HE KNEW THIS would be the toughest part. When Paul Holmgren called Danny Briere into his office last summer for the meeting both realized was inevitable, the popular center knew he would have to find a new team and a new town, and he knew that meant leaving the three boys who so sustained his spirit through times triumphant and trying over his six seasons with the Flyers.
So yesterday, as reporters peppered him with shots about pending emotions playing against his old team in his old town, the only time his voice seemed to wilt was when he spoke about sleeping in his own bed the night before, and about having the boys with him for at least one night of what may be, just 22 games into it, the most trying season of a career that began just before the first one was born.
Now Caelen is 15 and Carson is 14 and even the baby, Cameron, who was being introduced to Briere's new teammates during the morning skate yesterday, is entering that emotionally trying era known as adolescence.
"I see them and it seems they get taller and bigger every time," Briere said. "And they're at the age where they are changing so much, being teens. That's the tough part being away. Sometimes you feel responsible for not being there all the time. But they get it. And they've been good about it."
The boys still live with their mother, Briere's ex-wife, in South Jersey. Still have their longtime friends, their lives uninterrupted. Really, they are doing better than the old man is, who would undoubtedly still be wearing orange and black if not for his injury-marred, disastrous, 2012-2013 season, and the salary-cap relief opportunity the most recent NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement provided.
The Flyers shaved $6.5 million off their team salary by opting for the compliance buyout. Briere understood it then, and understands it now. "They're great people top to bottom in the organization and all I have is respect," he said again. "It's the business side of hockey and it was dealt with in the last CBA and it was their right. They didn't do anything behind anyone's back and they handled it with class."
Translation: I'm going to need a job when my career ends. Signed to a 2-year, $8 million deal before the season by Montreal - the team he grew up supporting as a child - Briere has kept the Haddonfield home that served as temporary housing for teenage teammates like Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier, allowing an easier transition to big city life and the pressure associated with playing NHL hockey.
That alone would make last night momentous and emotionally draining. Throw in a video tribute followed by a standing ovation during an early stoppage, and it's easy to understand if the whole trip here was not conducive to his best hockey.
Then again, Briere is 36 years old, coming off his worst season as a pro since his early days in Phoenix, hampered by yet another concussion that sidelined him for 10 games earlier this year. "Not the start that I expected," he said. "But since then things have gone a lot better."
Briere entered last night's game with the same amount of goals as his old housemate Giroux - five. Giroux fired a laser past Corey Price halfway through the second period last night to get his sixth, and Briere had his best chance of the night when he pick-pocketed Nicklas Grossmann right in front of Steve Mason several minutes earlier. Briere's try though was blocked away by the mistake-erasing goalie, and Briere ended his first night back here the way he has ended too many of his nights elsewhere. Pointless, and still in need of that groove that made him such a playoff monster here, a groove that has been missing now for more than a year.
"Things are starting to turn," he had said earlier in the day. "I feel much better on the ice. Hopefully it keeps going in the same direction."
That's been his past. Is it his future? Time will tell, but time is no longer his ally. He knew that when he left here, and when he signed the deal in Montreal. It's one reason he's keeping the house, the idea that the kids will again have their dad around a lot before it's time for them to make their own homes, to make their own lives.
When the people stood and lustily cheered, Briere rose to his feet as well, waving back, his face expressing both pride and humility, if that's possible. Hours before, someone had asked him what he would like to tell the fans, and Briere said, "All I can say is thank you for all the good memories. It was a great ride. I had a great time. For all the critics that you hear, about being fans, the Santa Claus thing stuff, I try to defend them as much as possible because I know the other side and how supportive they are of their teams and players.
"This place is special to me. And it's always going to be my home."