- - Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Long before Brooks Laich carved out a career as a professional hockey player, he traced pictures of his favorite NHL stars.

The Washington Capitals forward still remembers the Industrial Arts class he took in 10th grade in which he built a wood step ladder topped off with a wood burning portrait of two NHL all-stars.

“I traced out a picture of two of my favorite players growing up, Peter Bondra and Paul Kariya - an action photo of the two of them side by side,” Laich said.

“I was a big Peter Bondra fan. He was the guy I always picked on my Sega Genesis when you could customize and create your roster. Every single time, I wanted Bondra on my team.”

Years later, Capitals general manager George McPhee was configuring his own roster - with slightly more at stake - when the decision was made on Feb. 18, 2004, to trade Bondra to the Ottawa Senators.

The return included the Sega playing student turned 20-year-old NHL prospect named Brooks Laich and a second round pick in the 2005 NHL Draft.

The Capitals were limping toward a last place finish for the first time in more than two decades during a forgetful 2003-04 campaign. McPhee had already traded captain Steve Konowalchuk and all-star Jaromir Jagr and dealing the 36-year-old Bondra - the franchise leader in goals and points - was a necessary next step as Washington began to rebuild.

Veterans Sergei Gonchar, Robert Lang and Mike Grier were also dealt before the 2004 trade deadline but none had the impact on the Capitals like Bondra.

“He was our Ovi at that time,” said former Capitals goalie Olaf Kolzig, “just a guy who could score big goals and carry the team … popular among the fans. But it was a really weird year in the organization’s history and when he got traded, you knew that times were changing.”

Ten years have passed since the Capitals dealt one of the greatest players in franchise history for a prospect barely two weeks removed from his NHL debut. Bondra and Laich have unique perspectives on the day that forever changed their professional careers.

“It was an emotional time and I remember it came as a really big shock when I talked to George in his office that day,” said Bondra, whose 472 goals and 825 points remain franchise highs.

“The trade deadline was still a few weeks away, so I was expecting maybe a heads up from George that this was a possibility - something like ‘there are three or four teams that are interested if you want to make a decision on where you want to go,’ but there was nothing like that. I didn’t have a clause or detail in my contract like that, but it was shock.”

About 350 miles north of D.C., Laich was making sense of the news in central New York, where he had been told to stay off the ice that morning as the Binghamton Senators prepared for an American Hockey League game against Syracuse.

“That was really my first taste that this is a business,” said Laich, who 15 days earlier had made his NHL debut with Ottawa. “At that stage in your career, you’re almost naïve a bit and you pretty much tattoo yourself to the organization. So I was caught off guard but I flipped the script pretty quick.”

The Senators were coming off a trip to the 2003 Eastern Conference Finals and had a deep pool of NHL talent. Laich recalls the night before his NHL debut, having dinner with veterans Bryan Smolinski, Chris Phillips and Wade Redden and thinking “man, these are established NHLers. These are pros.

“It would have been a very tough team to crack [as a prospect] and as a young player looking to make the NHL, to have an organization trade for you and say ‘you’re going to be part of a rebuild for us and we want you here,’ that was music to my ears. I was very excited about that.”

In theory, Bondra should have likewise embraced the chance to join the Stanley Cup contending Senators, but leaving his family in Maryland along with 14 years of memories with the Capitals proved difficult.

In 23 games with Ottawa, Bondra recorded five goals and 14 points. He was then held pointless in seven Stanley Cup Playoff games as the Senators were eliminated by the Toronto Maple Leafs. With a lockout wiping out the entire 2004-05 season and the final year of Bondra’s contract, his time with Ottawa is little more than a footnote in his 16-year career.

“I grew up as a Capital, I grew up as a person here and this team sort of raised me,” said Bondra, Washington’s eighth round selection in the 1990 NHL Draft and a nine-time 30-goal scorer.

“They gave me from the beginning a lot of help - [former general manager] David Poile and his staff looked after me from day one. And that’s why I was emotional when you’re told after 14 years that you have to go play somewhere else- that was tough … I was fortunate to play for such a long time with one team so that was the hardest part for me.”

Bondra eventually played two more NHL seasons with the Atlanta Thrashers and Chicago Blackhawks before retiring in 2007. Ten years removed from his last game as a Capital, Bondra lives in Annapolis and continues to represent the team at alumni functions.

Laich, meanwhile, would blossom into a key cog during the Capitals‘ multi-year rebuild and a reliable two-way player on rosters that were often chock-full of skilled players who could score.

“As this team and this organization took off with [Alex] Ovechkin, [Nicklas] Backstrom, [Alexander] Semin and Mike Green,” former Capitals captain Jeff Halpern explained, “I think Brooksie was the guy in there, that while he may not have had the points that those guys had, he was a guy that this organization needed to help create an identity and to allow those players to do what they did all those years.”

Laich lists Halpern, Kolzig and defenseman Brendan Witt as veterans who welcomed him to the Capitals organization but it was his first meeting with McPhee in the MCI Center as Verizon Center was called then that remains a lasting memory a decade later.

George shook my hand and he said ‘Welcome to D.C. We hope you’re here for the next 15 years.’ And as a 20-year-old bright-eyed kid looking to make the NHL it’s a moment that stands out in my life that I’ll never forget … There are certain moments in your life that really mean a lot, and maybe that’s a small one but credit to him, he’s a man of his word. I’ve been here 10 years and hopefully we can get to 15.”

Laich could have joined another team as an unrestricted free agent in 2011, but chose instead to sign a six-year $27.5 million deal with the Capitals. The 30-year-old has made Washington home and as Laich enters his second decade with the organization, he does so as the longest tenured pro athlete in D.C.

“It’s an incredible tag or title because I still feel like I’m a kid,” he said. “I still feel like I have many years of hockey left and certainly some unfinished business here as it relates to winning a Stanley Cup. I’m thankful for what they’ve done for me but also the community and the people. We’ve seen how the game has grown, how people have accepted the Capitals and embraced the game. It’s really burst onto the scene here and I’m humbled to have been part of it and I really hope it continues for a long time.”

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