"If it's the same 14-year-old that would be walking into this locker room, he wouldn't be accepted."
Patrice Bergeron's words were firm and concise on Saturday morning, spoken to reporters hours before his Bruins are set to take on a hated divisional rival under the bright lights of Hockey Night in Canada.
The captain stood before the swarm of media circling his stall in the Scotiabank Arena's visitor's locker room with what should have been a smile on his face, put there by his team sitting on a 10-1-0 record through their first 11 games that places them atop the ultra-competitive Atlantic Division and earned them the title of the hottest team in hockey.
Life, in theory, should be good. Such torrid early-season dominance typically earns teams a healthy dose of softball questions during these pre-game scrums, the kind which allow them to revel in their success.
Saturday brought forth something different, however. Bergeron was not smiling. And instead of fielding hockey questions, Bergeron faced the unfavorable job of publicly answering for a decision made by his team's front office -- one that was entirely out of his hands, to begin with.
There was no escaping it, really.
Roughly 24 hours prior, the Bruins announced the signing of defenseman Mitchell Miller, a 21-year-old former fourth-round draft pick of the Arizona Coyotes in 2020 whose rights were renounced by the club shortly after his selection due to his criminal history and central role in the bullying and years-long torment of a Black, mentally disabled classmate when he was 14.
Miller's transgressions are well-known at this point.
In 2016, an Ohio juvenile court convicted Miller of one count of assault and violation of the Ohio Safe Schools Act for forcing his classmate to lick a lollipop that Miller had smeared on the inside of a public urinal, which ultimately required said classmate to undergo multiple STD tests afterward as a result. According to the classmate's adopted mother, this instance served as just one in the "years of torture" Miller had inflicted upon her son, beginning as far back as their time in the second grade. These acts included Miller directing racial slurs at him on a constant basis along with telling him to "go pick cotton".
It's these facts that have made it so difficult for Bruins players to reconcile their front office making Miller a member of their organization on Friday -- not to mention giving him a contract packed with the maximum amount of term, salary, and performance bonuses afforded to a player his age by the CBA.
The team's leaders were quick to state that their locker room's culture and chemistry would not be disrupted by a decision that was made well above their heads. But amid the assurances, it's clear that Miller's signing has taken a toll.
"It's tough. It's a really hard topic," admitted Bruins forward Nick Foligno when asked about digesting the news.
"First and foremost, I don't think the organization would purposely do anything to jeopardize (the culture). But, in saying that, it's not something that anyone in this room stands for. The culture that we've built, and what these guys have built before I got here, is one of inclusion and diversity, and I think this goes against that."
That sentiment is one that multiple Bruins players communicated during their availabilities on Saturday; that Miller's actions go against the principles they stand for. It's that collective opinion that makes the organization's thought process behind bringing Miller in even more confusing, especially when the central figure behind the decision has thus far been difficult to pinpoint.
According to Bergeron, the Bruins approached him about the possibility of signing Miller roughly a week ago, with Bergeron making his opinion that he did not agree with the move clear. Additionally, Bruins coach Jim Montgomery revealed that he did not play a part in the organization's vetting process of Miller at all in the lead-up to the signing, instead referring to the process as "not a coaching decision".
And yet here both men were, on the morning of a game carrying important divisional ramifications, answering for it.
Is that fair?
"It's a tough spot to put Bergy (Bergeron) in," said Foligno of his captain, going on to further affirm his belief in Bergeron's ability to protect the room from any ill effects the signing may have on it.
"Whether he likes (the move) or not, he's not just going to be the company man. He's going to stay true to his morals."
Bruins forward Brad Marchand echoed that sentiment as well, focusing on the collective response of the team to the news moving forward.
"We're a group," explained Marchand, who wears an 'A' as an assistant captain.
"Anything that happens throughout the year, we all go through that together. That's always been how this works. The organization has had to go through things with me that I'm sure they didn't want to deal with. So, it's not all good, and it's not all bad. You go with the ebbs and flows. You deal with it as a group, and that's the situation."
"Fair or not fair, it's the reality of the situation," continued Foligno.
"So, you can't really just say either or. I think the reality is that we've addressed it, and we know what our morals are as a group, and that's pretty much it. We've voiced that. That's the biggest thing. We understand that it's a polarizing situation and a wrong situation. This kid did something wrong. But it's something in here that's not going to jeopardize what this room's built on."
The morals Foligno speaks are what have more or less defined this current era of Bruins hockey, with the club going to great lengths in the past to show they value character and cohesion within their overall group structure ahead of on-ice play. Any and all newcomers to the organization are made abundantly aware of this upon arriving in Boston. And, as Marchand reiterated, those who previously failed to abide by those morals have been swiftly dealt with and removed.
This time will be no different, it seems. Many Bruins players were swift to describe the extremely long path Miller must go down before ever possibly earning the opportunity to set foot in their room. There's a good chance that opportunity never comes, in fact. Regardless, their message is clear: The onus is on him.
And yet, for the time being, the onus to answer for his addition falls on them.
"It's a hard one for us to swallow," admitted Foligno as his scrum was winding down.
"There's still a thing there that this kid obviously did very wrong and hurt somebody. And I don't think any guy in here stands for that."
Questions about the power play's dominance or Montgomery's impact on the team's execution would have to wait for later.