TAMPA — Nearly 15 years ago, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare was ready to quit hockey and return home to his native France. Playing in the Swedish Elite League (now the Swedish Hockey League), the then-21-year-old knew he stuck out in the locker room.
He looked, talked and acted differently from everyone else, and it was starting to wear him down. But a phone call with his mother, Frederique, quickly changed his perspective.
“It came from her to make me understand that, in her words, ‘All those spoiled brats don’t realize how good they have it,’ " Bellemare said.
The conversation turned things around for Bellemare, who went on to make his NHL debut at age 29 in October 2014 with the Flyers, becoming the ninth player born in France in the league. He is currently one of three active players born in France, with the Coyotes’ Antoine Roussel and the Blue Jackets’ Alexandre Texier.
Now 37, Bellemare continues to exhibit his love for the sport as one of the oldest players on the Lightning (forward Corey Perry and goalie Brian Elliott also are 37). As the team chases a third straight Stanley Cup title, Bellemare, signed as a free agent in the offseason, is making an impact even without significant ice time.
He is using his postseason experience — a Stanley Cup final run with Vegas in 2018 and a pair of playoff runs with Colorado — his journey to the NHL and his positive energy to help bring up his teammates in the locker room and on the bench.
“I have a big mouth,” joked Bellemare. “Obviously, some other guys play way more than I do, so I have a bit more energy, first of all. And then, at the end of the day, I’ve had to be positive to be able to reach where I am now.
“I got here at (29) years old, so you don’t get there by being negative and complaining and trying to blame everybody else. So, I’ve understood that I have to be positive, whatever the situation, find positivity in even a difficult time, to be able to learn from it and to go above the hump.”
Bellemare was raised along with four siblings by a single parent in Le Blanc-Mesnil, a suburb of Paris. The family couldn’t afford some hockey luxuries. With ice time difficult to find in France, Bellemare at age 11 would skate on his own for 55 minutes a week before the Zamboni would come out.
When Bellemare played in Sweden, his mother pointed out all the opportunities he had been given: unlimited ice time, use of high-end facilities and meals to stay energized. Most of all, she reminded him it was his job to show those around him that he loved to play, no matter the circumstances.
" ‘Belly’ is inspiring,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “He is the guy that, even if things are looking bleak, he’s always got something positive to say, especially on the bench, and I think that’s where his voice is most heard, is his positivity.
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“And it’s contagious, because … in a 60-minute game, it’s not all roses, and you have a chance to maybe bow your head and start kicking the can. Belly’s there to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Bellemare said it didn’t take him long after arriving in Tampa Bay to find his voice on the veteran-laden squad.
“I’ve been riding this, and I’ve realized that every team I’ve played with, it doesn’t matter if you’re second (tier), French national team, NHL, back-to-back winning contender, it doesn’t really matter,” he said. “You get satisfied at times, and you forget about how good you have it, right? And you just have to look and see people who don’t have it as good as you.
“And then you come into the rink and you’re positive, so I try to come every day thinking I’m lucky, and that’s how the big mouth came up. So then with that and being one of the older guys, I don’t give a heck if I say something wrong, and that’s what it is.”
Bellemare’s voice is ever present. Linemate Perry hears it when he’s going back for a puck and Bellemare is shouting what’s behind or on either side of him. It also can be heard on the top penalty-killing unit.
Bellemare also uses his voice to lift up his teammates when they need it most.
Such was the case with the Lightning facing possible elimination in Game 6 of the opening-round playoff series against the Maple Leafs, forward Alex Killorn said. With the score tied at 3 at the end of regulation, Bellemare went up and down the bench, encouraging his teammates that they were still in the fight, telling them that their season wasn’t over.
Through the first 11 playoff games, Bellemare has a pair of goals, including one winner, nine shots on goal and four penalty minutes. His average ice time of 10:38 is third lowest on the team.
But his voice has made the biggest difference.
“(I’m) trying to make sure that if I’m not on the ice and I can’t affect the play by helping the team this way, I’m just trying to be as positive as I can on the bench so that it becomes contagious,” he said.
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