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.

Are the Duds a Dud? Should the Fix be Nixed??

Mulish (we really like that one)

Pick an adjective, and maybe it applies to the fine folks at Reebok who, in the face of mounting concern that their “EDGE uniform system” is encountering some serious problems, seem inclined more to merely “tweak’ the product than to just “New Coke” the whole idea.

The folks at On Frozen Blog did a nice job of laying out the problem confronted by one team, and it is a stepping off point in how problems might evolve from the “hey, Alex, are you having problems with your gloves” kind of question a blogger might ask a player (or players might ask one another) to a full fledged, full-throated complaint that this “system” doesn’t work that reaches to game broadcasts, the hockey punditocracy, and eventually news outlets and perhaps corporate offices of the league and its partners.

What we seem to have now is a simmer…the occasional (if pretty persistent) complaint that the characteristics of the jersey and socks are such that gloves and skates collect run off. In the OFB entry, we see an example of one player – a player who matters in the larger scheme of things in the NHL, it should be noted – offering that he goes through two pair of gloves per period. Whether this is imprecise overstatement by Alex Ovechkin really isn’t especially relevant – if he goes through one pair of gloves a period, is this too much? Does it impair performance? Regarding skates, does the run off factor deteriorate the skate or otherwise put the player at risk of injury? Does it affect skating performance? Is there the potential for this problem to have other, related effects with respect to the health of players – specifically as to whether gloves and/or skates then become greater breeding grounds for infections? You'd like to think these matters would have been worked out in testing, but one doesn't get a comfortable feeling that "testing" addressed such matters. If these questions get asked with any greater frequency, and if any of them are answered with any regularity in the affirmative, then the simmer might just become a full boil.

A new uniform design is not – in and of itself – a bad idea. Neither is the idea of new materials. But New Coke wasn’t a bad idea on its face, either. Reebok and the league have made a considerable investment in research and marketing in the new uniform system. In a perfect world, one would give the system a chance to work out its growing pains and get past the “change” issues that often accompany a new direction. But players have to endure this change while playing in regular season games with all the attendant factors they have to deal with on a game-to-game basis. Is having to deal with equipment that perhaps has more marketing than performance benefit something that should be added to the mix?

This isn’t over.