TAMPA — No one has taken a path to the Lightning locker room quite like Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. And his unique journey is helping the 36-year-old forward establish quick chemistry with his new teammates.
“We’ve seen him for three days and it feels like he’s been here for three years,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said Friday. “That’s how he’s fit in here. The demeanor, the confidence that he carries, it fits well in our room.”
Over the first few days of training camp, Lightning veterans have spoken a lot about the hunger they still have after winning the Stanley Cup in back-to-back years. They welcome a larger bull’s-eye on their backs. After accomplishing what few teams do, they have every reason to believe there is more to celebrate.
“Obviously they’re pretty tight, right?” Bellemare said. “And winning two Cups will make you pretty tight.”
But when you talk about being hungry, Bellemare fits the bill. From the time he began playing hockey at the age of 6, he faced an uphill climb. He grew up in France, where the sport takes a back seat to soccer, tennis and cycling. He was an NHL rookie at the age of 29, only after proving himself playing pro hockey in Sweden for eight seasons.
Bellemare is far from a household name. He’s never been a top-six forward in the league, but he’s done a lot of the dirty work well: playing the penalty kill, stopping pucks, dedicating to the forecheck and hustling to the play. And his teams — whether in France, Sweden or the NHL — often landed in the postseason.
So why not come to a Lightning team that’s played the most postseason games over the past two seasons and won the final game in both? Bellemare may be 36, but he comes to the Lightning’s veteran-laden team with the eagerness of a rookie.
“I’m an older player, obviously, but I will play until the day I stop learning,” Bellemare said. “And coming to this organization, I feel like I’m going to be able to learn something new every day, and this is why I love the game.”
“This team doesn’t need first-line scoring, so I won’t take that spot,” he joked.
Bellemare likely will play on the Lightning’s fourth line, and he’ll play a big role in helping Tampa Bay rebuild its penalty kill unit. Bellemare, who signed a two-year deal with the Lightning in late July, has quickly made an impression on his new team with his work ethic.
Cooper already has singled out Bellemare multiple times for being one of the quickest players on the ice, saying he is skating like he is 26. And Bellemare’s dedication to early work isn’t going unnoticed by younger players.
“Everyone can tell why everywhere he goes, people like him,” forward Mathieu Joseph said. “His work ethic is undeniable, and if you want to replace guys like our third line that we had last year, Belley brings that every night and every practice.”
Bellemare is just one of seven French-born and trained NHL players. Growing up he had a difficult time convincing his family and teachers that making a career out of hockey was possible. His first team in the South of France practiced just once a week, so when his family moved north outside Paris, he was able to play on a team that staged three practices a week.
But it still wasn’t enough to convince those around him he could play professionally. Bellemare’s mother, Frederique, made sure her son finished school and had a plan after hockey.
“They thought this was just a hobby, because at the end of the day, out of 100 players, nobody makes it,” Bellemare said. “...So I don’t blame them.”
Bellemare played for the Rouen Dragons in the top men’s pro League in France as a 17-year-old. He spent five seasons there before pursuing a bigger challenge in Sweden. Away from France for the first time, he learned Swedish, then played in the country’s second-tier league before joining the Swedish Elite League, where he went to four finals and won back-to-back championships in his final two seasons in 2013-14 with Skellefteå AIK.
He signed a free-agent deal with the Flyers after that, played in Philly for three seasons — proving to be a durable, hard-working defenseman — until Vegas plucked Bellemare in the expansion draft. He spent the past two seasons with Colorado. He’s made it to the postseason in five of his past six seasons, including a trip to the final with the Golden Knights in their inaugural season in 2017-18.
Now he hopes to go one step farther alongside teammates who knows what it’s like to raise the Stanley Cup.
“It’s a great group of guys,” Bellemare said. “There’s no surprise why they just won back to back. It’s fun to watch the dedication of the team right away. I’m happy with my decision.”
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