Jonathan Bernier is one happy hockey goalie.

Never mind that the 21-year-old second-year pro is at or near the top of the American Hockey League in every major statistical category. This week, he gets to show off his well-known skill set on his league’s biggest stage — in what he used to call his backyard.

“It’s going to be a fun couple of days,” Bernier said. “It’s a nice little break in the season.”

The break is the AHL’s All-Star game, which is back in Portland for the second time in seven seasons. The fun for Bernier is the fact that the game returns him to Maine, where he spent four seasons as one of the top goaltenders in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with the Lewiston Maineiacs.

“I’m pretty sure I’ll see a lot of people in the stands that I remember from four years in Lewiston,” Bernier said. “It’s going to be nice to see all of the old fans. It’s a chance to stay with my old billets, too, and I’ll be around for a little bit during the all-star break.”

Bernier was a rock star in Lewiston, though you’d never know it in his demeanor. An even-keeled, mature-for-his-age product of the famed Quebec goaltending pipeline, Bernier spent a season in Lewiston as a 16-year-old learning under current Montreal Canadiens’ goalie Jaroslav Halak. Then, the reins were his, and at 18 he delivered a title, and very nearly singlehandedly stole the Memorial Cup, Canada’s ultimate junior hockey prize, too.

Now, he plies his trade with the Manchester Monarchs of the AHL. A No. 1 draft pick of the Los Angeles Kings in 2006, Bernier left the Maineiacs after the 2007-08 campaign as one of the most identifiable and well-liked members of the organization during its brief history.

His first year as a pro? That was a little bit on the rough side.

Rocky start

Things started well for Bernier. He made the Kings’ roster out of training camp in 2008, and he started the team’s first game of the season — in London. And he won.

But after being shelled in his next four starts, the Kings sent him to Manchester.

Later in the season, the Kings recalled another rookie netminder, Jonathan Quick, from Manchester. One season earlier, Quick played most of the season with the Reading Royals of the ECHL. The Kings passed Bernier over.

It stung pretty badly at first, and the young keeper fell into a funk.

When the Kings were looking for a goaltender to bring in mid-season last year, they had two to choose from at the time who were playing regularly with their AHL farm club in Manchester, N.H. — Bernier or Quick.

“They were neck-and-neck when the decision was made to bring Quick up last year,” Manchester coach Mark Morris remembered. “Quick played in the last game, and that was the last thing in the minds of the people making the decision to bring him up.”

Quick’s stock had risen meteorically in a short time, and by the end of last season, he remained with the big club for the remainder of the 2008-09 season.

This year, Quick is the Kings’ No. 1 netminder, and he is an Olympian, named the United States’ third goaltender behind Buffalo’s Ryan Miller and Boston’s Tim Thomas.

While respectful of his teammate’s sudden promotion and happy that he found success, Bernier, who led the Lewiston Maineiacs to the 2007 Quebec Major Junior Hockey League President’s Cup title, started brooding.

“Honestly, I was feeling sorry for myself for a long time,” Bernier said.

“It was tough on Jonathan at first to come to grips with that,” Morris said. “It took him a while to get over it, and he really struggled from that point forward. But he got his bearings there at the end of last season, and he’s been rolling along ever since.”  

 That change happened in January. Bernier rejoined Quick in Los Angeles for two games.

“It changed when I got called up late last year,” Bernier said. “It happened so quickly, and made me think, ‘Let’s get this thing together and figure this out.’ From that point when I got called up, I felt like I had a different approach mentally.”

His overall numbers were solid last season, despite his swoon. He posted a 23-24-4 record with a 2.40 goals-against-average and .914 save percentage in 54 appearances with Manchester. He finished ranked first among AHL rookies with five shutouts (tied for third overall), and six shootout wins (tied for third overall). His 23 wins put him fifth among rookies, while his .914 save percentage was seventh among freshman netminders. His 2.40 goals-against-average was fifth among rookies (ninth overall).

But remarkably, the best was yet to come.

‘Like Velcro’

With Quick emerging as the top goalie, the Kings’ brass decided it would be best for Bernier to shoulder the load for the Monarchs for an entire season.

“The skills have been there all along, I think we all recognized that,” Morris said. “Emotionally, I think he’s leveled out. I think he’s learned to deal with things that are out of his hands, and he’s taken a very mature approach to the things out of his control right now. I think he knows the decision (to play in the NHL) is out of his control, and it seems like he’s accepted the way the Kings are handling the goalie situation right now.”

“It was a big thing for me to come back this year and just play hockey,” Bernier said. “It comes to a point where you just have to play wherever you are, and play the best that you can. I had to come in, play the way I know how to play. At some point, I’ll get called up, I’ll get my chance, but right now, I have to do my best to give my team a chance to win every night.” 

It was one thing for Bernier to convince Morris and the rest of the staff of that verbally. It was another for him to prove it where it mattered.

He started the season on fire, and hasn’t slowed down. In 31 games, he’s 17-9-4 with a minuscule 1.98 goals-against average (3rd in the AHL) and an astounding .941 save percentage (2nd). He also leads the league in the number of shots faced (1,009) by more than 100 and in total saves, and is second in minutes played.

“We don’t score many goals,” Bernier said, almost apologetically. “It’s hard sometimes going in thinking that if I let in one I shouldn’t let in, it might be the difference in the game, but it’s something I try not to think about and just go out there and do my job. If I get a shutout or put up a one-goal game, there’s more of a chance for the team to win, and that’s what matters.”

“He’s backboned us along with (backup goalie Jeff) Zatkoff,” Morris said. “They’ve given a group of inexperienced players some time to mature in front of them. They don’t give a lot of soft goals, and they’re routinely coming through in the clutch for us.”

It’s a young team, in part, because of the injuries with which the Monarchs have had to deal. Nine players are currently out, including five with what Morris called “long-term” injuries (including another to former Maineiacs captain Marc-Andre Cliche).

“It’s a comforting, calming effect they have on a young team,” Morris said.

As for his technical skills, something for which Bernier has always been known?

“When he’s on his game, he’s like Velcro,” Morris said. “He absorbs pucks and makes the tough saves look easy because of his positioning and his ability to move well. We’ll appreciate him here in Manchester as long as we have him. He’s only a phone call away from realizing that dream, and we all know that.”

For now, though, he’s content where he is. He’s playing hockey. Monday and Tuesday at the Cumberland County Civic Center, he’ll let loose a bit and have some fun with other top hockey players from across the world. For Bernier, it’s all part of the journey.

“Right now I’m just having a lot of fun out there,” Bernier said. “I feel more confident, more comfortable on the ice than I ever have. It’s a good feeling.”


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