TORONTO – Among the many stars, fleeting paparazzi and widespread shimmer of the Hollywood scene was sheer anonymity for the former backup goaltender of the Los Angeles Kings.
Jonathan Bernier was but a blip on the glitzy California radar, but now in his first season in Toronto, he finds himself squarely in the spotlight. One half of the Leafs' standout goaltending tandem, the 25-year-old has raced out to a quick start with the new opportunity, posting a .933 save percentage in his first 10 games.
Born 30 minutes outside of Montreal in nearby Laval, Quebec, Bernier knows a thing or two about the intensity and pressures of a furious hockey market. Speaking to the Leaf Report on Thursday afternoon, he detailed his adjustment to life in the spotlight, life with a new team and goalie coach, and starting on a regular basis.
What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
LR: I'm wondering what the difference is off the ice in coming to Toronto. You're coming from a place in L.A. where it's not the same intensity as here. What's that been like, that process of coming to a hockey market per se?
BERNIER: It's definitely an adjustment because in L.A., you'd be out on the street and no one knows who you are. Even the greatest players, [Anze] Kopitar and Dustin Brown, they'll maybe get recognized once in a while. [But] here, you have a good game, next day you go out for breakfast or whatever and everyone's happy for you. People are very respectful and that's the one thing I found right away is they'll come and say 'congrats' or 'good game', but they're very respectful and that's a great thing.
LR: Did the first time it happened catch you off guard?
BERNIER: I heard about it [before I came here]; guys told me about it. And obviously coming from a big city like Montreal as well, I knew how [their players] deal with the fans outside the rink so I was expecting that a little bit.
LR: So just going back to L.A., you could go out to dinner and walk down the street and just nothing?
BERNIER: Nothing. I'd say after the Cup [in 2012], people kind of knew who we were [in the area] where we lived, but if we'd go downtown or Hollywood, there's no chance.
LR: So what's the strangest thing that someone's said to you here?
BERNIER: I haven't got any good stories yet (laughs).
LR: Do you like the change?
BERNIER: Yeah, it's a good change. I think it keeps you focused on hockey. You don't want to have a bad game because then the next day, you're going to hear about it (laughs).
LR: You understand the market in Montreal, how do you think the two are similar?
BERNIER: I think they're very similar. The [cities are] both supporting the team. I think for me though speaking French and being in Montreal, I think it'd be a lot harder just because you have two sessions of media pretty much (laughs).
LR: When a player comes to this kind of market, what are the adjustments required just to be ready for that kind of stuff?
BERNIER: I found there is pressure, but pressure, you put that on yourself. If you don't really focus on what's going on on TV and radio and internet, I don't find [that it adds pressure]. Maybe [that's] because right now we're having success – we have a good record – but maybe if it would be the opposite, maybe I'd say a different thing. But so far I haven't found that it's that hard. Like I said, you just put pressure on yourself so it's all about how much pressure you want to put on you.
LR: Well, I would imagine it doesn't really change your focus. Your focus would have to be the same regardless.
BERNIER: Yeah, exactly. I think even in L.A., among the guys, we were putting that much pressure on ourselves and the GM and coaches. It's kind of the same way here. We try to stay away from the media pressure and just focus on ourselves and our team and just make sure we're ready every game.
LR: You told me last week about the focus that's required mentally playing more often. Has it helped? Does it help you be a better goalie when you know you're playing more often?
BERNIER: You mean from the pressure?
LR: No, just in terms of your preparation in being ready to play. I would imagine in some situations in L.A., it's difficult when you go a couple weeks and you haven't played and you've got to get back in there and play well. Has it been like you thought it would be?
BERNIER: I think it's easier mentally just because the reason is you're happy and you don't get off into negative thoughts and things like that. So I think if you stay positive and just keep working hard, then you're having fun. I think as a hockey player or any sport, if you're having fun, usually you'll have success. I think that was the thing in L.A.; sometimes I was getting frustrated in not playing. But at the same time, here, it's fun. We have a great group of guys, we're winning right now and it's a big snowball.
LR: And I can imagine the worst thing is if you had an off-night and you don't get to start for a while it's just got to burn you?
BERNIER: Yeah. And that's something that I had to learn my first year is not to worry about the result of the game, more focusing on my game. Because then you start worrying if you don't win, then you're not going to play for another two, three weeks and you have to think about that loss. I think I got better [at that] as the years went along. That was something I was really focusing on was just focusing on myself and not the result.
LR: Has there been any adjustment working with a different goalie coach? Has he changed things?
BERNIER: No. Rick [St. Croix] is really good. He'll just try to give me some tools, but at the same time, it's not something that he's going to say 'you have to do this'. He's just going to let me know 'hey if you want to do this in a game or in practice, work on that and if you feel comfortable do it'. But the one thing I really like is I think he watched a lot of video and probably heard about my style and he adjusted to that. He knows when I feel comfortable with my depth and things like that. Obviously it's still new, but we're starting to get a good chemistry between him and I.
LR: So is that your depth in the net?
BERNIER: That was just an example. It can be how I played the puck, make quicker decisions or things like that. But I can tell that he watched video and saw when I was on my game what I was doing right.
LR: And that's what James [Reimer] told me, I remember last year, that Rick's not the kind of guy who's going to say you have to do this, he's going to look at what you do and say we can do this.