- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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MONTREAL -- He turns 36 on Sunday but by the looks of him these days, it's as if Daniel Briere has turned back the clock.
Call it motivation. Call it being healthy. Call it being re-energized by a fresh start. But the former Philadelphia Flyers and Buffalo Sabres forward was Zen on Monday as he sat in his practice facility stall on the eve of the NHL season opener against the Toronto Maple Leafs and discussed an exciting new chapter in his career.
The day is finally here. The native of Gatineau, Quebec, will slip on hockey's most famous uniform, one which he wore as a child pretending to be Mats Naslund or Mario Tremblay.
"It's the date that I've focused on ever since I signed, Oct. 1 -- my first game as a Hab," Briere told ESPN.com with a smile. "I think waking up tomorrow I'll probably have a little extra jump in my step."
He's hungry to prove he's still got lots of high-end hockey left in him. He put up only 16 points (6-10) in 34 games last season in Philadelphia, his NHL season delayed by a broken wrist he suffered in his last game in Berlin, Germany, just before the lockout ended.
"I was behind the eight ball after that," Briere said. "You're playing catch-up hockey. And then I got hit with a concussion late in the year. It was just one of those years that you chalk up as a bad year, an off year, and I've got lots to prove this year."
The slowdown in Briere's production prompted the Flyers to buy out the remaining two years of his deal, jettisoning him to the open market.
"I never thought I'd have another chance to be a free agent," Briere said. "And the response from all the teams around the league, I was flattered. Especially after a tougher year last season."
He was a free agent six summers ago as well, spurning an offer from the Habs to sign an eight-year, $52 million deal with the Flyers.
Briere's public admission that the Canadiens were runner-up in their bid for him that summer caused the Habs faithful to turn on him and the boos were vociferous for the first few seasons he would come to play at the Bell Centre.
"The one regret that I have is being a little bit too honest publicly in explaining my decision," Briere said. "But it was my way to show respect to the Canadiens organization to show how great they were in making every effort to sign me. But I was wrong, I shouldn't have said anything. You learn from that. But this time around, when the opportunity came again, this is the one place I wanted to be, it's the one place I wanted to play."
And that, despite the treatment he got here as a visiting Flyer, is the reason he wanted to sign in Montreal.
"Whatever happened with being booed here, that never took away from how I've always felt, the Montreal Canadiens were my childhood team, a place that I dreamed one day I'd have a chance to play in," he said.
Habs fan growing up? You better believe it.
"I grew up with the Nordiques-Canadiens rivalry and you were either a Blue or a Red -- I was a Red," said Briere with a chuckle.
That he admired both Naslund and Tremblay seems fitting. He's got some of Naslund's offensive creativity but also a sprinkle of Tremblay's edge. Briere hasn't been shy to show the end of his stick to marauding opponents trying to take advantage of his 5-foot-9, 174-pound frame.
"At times yes," he smiled sheepishly when asked about his occasional nasty side. "I guess it was my way of surviving against the giants. You have to show you're not going to just bow down and let them run you over all the time. There's a few gestures maybe that you wish you could take back, but overall, it's worked out pretty well."
It's also why so many people have admired him during his career in Buffalo and Philadelphia.
"He's a gamer, he's a hockey player through and through," said a rival NHL team executive Monday when asked about Briere. "I'd take him. He brings it. Sure at his age you don't want to overpay him, but I think Montreal did well to get him for just two years, but I've always liked him. There's something about him. The only thing I'd say though is that Montreal has a lot of guys his size. But he could be special again."
Healthy again and eager to prove himself, Briere may wind up being a bargain for the Habs with his $8 million, two-year contract. For one, GM Marc Bergevin was able to limit the term.
Briere (who by the way prefers being called Daniel as opposed to Danny) began to show chemistry late in the preseason on a line with Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais. Briere's two assists in the preseason finale Thursday night against Ottawa were both a thing of beauty.
"He's got a ton of skill, he's had a lot of success in this league," Pacioretty said Monday after practice. "I've already learned a lot from playing with him.
"He's definitely energized, you can tell, coming to a new organization and getting a fresh start."
But it's not just his on-ice contributions. Briere has left admirers in both Buffalo and Philadelphia, his character appreciated in the room.
"Just a real good person," Dallas Stars head coach Lindy Ruff, who coached Briere in Buffalo, told ESPN.com. "One of the best scorers I have had. One of the best players from behind the net. Should be a good fit in Montreal. A real good power-play guy."
Telling of a player's worth is his playoff impact. Since 2005, Briere has 48 playoffs goals, second only to Henrik Zetterberg's 52; Briere's 12 game-winning goals during that same span are tied for a league high with Johan Franzen.
"He's a big-game player," former Flyers teammate Claude Giroux told ESPN.com via text message. "I wish him nothing but the best there."
In the end, the only downside at all in his decision to come home to his native province is that his three boys aren't with him, they're back in Philadelphia living with his ex-wife.
"That's part of the decision that was tough, being away from them, but we found a way to make it work and they'll be here as well once in a while," Briere said.
Then Briere's face brightened.
"But let me tell you, they were really excited when they found out I was signing here. They understand the history of this team. They're really happy, they think it's great. Really, it's all worked out."
Daniel Briere gets a chance to live out his childhood dream by playing his first game as a Montreal Canadien, writes Pierre LeBrun.