Wednesday, October 31, 2007

For Peter Bondra, an ending and a beginning

Peter Bondra retired earlier this week.

Bondra has his place in the pantheon of revered Caps – Yvon Labre, Rod Langway, Dale Hunter, Olaf Kolzig. But his is a somewhat odd career, too. Having been here in the stands watching Bondra’s entire career in Washington and looking back over it, it has the feel of watching Sir Laurence Olivier in “The Last Days of Pompeii”…a sublime talent in a pretty mediocre production.

Bondra retires as the all time Caps leader in goals with 472, a record he is likely to hold for a comparatively short time (at his current pace, Alex Ovechkin will catch Bondra on or about Thanksgiving 2015). But in his 1,034 games as a Cap (regular season and playoffs), he generated quite a number thrills…

-- 34 goals in 47 games in the abbreviated 1995 season…a pace for 59.
-- five goals in the blink of an eye against the Tampa Bay Lightning on February 5, 1994.
-- a team-record 22 power play goals in 2000-2001, when he could have served as the visual definition of the hockey term, “one-timer,” such was his efficiency from the point.
-- A hat trick in 2001 on the night his contract extension with the club had been announced (of course, in fairness, one must also recall Bondra requested a trade).

But the other side of this tale is Bondra accomplishing as much as he did without it being reflected in any particular success for the club. True, he was a part – an important part – of the 1998 Stanley Cup finalist (7-5-12, +4, in 17 playoff games), but the star that year was Olaf Kolzig. This is not meant to slight Bondra as much as to point out that he toiled as the only real “skill” forward the franchise had for most of his career, and there was only so far he could carry them. An oft-repeated phrase in those years was, “if the Caps only had another scorer.” The unspoken truth was that Bondra was as dependable as they came as the one already on board. Over a 267 game stretch spanning four seasons, Bondra scored 187 goals. If you do the math, that’s a pace of 58 goals over a full season. If Bondra wasn’t the most lethal goal-scoring engine in the mid-1990’s, he was on a very short list.

There are many who wanted to see Bondra skate one last time in Washington, perhaps manning a power play with the Alexes – Ovechkin and Semin. But that was entirely a gaze through a nostalgic lens. His production had been in decline since the 1997-1998 year, when he scored 52 goals, although he did post 45 in 2000-2001 (including all those power play goals).

As much as Bondra’s goal-scoring talent should be remembered by Caps fans, it should not be forgotten just how difficult it was for a player such as Bondra in the early 1990’s, when he broke into the league. He was an 8th round draft pick in 1990 who had never seen an NHL game until the day he stepped onto the ice to play in one. Language, culture, and the antipathy toward European players at the time made breaking into the league a difficult proposition for players such as Bondra. That he would grow and flourish in the NHL is a tribute to him as a person as much as to his skill.

There is a certain disappointment in looking at his career that he played on squads that might be characterized as “underachieving.” That, and the fact that he played in a market that did little to promote him, probably will keep him out of the Hall of Fame. But nothing should ever take away from the vision Caps fans will have of Bondra’s low-slung skating style speeding down the ice, his blink-of-an-eye slap shot, or the sheer joy he felt and freely expressed in each and every goal, from his first to his 472nd.

Every Caps fan would wish him well in his new endeavor as the general manager for the Slovakian national hockey team. They have genuine article as someone to respect and to emulate.

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