By Angela Busch
Naples Daily News
ALBERTVILLE, Minn. — Eight years after he left home to pursue a hockey career with the Florida Everblades, Reggie Berg is back in Minnesota, retired from the game he has loved to play for almost 29 years.
Minus the pads, the helmet, the skates, the once-dynamo on ice who holds all-time scoring records for the Blades now looks like any other regular guy, wearing a polo shirt and khakis, having a cold coffee drink outside on a summer day in a Minneapolis suburb.
The limp that plagued him throughout last season is mostly gone, after successful sports hernia surgery last May that kept Berg, 31, out of Florida’s season-ending American Conference Finals playoff series against Dayton.
Berg looks healthy, and happy to be back home — he and wife Christy and their two children: Wes, 2, and Ella, 11 months, are staying with Berg’s parents in Monticello, Minn., until they’re able to find a house in the Twin Cities. They are planning to keep their house in Estero as well.
And even though Berg has a new full-time job set up in Minnesota — a mutual funds wholesaler with the Hartford — everything is not as simple as it seems. Number one problem: leaving hockey.
“I haven’t come close to losing my desire to play hockey. It’s still there just as strong,” Berg said on Friday, 24 hours after announcing his retirement. “I know if I got out there and skated, I’d still want to bust my stick over someone’s head … I’d still want to score.”
“There are a lot of misgivings. It’s a bittersweet ending.”
He has given almost everything he has to hockey, and the sport has given back to him, too. He has met lifelong friends, has become a celebrity among University of Minnesota fans and Blades fans. Pro hockey was his career for the past seven years.
Still, as hockey gave to Berg, it also took away; chipping slowly at his body after years and years of overuse.
Last season’s sports hernia was the most recent in a lifetime of career-pausing injuries, and it was the most debilitating. Berg said there were times last season when his son, Wes, would run out towards the street, and Berg wasn’t able to run after and catch him. Other times, he couldn’t even reach down and pick up his children because the pain was too much.
Five years ago, Berg announced “retirement” and took a year off hockey, from 2002-03. That time, he came back to the Blades a year later for four more seasons. He said on Friday that this retirement is much different and will be permanent.
In 2002, Berg was unmarried and didn’t have children yet. He had only himself to consider and only himself to support. The injuries weren’t as threatening.
When Berg came back to the Blades in 2003, he told then-reporter Andy Kent that he would continue to play hockey until his legs fell off.
“Well that hasn’t happened, but I think I got as close as I wanted to get (with the sports hernia),” the 5-foot-10, 190-pound Berg said.
And so he retires, leaving behind a legacy of painful endurance, daring skating and brilliant scores. Perhaps his greatest legacy to the Blades came on April 27, Berg’s final game with the team.
In a run-down arena in the middle of nowhere and Beaumont, Texas, Berg gave hockey his last gasp. Hobbled by the hernia and nearly unable to walk, he scored the Blades’ only goal of the night, leading his offensive line and sacrificing his body with abandon, checking much-larger Texas defensemen into the boards.
“It was amazing,” said coach Gerry Fleming after the game. “Reggie can barely walk, and for him to play the way he did, I couldn’t believe it.”
It was a night of effort that emblemized a career for Berg — always giving his all, leading his team.
“That’s something I think I have some credibility on,” Berg said. “I’ve always expected a lot out of myself. I devoted a lot of time to put myself at that level, and I could never come back and be a marginal player. I would be miserable.”
His story is familiar among Canadians and Minnesotans. Berg’s father, Ron, started him walking on skates in the family living room when Reggie was just two years old. When he mastered walking on skates, Ron took Reggie to a nearby outdoor rink, where he pushed a folding chair across the ice until he learned to skate for real.
At age 17, Berg left home to play for the United States Hockey League, the top American junior hockey league. Two years later, he joined the University of Minnesota Gophers hockey team, finishing four years with an astounding 158 points in 160 games, plus a management degree from Minnesota’s Carlson School of Business.
He joined the Everblades in 1999, spending the next seven seasons (with the break in ’02-03) splitting time between the ECHL, original IHL and AHL. The successful scorer graduated from college at a time when the NHL was just starting to embrace a less-physical, faster style of play. Berg said that maybe today, when smaller players are excelling more and more in the NHL, he would have gotten a chance at that level.
“I guess it doesn’t matter now, though,” he said, adding that his plan for his hockey career and his reality were direct opposites. “You know, I never thought I’d play hockey in Florida, and I never thought I’d spend that much time in the minor leagues. But I have no regrets. I was lucky to get to be there so long, and I know that if I didn’t have this job and I was still back in Florida, by the time the season rolled around, I’d end up trying to play again.”
Given his dedication to hockey, it’s likely Berg will have those same yearnings this fall, but it wouldn’t be easy for him to leave his lucrative new career or pick up his family from their new life in Minnesota. Like Reggie, wife Christy is also from Anoka, Minn., and Reggie said she has been ecstatic about the official move back.
For Reggie, the adjustment will probably take a little longer. Accustomed to being surrounded by 20-some teammates, coaches and trainers, Berg’s new job requires lots of one-on-one meetings.
“When I walk into those meetings, I keep looking over my shoulder, but no one’s there,” he said.
Instead of being the hockey star announced before cheering fans and taking road trips away from his family for 10-14 days at a time, Berg is becoming a work-a-day dad. His love for hockey, for now, will be limited to a few Minnesota Wild games and occasional trips to Florida to watch the Blades.
“My family has always been first, but hockey was option 1B,” he said. “Now, my team is at home.”
“I know it’s not a bad thing; I know it’s time (to retire), but I didn’t know how difficult it would be,” he said. “Other than my family, playing hockey was the best thing that ever happened to me.”