He didnt have to be here this night, sitting in the veterans corner with P.C. Drouin to his left and Colin Chaulk to his right. Kevin Bertram gave all this up, not so long ago. He threw the sticks and skates in the closet, and then he picked up a coil of hose.
Ditched hockey to be a firefighter, Bertram did. And wasnt coming back.
That was the summer of 2004, when Bertram, the Komets 6-foot-4, 240-pound defenseman, was 27 years old. Hed just finished his third season in Fort Wayne. In his first, 2001-02, he was named the Komets defenseman of the year. In his second, the Komets won the now-defunct Colonial Cup of the UHL. In his third, he played in 72 games, scored five goals and 23 points, and racked up 169 penalty minutes.
Then he retired. And except for six games as an emergency fill-in the next winter, he didnt come back for three years.
So whys he here now?
This was the reason I decided to come back, he says. To win a championship.
Hes won two in a row, actually, and, like the rest of the Komets, hes four victories away from a three-peat. Its what drives him, as it drives them all. Its what has him, at 33, cranking up his game one more time at the precise moment when cranking up his game is required.
After the season starts, it doesnt matter if youre tired or beat up. Ill sacrifice a little more just to help this team finish on top again, says Bertram, who assisted on Leo Thomas game-winning goal in Game 6 against Port Huron and scored a goal in Game 4 in the semifinals.
The games mean a lot more right now. And for a guy like myself, you dont know how much longer youll get to play.
So he plays, maybe as well as he ever has as the Komets prepare to play the Flint Generals in the finals starting at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Memorial Coliseum. Its something that comes naturally to him and the rest of the vets in this corner of the locker room, who know when its time to turn it up a notch and how to do it in a way that sends the proper message to everyone else in the room.
I dont know if its fear, but the young guys, theyve been around this older group of guys now for a whole year, and they see were for real when we say take care of your bodies after the game, the off-ice stuff, Bertram says. And they see us doing it, too. Its lead by example. Its lead out on the ice, its lead with the off-the-ice stuff.
Youve got to give the young guys credit, too. Theyre willing to follow our lead. You need those young guys to step up, too. And theyre doing a great job of doing that.
Never more so, of course, than in the series just concluded. Again the Komets fell down 3-1, for the third time since 2005; again, for the third time, they rallied to win the series. In Game 7, one of the young guys, rookie Lincoln Kaleigh Schrock, scored two goals. Leo Thomas, stifled the first four games, scored his second goal in as many games. And Nick Boucher, Mister May in these parts, pitched a 4-0 shutout.
On they go. And, on Bertram goes.
You know, (Port Huron) easily could have stolen a game, he said when it was done. Its easy to lose a hockey game: just not getting the bounces, hitting posts, things like that.
But weve got guys here who have played a long time. No one was negative, no one was hanging their head. We just played the way we knew how to play.