PHILADELPHIA — You have to look deeper to see the true impact center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare has in the Lightning locker room. An important but often overlooked contributor on good teams for close to a decade, he continues to play that role as he nears his 38th birthday.
When players first join the Lightning, Jon Cooper likes to be one of the first to call them. Typically, he finds himself doing most of the talking as the players try to feel out their new head coach. But when Cooper first spoke with Bellemare two offseasons ago, it was different.
“Usually, the players are a little nervous and listening and not doing a whole lot of talking,” Cooper said. “That was not Bellemare. I think he did more speaking to me than I did to him. So I knew we had a good one on our hands.”
This is just Bellemare’s second season centering the team’s fourth line and playing on the top penalty-kill unit. But he immersed himself in the locker room so quickly, it feels like he’s been wearing a Lightning sweater for much longer. Despite playing in his ninth NHL season, he doesn’t take a single day for granted, which endears him to his teammates.
Bellemare, one of just 12 players born in France to play in the NHL, was celebrated by those teammates Thursday, when he suited up for the 608th game of his career, setting a new record for NHL games played by a French national.
Fittingly, the game was in Philadelphia, where Bellemare began his NHL career as a 29-year-old rookie with the Flyers after first trying to get noticed in Europe.
“I was not going to pay attention and care, just play,” Bellemare said Thursday. “But actually, I’m pretty proud of it, for our country. We’re not a lot of guys that get the privilege to play in this league, so I’m really proud.”
Bellemare took the long road to the NHL. He didn’t have the resources in France, where the premier sport is soccer, not hockey. When he was growing up, there was no pro league. Just getting ice time was a challenge.
He went to Sweden, where he struggled to stand out. But instead of wallowing, he was determined to show that he could persevere despite the obstacles he faced, though it took eight years to get an NHL opportunity.
Since then — from Philadelphia to Vegas to Colorado and Tampa Bay — he’s been a “glue guy,” the type of player teams need to win games.
“I’ve never seen him have a bad day,” said linemate Pat Maroon. “He’s always got a smile on his face. He’s always talking and saying, ‘Good morning everyone,’ and making everyone feel welcome. I think it just goes to show you what kind of guy he is and such a character guy, and I’m super proud of him.
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“It’s an amazing accomplishment. He took the long path, and it finally worked out for him. It just takes that one time and to have someone look at you and get an opportunity. He took full advantage of it, and (Thursday was) a huge milestone for him.”
Bellemare said his circuitous path to the NHL is what made it possible for him reach the milestone.
“You realize that this is something that we’re really lucky to do,” he said. “And instead of coming every day and — because it’s a routine and you get used to it — instead for me it was like, ‘I don’t know how long this is going to be, so I have to enjoy it.’
“Whether it was the first game or the second game of the second year or now my game No. 608, I’m still excited to play the game. So, I think my path made all of this possible. I don’t know if I would have been mature enough when I was 18, 19, 20, 21, or if I would have been good enough to be in this league.”
Thursday’s 4-1 win over the Flyers was like so many throughout Bellemare’s career. He played 12:38, including a team-high 3:08 on the penalty kill. He was remarkable in the faceoff circle (winning 10 of 12 draws), played a big role in the Lightning dominating zone time, blocked two shots and had two hits.
“Actually, the thing I think I admire the most is he himself, just the person,” Cooper said. “What an outstanding human. He’s phenomenal with our young guys, our old guys. He’s got a magnetic personality. And it kind of shows on the ice. He may not be scoring 40 (goals) every year, but he’s probably prevented 40, and he does a lot of the dirty work — that PK work, that checking and big faceoffs in the D zone.
“He’s somebody that every game he plays like it’s his last. He still comes to the room and walks to the lineup board to make sure he’s in. He’s grateful for everything, and to be still playing at his age in what kind of has turned into a young man’s league, it’s pretty impressive. Because you have to look after yourself, especially when you get into your 30s, and he gets the gold star for that.”
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