Sunday Feature Classics – Michel Briere

Now that the Pittsburgh Penguins are out of the running for the NHL’s Stanley Cup play offs, and it seems their two most recent draught darlings may be in the waning years of their respective glories, may be it is time to look back on a young Pens player who could have turned out to be Pittsburgh’s first home grown favourite.


Of all the Sunday Features, this one was one of my faves. Definitely top five for me, but probably not top three due to it being so poorly written. As all may have noticed from the posting of the Denis Lemieux Sunday Feature, it seems I saved a very small few, having just found them on my computer. I’ve tried to present this one here in its original format. I hope all enjoy this blast from the past days of the HockeyNewsChat blog.

Michel Briere

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Each Sunday, we have looked at a player, who, for various reasons, was not able to get his hands on the most coveted punch bowl in all of sport. Most of these players had stellar careers and achieved great personal success and wealth but were somehow let down by their teams. Then, there are the players whose hockey paths, and sometimes lives, were cut sadly short. Most fans don’t know the story behind that other sweater hanging from the rafters of the Consol Centre, next to Mario’s.

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Michel Edouard Brière (October 21, 1949 – April 13, 1971) played one season in the National Hockey League. Following his rookie season with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Brière was involved in a car accident in which he suffered major head trauma. After multiple brain surgeries and 11 months in a coma, he died as a result of his injuries at the age of 21. A young man by the name of Michel Briere seemed certain to be headed for stardom as a hockey player in the NHL. As a junior in Quebec, Briere’s charismatic style, both on and off the ice dazzled hockey fans wherever he played. He was a magician with the puck. The kind of player that lifted people out of their seats in anticipation of his next move. He was an excellent puck handler, passer and shooter. He could skate effortlessly and never seemed to lose a draw on a face off.

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Briere was selected in the third round 26th overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1969 NHL Amateur Draft and would have gone much higher but for his somewhat diminutive stature. During his final year as a junior, he scored 75 goals and 86 assists for 161 points for the Shawinigan Falls Bruins of the QMJHL. He was also selected as an add-on player for the QMJHL champion Sorel Blackhawks for the 1969 Memorial Cup series against the Montreal Junior Canadiens, who at the time were playing out of the Ontario League. Montreal, with the likes of Rejean Houle and Marc Tardif leading the way, won the series, but Briere was acknowledged as the premiere performer for the Hawks and scored two goals in their only win. The previous year, Briere scored 54 goals and 105 points in 50 games for the Bruins. In 1968 he was chosen to the QMJHL Second All-Star Team and he was a First Team selection in 1969.

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According to the Penguins’ general manager Jack Riley, during the contract negotiations with Brière prior to the 1969–70 season “He asked for a bigger bonus and said, ‘I’m going to be here for 20 years..”

On November 1, 1969, Brière scored his first NHL goal against the Minnesota North Stars’ goaltender Ken Broderick. He would go on to score 12 goals and 32 assists, to finish third in the team scoring with 44 points.

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The professional hockey chapter of his life began well. He made the Penguins roster as a 20-year-old rookie in 1969-70, scoring 12 goals and 44 points in 76 games. He was named the team’s rookie of the year, and by all accounts, most NHL observers felt he was going to be a future star in the league for many years to come, being mentioned with other such rookie phenoms as Bobby Clarke and Tony Esposito.

During the quarterfinals of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Brière scored the first overtime goal in Penguins’ history on April 12, 1970, by scoring the game-winner, and series clincher, against the Oakland Seals at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena. The sweep of the Seals was also the first playoff series victory for the Penguins’ franchise.

While Brière helped lead the Penguins to the second round of the NHL playoffs, the team finished two victories short of the Stanley Cup final, by losing to the St. Louis Blues in the semifinals. During the playoffs, Brière led the team in scoring with eight points, which included five goals and three assists. Three of his five goals were game-winners.

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Despite being named the Penguins’ rookie of the year, Brière received no votes for the Calder Memorial Trophy, which was won by Chicago Black Hawks’ goaltender Tony Esposito. At this time, many scouts were predicting that Brière would develop into a top NHL player.

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After the playoffs, Brière returned to Quebec to marry his childhood sweetheart Michele Beaudoin, the couple had a son, Michel. They were to be married on June 6, 1970.

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However, the dream life turned into a tragic nightmare on May 15, 1970. While driving with two friends near his hometown of Malartic, making preparations for his wedding that summer, the Briere vehicle was involved in a horrific car crash, which threw him clear of the orange 1970 Mercury Cougar along Route 117 in Val-d’Or, 70 miles from his hometown of Malartic. The other two occupants survived the crash, but suffered multiple fractures. When emergency crews arrived on the scene, they found Briere unconscious, some distance from the car. “He was in the back seat,” Penguins coach Red Kelly recalled. “There wasn’t even a mark on him. But he was thrown out, and there was damage to his brain.” But there would be yet another tragedy associated with the crash on that fateful rainy evening. On the way to transporting the severely injured Briere to hospital in Val D’Or, the ambulance transporting him struck and killed an 18-year-old pedestrian, a young man by the name of Raymond Perreault of Malartic. Suffering from major head trauma, Briere was flown 300 miles to Notre Dame Hospital in Montreal, where a leading neurosurgeon performed the first of four brain surgeries. Brière was given a prognosis that gave him a 50–50 chance of living.

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Brière was transferred to Montreal’s Marie-Clarac Rehabilitation Hospital on March 27, 1971. While Brière was hospitalised, the Penguins started pre-season conditioning near Brantford, Ontario. Then-trainer Ken Carson added Brière’s name to the back of a sweater, which, along with Brière’s equipment bag, travelled with the team for their entire 1970–71 season.

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Briere lay in a coma for seven weeks before showing signs of consciousness. The owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Donald H. Parsons, told the Briere family that he would provide lifetime financial security for Briere, if he was unable to resume his hockey career. He remained in a twilight condition, between consciousness and unconsciousness for close to a year and underwent four operations before dying of his injuries on April 13, 1971 at the age of 21. The Penguins finished the regular season at home on April 4, 1971 and missed the playoffs. Nine days later, after 11 months in a coma, Brière died at 4:20 p.m. Six members of the Penguins, including general manager Jack Riley, equipment manager Ken Carson and coach Red Kelly, attended the funeral outside Montreal. A memorial service was held in St. Paul’s Cathedral in Pittsburgh, in which most of the team officials and some players attended.

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Brière’s number 21 was not retired immediately by the team, however no one ever wore it again. A framed sweater hung in the Igloo Club, located inside the Pittsburgh Civic Arena, with his photo, as the only visible sign of the number was retired. According to Carson “No one ever asked to wear that number (21). If they had, I would have told them Mike’s story.” Brière’s number was officially retired on January 5, 2001; just nine days after Penguins’ co-owner Mario Lemieux came out of retirement to once again wear his number 66. Brière and Mario Lemieux are the only two players in Penguins’ history to have their numbers retired.

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Coach Red Kelly once said a goal by Briere is one which he’d always remember. It was a game against the St. Louis Blues. “Michel was going over the blue line and he put a shift on the defenceman, who took the fake and started going to his right,” Kelly recalled. “Jacques Plante went for the fake too, even though Michel just crossed the blue line and he shot the puck in the open side of the net. That’s how elusive he was on the ice.”Jack Riley, the Penguins general manager at the time, has his own memories of Briere. “When we tried to sign him, he wanted more bonus money.” The extra money was an additional $1,000 on top of the basic $5,000 offered as a signing bonus. “It’s not really that much extra money, because I’ll be playing for the Penguins for the next 20 years” Riley recalled Briere telling him.

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Red Kelly still has still has a stick autographed by Briere at his home in Mississauga, Ontario.

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The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League renamed its MVP award the Michel Brière Memorial Trophy in 1972. The Pittsburgh Penguins also present the Michel Brière Rookie of the Year Award annually to the season’s best rookie player.

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