- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 1, 2001

Heading into this NHL season, it looked as if Peter Bondra's game had deserted him, packed up and left town, bound for parts unknown. It also looked as if Bondra himself would do the same.
Bondra told the Washington Capitals last summer that maybe a trade would be best for all concerned. After 10 seasons with the Caps, he didn't think he was fitting in. He would turn 33 in February, an oldster on a team getting younger. He was in a rut, and perhaps a change of scenery would get him out of it. Bondra also was facing the last year of his contract, and the Caps seemed in no hurry to extend it.
General manager George McPhee worked the phones and managed to arrange a deal with Montreal. But the Canadiens wanted to sign Bondra long-term, and he refused, killing the trade. Other offers, what few there were, were insufficient. There was his age, plus the fact Bondra was considered one-dimensional, a guy who could do little else but put the puck in the net. Except now he wasn't even doing that.
"A lot of people were writing him off," Caps coach Ron Wilson said. "It wasn't like there were a thousand offers for his services.
Several months later, there is no demand at all for Bondra. But now it's because other teams can't have him. In January, he put an end to the trade talk by signing a four-year contract extension worth $4.5 million a year. The first two years are guaranteed for Bondra, who also got a $1 million bonus. The next two are the Caps' option, but that's still $10 million in his pocket.
"I can't imagine myself anywhere else," he said.
Bondra reported to training camp in splendid shape, physically and mentally, providing the springboard to what might be his best overall season. After scoring 31 goals in 1998-99 and 21 last year, he has 36 so far, with a reasonable chance to score at least 50 for the third time in his career. He last did it in 1997-98. Since 1994, only Pittsburgh's Jaromir Jagr has more goals.
But scoring tells just part of the story. At an advanced stage of his career, Bondra has reinvented himself as an all-around player, willing to pass the puck, play defense and hit people "play the body," as they say. It's no coincidence the Caps are the hottest team in the league, leading the Southeast Division, unbeaten in 12 straight before losing to Chicago on Tuesday.
It's also no coincidence that Bondra is a man at peace. Playing well from the start, he changed his mind in December and said he preferred to stay with the Caps. He told his agent, Rich Winter, to start negotiating. Unlike some athletes who tank it after signing the big contract, Bondra actually has played better since his new deal.
"Athletes are like artists," Caps owner Ted Leonsis said. "They're such fine-tuned machines. When something's a little bit off, they're a little bit off. And when everything is structured soundly, their real essence comes out. And I think what we're seeing is the real Peter Bondra… . He was an elite player, and he's an elite player again."
Somehow, Bondra wasn't voted onto the World All-Star team. That was a joke, said Leonsis, who added, "I would argue that Peter Bondra is the MVP of the league."
Said teammate Steve Konowalchuk, who joined the Caps at the end of the 1991-92 season: "I believe he's playing better hockey than I've ever seen him play since I've been here. He's always put up a lot of goals and been a valuable player, but I think he's playing at an even better level this year."
Said McPhee: "I think what Peter went through is what a lot of good hockey players have gone through in some point of their maturation. [The Detroit Red Wings'] Steve Yzerman is a perfect example. He had good offensive instincts, but until he learned to play defense and until the coaching staff leaned on him, he wasn't a complete player."
Leonsis, who normally leaves McPhee alone when it comes to trades, sent out a special edict on Bondra.
"I told George if he was gonna trade Peter Bondra, he needed to present it to me," Leonsis said. "Tell me why. You've got to look me in the eye and tell me why you'd want to do that."
The reason was that the Caps would have gotten a top player from Montreal, Danius Zubrus, plus a first-round draft pick, which subsequently would have been packaged for another player. But Bondra didn't like the Canadiens' offer. The two sides reportedly were $250,000 apart.
"I never treated him like he was leaving," said Leonsis, who strategically placed Bondra in the owner's box on autograph day before the start of the season. "Every time I saw him, I was very supportive because I didn't want him to go."
Like many Europeans born in the Ukraine, he grew up in the Czech town of Poprad, now part of Slovakia Bondra was known for his flash and dash and scoring abilities. In other words, he was a finesse player, even at 6-foot-1, 212 pounds. It's not that he avoided contact, but he chose to be judicious about it to save his body. It was said he would be better off in the Western Conference, where physical play is less emphasized and the skating is more wide open.
Bondra still won't make anyone's goon squad, but his reputation has changed to a degree. Perhaps the best illustration is that he now mans the point on the Caps' power play, a spot usually reserved for a defenseman or at least a player with a defensive presence. Bondra's 17 power-play goals lead the league, and the Caps are tied for second on the power play in the NHL.
"I had to prove to myself and to the team and to everybody who was wondering [about me] if I was still capable of playing at the level I used to play," he said. "I had to improve my all-around game and earn ice time from the coach and start getting the trust back from the coach and everybody. That was my mission for this year."
During the offseason, it seemed Bondra's mission was to leave town. Although McPhee tried to accommodate him, both were reluctant partners. "My heart really wasn't in it, but I promised Peter I'd try," McPhee would later say. Bondra loves living in the D.C. area with his wife, Luba, and three children Petra, 11, David, 8, and Nicholas, 4. He loves being a Cap. Although it's a recurring joke that Bondra can walk the streets unrecognized, he is a fan favorite, willing to sign stuff, active in team and charity functions and happy to give up his time.
"This team gave me a chance to start for 10 years," he said. "I grew up here. My kids grew up here. You start building something. But you play here 10 years and never win the [Stanley] Cup. That's something you want to do."
That didn't exactly sound like an ultimatum.
For his part, McPhee said of Bondra, "He's the type of player this organization has yearned for. He's an elite player who happens to be a very humble, classy guy who's wonderful in the community. He's a squeaky-clean person who trains as hard as anyone and who brings game-breaking skills to your team."
Not quite "don't let the door hit you on the way out."
So what happened?
"It's a business," Bondra said.
On both ends. Bondra was a year removed from free agency, slowed by knee and shoulder injuries last season, effective at times but clearly not the player he once was. For the first time, he could at least imagine playing elsewhere. "Nothing against the Capitals," he said, "but you come to a point where you have to make a decision."
Also for the first time, Bondra was doubting himself.
"I was down, my confidence was down and you start asking questions: 'What should I do?' " he said. "The confidence is not there. You start thinking a little bit. When you play a little bit hurt, you hesitate. The game is not there for you. Maybe you try to force it too hard. You start squeezing the stick too hard. I was thinking too much before the game.
McPhee understood what was happening.
"He wasn't pointing a finger at anyone else," he said. "He was concerned over how he was playing and thought maybe it would be best for him to go to another organization. In his mind, he wasn't sure he could get back to the level he wanted to in our system."
Bondra was a steal in the 1990 draft, the 156th player chosen. Hardly anyone knew about him. Because of his Ukraine birth, he was ineligible to play for the Czech national team and was relegated to club hockey. Back then, most NHL teams had neither the resources nor the inclination to scout club teams.
But the Caps' head scout at the time, Jack Button, knew about Bondra. The Hartford Whalers also knew, and draft day turned into a game of chicken. Who would wait the longest? Hartford did, but the ramifications weren't yet known. The Caps had gambled. "Most of the time, these things don't work out," said David Poile, then the Caps' general manager.
But Poile, now GM of the Nashville Predators, had an inkling things might even before he saw Bondra take the ice. Visiting Poile's home, Bondra put on a pair of rollerblades and immediately went flying down the steep driveway. Another player who was there was more reluctant. Poile's first thought was, "Wow, he's gonna break his neck." His next thought was, "This guy is special."
Bondra would prove Poile correct, scoring 20 goals or more nine straight seasons, twice leading the league. A five-time All-Star, Bondra once scored four goals in a period. He also gained Slovakian citizenship and skated for his country in the 1996 Olympics. Even after Wilson, whose system is built upon the three principles of defense, defense and defense, took over as coach in 1997, Bondra continued to flourish.
But Wilson turned up the defense even more, and it appeared Bondra had trouble buying in. The injuries didn't help either. Wilson became frustrated with his star, limiting Bondra's ice time.
Wilson, however, rejects any talk of his "system" causing any of Bondra's problems.
"That's just a player's excuse for not doing well," Wilson. "We've had essentially the same system here. And the first year, he scored 52 goals playing the same way. And the last couple of years, for whatever reason, his numbers dropped off.
"I don't think it has anything to do with the system. Nobody told Peter he wasn't allowed to score. We expect everybody here to get the puck back when we don't have it. It's that simple. And Peter wasn't as committed the last couple of years and a lot of it had to do with injuries as he's been committed this year."
The subject of injuries is touchy with Bondra, guaranteed to spoil his perpetual good humor. Some unnamed teammates said last season that perhaps Bondra, who missed 16 and 19 games the last two years (he has played in every game so far this season), might have been able to play more than he did.
"I never heard that from anybody," Bondra said. "I remember [goaltender] Olie Kolzig going on a radio show and saying it wasn't true."
"Any time injuries are brought up, it's stupid," Konowalchuk said. "Because the only guy who knows he's hurt is the guy who's playing. There's not one person that can judge anybody about injuries. [Bondra] did the best he could. He's proven to me over the years that he's a character player. I would never question anyone, and I would never question Peter Bondra."
Bondra admits he created "kind of a mess for myself" with the trade talk. But that didn't distract him from reassessing his game during the offseason and facing some harsh realities.
"The best way to earn ice time is to work hard and come to play every night," he said.
Said Wilson, who moved Bondra from right to left wing this season: "To get himself in a position to get the contract with us or another team, he had to start playing well again. That, combined with being more physically comfortable, probably led to his gain in confidence. He decided he was gonna play the way we were asking him to play the last couple of years, in terms of being committed defensively, so he'd have the trust of his teammates and the trust of his coaches.
"He understands that I don't make exceptions… . He understood that if he plays the way I expect everybody to play when we don't have the puck, he's gonna get a lot of ice time because of his ability. But if he didn't buy in and he's caught cheating just to try and score goals, then he wasn't gonna play. It's that simple."

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