rink on days they didn't have school, while David also worked with Leaman for a year, so there was a trust factor there.
"I joke with Nate - it was probably the easiest recruiting process he's ever had, getting my kids to go to Providence," David said. "All he had to do was pick up the phone and tell them he wanted them and they were there."
As for a Holy Cross-Providence College Berard Bowl, David says his Crusaders will play anyone, anytime. And he has coached against Brett before when Holy Cross played an exhibition game against the NTDP last season.
"They came to Holy Cross early in the year and it was a really cool experience," he said. "Brett happened to score a couple of goals, including the game-winner with about a minute left. I wasn't too pumped about that, but my wife was really happy."