A goodbye at home for Patrice Bernier, the Montreal Impact's native son

An athlete’s career doesn’t always have a fairy-tale ending, and that ending doesn’t always come on the athlete’s own terms.

Some are pressured into retirement. Some are hobbled by injury. Some simply no longer have it.

For Patrice Bernier, the end is Sunday, when the captain of the Montreal Impact will play his final game at Saputo Stadium in the city’s east end before he retires.

Bernier, 38, grew up in Brossard, across the St. Lawrence River from Montreal. He’s been a professional soccer player for 18 seasons, and for the last six, he’s played for his hometown team in front of hometown crowds.

He’s not calling this a fairy-tale ending, but he knows that as far as finales go, he’s lucky.

“I have a chance to finish at home. Not many players have a chance to finish and finish the way that they want,” he said.

A love for soccer

Born in Quebec to Haitian parents, Bernier was a two-sport athlete as a child. His father was a soccer fan and imparted his zeal to his son.

But his dad also knew that Canada is hockey country and believed his son would have a better chance at becoming a professional athlete if he stuck to hockey.

Bernier excelled at both sports, and even played in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. But in the end, he chose soccer, seduced by the huge crowds and stadiums he saw on television.

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Patrice Bernier dreamed of playing professional soccer as a child, while dribbling balls across fields in Brossard. (Submitted by Patrice Bernier)

He credits his father for instilling his passion, and his mother, for his drive.

“I didn’t like going on Fridays to the Quebec provincial team ’cause I couldn’t go and play with my friends. I had to go to Montreal and train, and I was already a few years younger than most players. But she told me, ‘The opportunities that you will have, your friends will probably wish to have that,'” he said.

He got his start in professional soccer with the Impact as a midfielder in 2000, back when it was part of the A-league, which featured teams from the U.S. and Canada.

After three seasons, he made the leap to Europe, where he spent nine years playing in Norway, for Kaiserlautern in second division in Germany, and in Denmark.

Patrice Bernier

Olympiacos Paraskevas Antzas, left, and FC Nordsjaellands Patrice Bernier fight for the ball during their UEFA Cup first round, first leg football match in Copenhagen on Sept. 16, 2008. Olympiacos won 2-0. (Jens Nørgaard Larsen/AFP/Getty Images)

There, he was playing against teams and players he would use to watch on television, he said.

He was tested — the culture shock, the loneliness of being thousands of kilometres away from his girlfriend, family and friends, and the soccer — but he was living his dream.

The local boy’s return

In 2011, the revamped Impact came calling. The team was making a leap of its own, into Major League Soccer, and it wanted Bernier to come home and play.

Bernier was still under contract in Europe and figured he would return home when he felt he was done overseas. He didn’t want to be the token “local boy,” he said at the time.

But then-Impact coach Jesse Marsch travelled to Denmark, where Bernier was playing at the time, to sell him his vision for the team.

“I realized that when I left the club was in A-League or NASL, and now it’s going to MLS. I was 32. I was in the prime of my career, so I realized it would be better to come back knowing that you can perform, and you can help the club, and you can show that you still play,” he said.

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Bernier, centre, poses for a photo with his new Impact threads flanked by then-Impact coach Jesse Marsch and sporting director Nick DeSantis, after signing with the team in 2011. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

He signed with the club, becoming the first bilingual, local product to sign for the 2012 season. Nick De Santis, who was sporting director at the time, called him one of the best players in Quebec soccer history.

But his return wasn’t without turmoil. Not long into the 2012 campaign, Marsch benched Bernier. He wasn’t playing, and he was second-guessing his decision.

“I’m telling myself, ‘I had a contract I could have [stayed in Europe] and kept on going longer,’ so now you’re actually questioning yourself: should I leave? Should I go back? Because this is not what I set out to do.”

The captain

Things eventually straightened themselves out. He called the inaugural season, especially the second half, “fantastic,”  and was named the team’s most valuable player.

In 2014, he became the Impact’s second team captain, a “big honour,” he said. While he was in Europe, he was vice-captain of a few of his teams, but he felt that as a foreigner, his chances of ascending to captain were not great.

The team had a captain born in Montreal and playing for Montreal. Even now, he says he find it hard to believe.

“When you’re a kid, you want to play, you want to score and you want to be the captain of the team, and I got to do that — to finish off my career as captain of my own team,” he said.

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Bernier celebrates after scoring against the Toronto FC during first half of a sudden death playoff game in Montreal Oct. 29, 2015. He says this moment was the best of his Impact career. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

When he first arrived in Montreal, he tried not to pay too much attention to what people were saying about him. But he says, at some point he realized what it meant to Quebecers to have a native son playing on their team.

He realized he represented the club and Quebec soccer in general, and for those reasons, he decided to stay here.

“I kind of took it on as a motivation to perform better, to never give up.”

The finale

The Impact is asking fans to share their Bernier memories on social media using the hashtag #8ERNIER, a reference to his jersey number.

The team will honour Bernier during the final game of the season, against the New England Revolution.

After playing his final game against Toronto FC last week, he said it started to sink in that the end is nigh. He and the team had a little postgame Twitter exchange.

Bernier holds club records in a number of categories, including games played and penalty-kick goals. He was also a mainstay on Canada’s national teams, playing 53 games.

With his retirement approaching, Bernier has been forced to talk, a lot, about his legacy. The question still gives him pause.

He eschews lofty words like pioneer. His request is simple — he wants to be remembered as a very good soccer player.

“That’s what I wanted to do. That’s what I wanted to be. And that’s what I was able to establish playing at the Montreal Impact and in this league.”

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