When the Pittsburgh Penguins selected a diminutive center 26th overall in 1969, they had hoped he would become the Penguins' first superstar. Considered to be too small by many teams, the Penguins felt his offensive exploits in just one season of junior hockey warranted them taking the chance on Michel.
Briere played for the local Shawinigan Bruins for one season in 1968-69. He scored 75 goals, 86 assists and 161 points in just 55 games and had scouts druelling over his skating and puck talents..
"Briere skated easily. He skimmed across the ice like a waterbug, not with great speed but with a phantom elusiveness, deftly avoiding body checks, probing and questing for the puck," a reporter described in a newspaper. "His shot was quick rather than powerful, coming invariably when the goaltender least expected it, preceded as likely as not by a feint, by a dip of the shoulder," raved one scout.
It looked like the Penguins gamble would pay off too. Although he had played only one season of major junior, Briere stepped into the NHL right away, and didn't look out of place. He scored 12 goals and 44 points in 76 games before adding 5 goals and 8 points in 10 playoff games. One of those playoff goals was an overtime game winning goal that clinched the Pens 4 game sweep of the Oakland Seals. In total he scored 3 game winning goals in those playoffs.
It looked like the effortless skater was on his way to becoming a dominant offensive force for the Penguins for years to come. Then tragedy struck.
His promising career ended on a dark night after his only season. He had returned to Quebec to make plans for his wedding in less than a month. On the evening of May 15th, his car failed to negotiate a curve on a road outside Malartic. Briere was thrown from the car. While he was unscarred physically, Briere was unconscious from head injuries. He remained in a coma for 11 months before he died April 13, 1971.
Ironically Briere was the first of two prominent Pittsburgh athletes who wore No. 21 to die within a 19-month period. Baseball Hall of Fame outfielder Roberto Clemente died in a New Year's Eve plane crash on Dec. 31, 1972.
"He was one of the greatest competitors I ever played with," said Ken Schinkel, a former Pens player and coach, of Briere. "He would never take defeat. He really wanted to win and he would try and do it by himself if he had to. He would have been a star in the league for a long time."
It took the Penguins awhile to overcome the loss of such a talented player - plus the leadership he showed as well. "He was the biggest leader we had at the time," Schinkel said. "And we had some good, established players on that team. But he was the catalyst and he made it go."
In memoriam, Briere's No. 21 jersey hangs at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena and no one will wear that number again. Also the Michel Briere Memorial Trophy was created to be awarded to the Penguins player judged to be the best rookie on the team.
We are left only to wonder how good Briere could have been, and how he could have changed the landscape of hockey history in Pittsburgh forever. The Penguins seemed to toil for years with their French star until 1985 when they picked up another French sensation in Mario Lemieux. Had Briere been able to play during all those years in between, perhaps the Penguins might not have been as bad as they were.