Merci, Montréal


It’s hard to know exactly when my love for soccer started. I was around four or five when my father first put me into club soccer, but I know I had also played soccer  in the basement with my mother when I was three — at least that’s what everyone tells me.

My parents have always played an important role in my development. They emigrated from Haiti to Canada before I was born.

One thing about Haitians is that they’re big fans of Brazilian soccer — the yellow jerseys, the blue shorts, the white socks. My father used to tell me about the team of 1970, about Pele, and how good he was.

He also had these VHS tapes he would show me of past World Cups, of all the greats, Marco van Basten, Johan Cruyff, Maradona. I would sit in front of our Zenith TV — it was this big square box with a frame made of wood — and I would try to study these great players. He still has those tapes somewhere, those moments in time.

I used to dream of playing in a World Cup. And after I saw Canada participate in 1986, when I was six years old, I was convinced that I could one day do it. I would try so hard to recreate what I had seen during that World Cup,  and on those tapes, but my reality back then was humble.

We didn’t have the indoor fields like the kids have now. We would play in converted hockey rinks and they would take the ice out. It made the floor slippery and dusty, and there were no indoor soccer shoes at that time. You just played in the sneakers you had.

I remember our coaches used to pour Coke on the floor, and you’d stomp your feet in the puddles of Coke so your shoes would get sticky, and you could run easier.

Patrice Bernier

It was around then that my life became hectic. I started soccer around four or five, and a year later I began playing hockey. Sometimes I’d play both on the same day, going from a hockey tournament in the morning to a soccer tournament in the afternoon, or the opposite. It was a 365-day routine.

I always had a soft spot for soccer though. I owe that to hearing the stories told by my father and my uncles. They would all get together and talk about Brazil, about what they had seen on TV or heard on the radio. Those tales filled my mind with soccer, with the passion  — with the hope  — of one day being a professional.

Even though I enjoyed soccer, I also liked playing with my friends. Every Friday I had to train with the Quebec provincial soccer team. I hated it because I had to go straight from school to training, which meant that I couldn’t go play with my friends .

One day I told my mother,  “Nah, I don’t feel like going.” And she told me, “You know, your friends would wish to have the opportunities that you have. They wouldn’t waste it just saying they want to play with their friends.” From then on I never missed a Friday, even though I didn’t fully grasp the greater meaning behind her words.  

At 12 or 13, like I was then, you disregard what your parents say sometimes, but they’re giving you life lessons.

I’d say I fully understood her words once I played in the 1995 World Cup with the Canadian U-17s. I realized — playing against Brazil, Germany and Oman — that those kids were the same age as me, but when I looked at the game sheet it said “Sao Paulo” or “Bayern Munich” next to their names. But next to mine it said “amateur club soccer, Brossard.”

Everyone knows Sao Paulo and Bayern Munich, but no one knows about Brossard, Quebec. That’s when I realized — I’m playing against some of the world’s best young players, and I’m holding my own. I have the chance to do something big, and pursue the dream all of my friends from club soccer had.

From the age of 13 I got used to not being at home, whether it was for hockey or soccer, in Canada or abroad. That meant when it came time to move to Syracuse, New York, to play college soccer full time it was not a big shock to my system.

Deep down, I know my father would have preferred for me to play hockey and chase the dream of the NHL. In Montreal hockey is like a religion, and I know he wanted me to be like P.K. Subban before the era of P.K. Subban, but that wasn’t the path for me. And I know as I look back that he’s proud of the choice I made.

They say sometimes parents live through their kids, and for my father I think that is true. His generation didn’t play sports — you went to school to get a real career. Sports was seen as the pursuit of peasants.

I think that’s why he supported me through sports — because his father didn’t support him— because sports back then was not seen as a way out. He allowed me to pursue my dream, but I think it was his dream also.

Eventually I came back to Montreal to play with the Montreal Impact in the A-League, but I still wanted to push myself, to show I could be better.

It was then my father got a phone call from someone who said they could help me play in Europe. I was offered a seven day trial with Moss FK, in Norway. The team had just dropped down from the Tippeligaen, which was then Norway’s top division.

This didn’t feel like anything I had experienced before. Now I was in a foreign country, with foreign players. I was lucky that in Syracuse that I had my friends and family just a few hours away. We could plan for long holidays like Thanksgiving, or they could come see me play on weekends. It hit me very quickly that home was now one or two flights away from me.

Europe, and in particular Moss FK, represented so many unknowns for me. I hadn’t grow up in an academy or a formation center and suddenly I was playing against guys that saw soccer as everything. They got to play it every day all year long. I was managing soccer in the summertime, hockey in the wintertime. I had so many questions. Was I good enough to start? Could I make it?

At first I was a bit raw tactically, but I knew I was just as good if not better than some of the players. After a few days they told me they wanted to sign me, and so began my almost-decade-long adventure in Europe.

Ronald Wittek/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Im

Even though I was absent from Montreal for so long, it was never away from my mind. These were the days before FaceTime, when the Internet still had a dial tone.

Living alone, it gives you a lot of time to think. You wonder about, What if I wasn’t here? What if I was back home, with my friends, my family. You wonder what they are doing with their life. You don’t see them at school, you don’t see them on the weekend. You don’t get to see your nieces and nephews grow up. But you sacrificed that to be a professional so you have to accept it.

On the pitch, things went well. I moved to Tromsö in the top division and I gained a reputation as being one of the better players in the Norwegian league, that’s when I attracted interest from abroad.

During  the 2005 Gold Cup, I was traveling to Seattle with the Canadian national team when my agent called me. “Beşiktaş will look to put in a bid for you,” he said.

A bid? I’m a North American kid from Brossard, Quebec. A bid, money, value — those concept were foreign to me.

Then the number came in — 10 million Norwegian krone. Wow. I wasn’t making that much in salary — not even close. I had joined Tromsö for something like 100,000 Canadian dollars. Now I was worth 1.3 million euros? It doesn’t matter what currency it is, when you hear 10 million, you know it is a lot.

I dreamed about what it would mean for my career. Maybe, in the future I would end up moving to Spain, or England, or Italy. Then there are famous stadiums I could play in, the one-of-a-kind atmospheres, all these potential new experiences. In the end, Beşiktaş decided to sign the Brazilian midfielder Kléberson, a World Cup winner no less, and so my dreams remained just that.

Thankfully, I would get to feel those big occasions at my next club, Kaiserslautern. There I stood in the Allianz Arena, back then the home of both Bayern Munich and 1860 Munich, and the stadium was full. I felt like I was in one of those tapes my father had shown me as a child. The noise, the energy, the passion. Your life was no longer about just training and going home. The people watched you every day, where you went, what you did, it was like nothing I had experienced before.

My mistake in Germany was that I settled. I thought I had arrived, that I’d made it, when I should have been trying to improve, pushing myself toward the top league.

I then moved to FC Nordsjælland in Denmark. It’s only after you leave a place that you realize what you left behind, and that was true here. Every player wants the ball. And our team? We liked to play with the ball. I’d say we had like 60% of the possession most games. And by the time I left I could play blind on that team because I always knew where my teammates were. It was a young team, but an exciting team. I spent three happy years there, winning two Danish Cups. When I left I was into my 30s, I felt seasoned — I guess you could even say refined  — by Europe.

I wasn’t really thinking about coming home to Montreal. In football, though, timing is everything.  I was always back in the city during my time off, and I had heard of their desire to move from the NASL to MLS. I remember Jesse Marsch, the team’s head coach, calling me to say he wanted to get a coffee and talk. I thought O.K., but who knows what will come of it?

Things transpired slowly, but I knew it was the right moment to return. When I signed with the Montreal Impact in December 2011, I came back a high-level player and now the club was at a higher level too. I was one of the few Canadian players on the team, and one of the only players with a history at the club. People had not really seen me play, except for some Europa League games and on occasion with the national team. I thought now was my chance to come back, to help the club that I’d started with and carry that flag with pride and honor. I had the chance to show every weekend what I was about, and how good players from here could be.

We won two Canadian Championships, but my memories are my greatest trophies. Prior to the 2014 season I was made captain, but as I stepped out onto the pitch before our game against Toronto in 2016 — my two daughters on either side of me — I realized how much this club had grown.

When I started my career, the thought of sampling that same World Cup atmosphere in Montreal was but a dream. But you, the fans of the Impact, made it a reality for me.

To have your respect meant so much to me, and to be recognized by Thierry Henry was also special.

It was my friend who told me, “Patrice, did you see what Thierry said about you? He said the key to the team is not Nesta, not Di Vaio, but Patrice Bernier.”

“Wow, I can put that on my gravestone,” I told my friend.

To be respected by a World Cup winner, by one of the faces of MLS, and be complimented, not for who I am as a person, or what I mean to Montreal, but what I do on the field alongside marquee players like Nesta and Di Vaio, that was special.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press/ZUMAPRE

And in 2008 I even got to share the same field as the Brazil team I had idolized when I was growing. I’ve been very fortunate in my career.

Those moments will no doubt make me nostalgic during my retirement, and it is why the decision to end my playing career was not an easy one. But I am sure it is the right one. I was determined to go out while I still felt strong. I did not want to be in a position where the game finishes you. Last year, I sat down with our president, Mr. Saputo, and we agreed that this would be my final season with the club. We started well, and I thought, Maybe I can go one more year. But I know this is the right time to leave.

My future is already decided. I always wanted to stay as close to the pitch as possible, and coaching in the club’s academy will allow me to do that. Make no mistake, just like in my playing career, I want to be the best. I will teach the next generation in the hope they can make the most of the opportunities they have and achieve more than I did. I already tell them not to waste a day, just like my mother told me.

Now is the time, however, to focus only on the present. Sunday is my last day as a professional player in Montreal. From boy to man, the Impact has helped me achieve the dream that started in front of my parent’s TV. As I take to the field one last time, just before the whistle blows, I will think about all those who helped me get to this moment.

My father, who you could say implanted the dream to play soccer in my head, and who nurtured it with learning and allowed me to play club soccer.

My mother, who gave me common sense. She was the more direct one, telling me I was wasting things. My parents instilled the drive in me to never be satisfied, that there was always more.

My wife Mélisa, my rock. You left behind a career, a family and a comfortable life here in Montreal so I could pursue my dream and a career in professional soccer. Through thick and thin, you saw me grow both as an athlete and a man. You believed in me and supported me throughout. From being kids to having kids, our journey has blossomed over these 20 years.

And then there are my childhood friends, my brothers. They made me better every day, because every day was a battle to be the best on the field, to reach our dreams.

Still to this day we play with each other, we nutmeg each other, we have banter. Together we went to that park dreaming we could be the next Roberto Baggio, Romário, or Ronaldo, and so as this last game approaches they are kind of living it with me.

Every time I came back from my professional seasons in Europe, I’d play with them. Still to this day we have an after-Christmas tradition where we play small-sided tournaments — they are what what binds us.

These people, and so many more, helped this little boy live the dream he saw on that Zenith television, so as I turn this page of my life and go back to the real world, I say quite simply, Thank you.

Au revoir.


Patrice Bernier