- - 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.

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