- The Washington Times - Monday, October 6, 2003

It was an out-of-body experience for Peter Bondra.

The top offensive player in Washington Capitals history came over to back up a teammate in an on-ice scuffle and wound up participating in the main event. Bondra, the skilled skater raised in the non-violent game of European hockey, was suddenly pummeling Philadelphia’s Sami Kapanen in a preseason contest last week.

It was the first time many had seen Bondra, who reacted after being hit first, engage in a skirmish. It was the first time the veteran recalled being in a fight since his early days in the NHL.

“Bonzai” is used to being the protected star, not the protector who drops the gloves for a teammate. And yet there he was knocking Kapanen’s helmet off and landing a flurry of blows before leaving the ice victorious. As he headed to the bench he was slapped on the back by teammates and cheered by an energized MCI Center crowd.

“He’s turning into blue-collar guy now,” Caps goalie Olie Kolzig said. “He’s mucking it up, throwing the lefts. It’s good to see.”

It is the latest role — likely to be only a cameo — in the illustrious career of the 35-year-old Bondra, who enters his 14th NHL season, all with the Caps. Bondra brawls may be few, but the scorer has been asked to take on a more rank-and-file position this season. The latest assignment for the Caps’ all-time goals (451) and points leader (790) — more defense.

The five-time All-Star is not on either of the two primarily offensive lines. Instead, he will be on the checking line, with the primary objective of shutting down the opponent’s top line.

Bondra used to be Washington’s featured scorer — he twice led the league in goals with 34 in the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season and 52 in 1997-98 — but that was before Jaromir Jagr and his $11million a year contract came to town. And Bondra was the club’s most popular star, but Kolzig has surpassed him. Bondra doesn’t appear fazed by the changes.

“I don’t have to prove to anyone I can score goals,” said Bondra, who had 30 goals last season, second on the club to Jagr’s 36. “I have done that. My success is going to be measured, and has been over the last several years, not for how many goals I score, but for how far we go as a team in the playoffs. If I have to shut down somebody else’s line, I will try to come back and make sure I defend the guy. If I have to shadow somebody for a whole game, I will do it.”

Bondra spent most of the preseason working with linemates Jeff Halpern and Steve Konowalchuk. That could change with Michael Nylander, the center on Jagr’s line, missing at least a month with a broken leg. However, Bondra likely will remain on the checking line, a switch that will mean less scoring.

“We wanted to add a little speed to their line, and a guy that’s an offensive threat,” said Washington coach Bruce Cassidy, who hopes Bondra’s presence will spark his linemates’ offense. “A lot of times a checking line plays against the other team’s top line, which is not that defensive-minded. All of a sudden, you’re checking line has a guy like Peter Bondra on it who can finish.”

Bondra will be asked to score from the checking line as well as on the power play and 4-on-4 situations.

General manager George McPhee envisions the line being effective both ways, with Bondra’s speed and puck handling creating scoring chances.

“He’s not just a one-dimensional guy anymore,” McPhee said. “We don’t need fighting added to his repertoire, but he kills penalties. He’s good 5-on-5. I thought he was really good in the playoffs [four goals, two assists] last year. We still look at him to generate offense and he still gets a ton of ice time. He was never the quarterback of the power play. He was always the shooter. That hasn’t changed.”

What has changed is Bondra is no longer the Caps’ top gun. Jagr has played that part since coming to Washington in 2001.

“I wouldn’t say he was pouting about it, but he’s got pride,” Kolzig said of Bondra. “He’s been in this organization a long time and done a lot for the organization. When you see a guy like Jagr come in and steal a little bit of the thunder and the spotlight, I’m sure it had a little bit of an impact. But not too much.”

Bondra had a strong first season (39 goals, 70 points) with Jagr. However, some feel Bondra’s passion for hockey was rekindled after that 2001-02 season when he played in the 2002 World Championships. He led Slovakia to the title and scored a tournament-high seven goals.

“He has really been a different player since then,” McPhee said. “I think that as much as anything has made him a better player. I just think he had success that he has wanted for so long, and maybe some recognition. He’s just one of the biggest heroes ever in his own country. I know that means a lot to him.”

After last season, Washington exercised its contract option on Bondra. He will earn $4.5million this season and the Caps have a similar option to keep him next season.

It appears Bondra could end his career in a Caps’ sweater, a scenario that seemed unlikely when he was asking to be traded a few years ago before his current contract was hammered out. Of course the specter of a lockout next season leaves Bondra’s future uncertain because he doesn’t have a guaranteed contract next season.

“I am running out of years,” said Bondra, who has played in 907 NHL games and needs 34 more to pass Kelly Miller as the club’s all-time leader. “If you look at my age, I still feel young. I am hoping the [Stanley] Cup will happen. I want to win one. Hopefully it will be here….

“Who knows what’s going to happen after this year? Who knows how long there will be a lockout? It’s tough. I am going to enjoy it all this year. I always do, but I will put even more thought into it. Who knows? It might be my last year. But I would doubt it.”

The spry legs, rocket shot and youthful vigor suggest he will be around for a while. Bondra built a life here, and may remain in the area after he retires, even though there is a strong pull toward his native Slovakia. A return would be difficult since his three children have grown up in the United States and two of them, David, 11, and Nicholas, 6, play youth hockey here.

“I am actually one of those parents who just sits in the corner and watches the game,” said Bondra, who occasionally runs power play drills at the coach’s request. “I can see myself in [David]. I remember being in his position and I know how he thinks. He has fun and he likes hockey.”

On the ice, Bondra hopes his children learn something from watching their dad work.

“I really enjoy when my kids come to a game,” he said. “They see what I’m doing. I’m the father. It’s just cool. I try to even play for them, and make sure they remember me as a dad and a little bit as a hockey player too.”

One memory he yearns to share is a Stanley Cup. That is the driving force for him as he enters the end of a stellar career. The closest he’s got to the celebrated chalice was 1998 when the Caps were swept by Detroit in the finals.

“Being in the finals was some kind of experience that I enjoyed a lot,” Bondra said. “I was lucky to be part of it. When you come back every year, there’s always a feeling that the job wasn’t done. And we haven’t done it.”

It is a goal the great scorer is willing to fight for.

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