- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Peter Bondra arrived in Washington 13-1/2 years ago as a fresh-faced 22-year-old Slovak with two words of English and a world of potential. He departed yesterday as the Capitals’ all-time leading scorer, traded to the Ottawa Senators for a prospect and a draft pick.

Words again failed Bondra, though this time not because of a lack of language skills. He halted the news conference where the trade was announced three times to compose himself.

“It’s tough — this is home,” Bondra said in the Piney Orchard locker room, his eyes welling up. “It’s hard to leave. I grew up here as a person and as a player. You hear the [trade] rumors. … I kind of assumed at one point that it would happen. I tried to prepare my family a little bit if it happened.

“When I walked in the building this morning with my kids to skate before practice because they had off from school and I saw [general manager] George [McPhee] here, I told my kids, ‘This is it. It’s probably our last day here.’”

McPhee informed Bondra, 36, that he had been traded to the Senators for 20-year-old prospect Brooks Laich and a second-round pick in the 2005 amateur draft. The trade offers Bondra a chance to compete in the playoffs again. The Senators were tied for first place in the Northeast Division when the deal was announced.

“The more I look into it, I’m excited,” Bondra said. “I read all kinds of rumors, and Ottawa was always mentioned. It sounds like they were pursuing me hard. It’s good to know that you’re going to a team that wants you. I’m going to play in the playoffs again and have a good chance to win the Stanley Cup. … Hopefully, I won’t disappoint them.”

Bondra rarely disappointed in Washington. He was the Caps’ biggest offensive weapon by his third season, and he remained so through 2002. Even this year, he ranked second to All-Star center Robert Lang with 21 goals and third to Lang and defenseman Sergei Gonchar with 35 points.

His trademark crouched skating style, speedy rushes to the net and slap shots from the point will transfer well to a Senators team that came within one victory of its first trip to the Stanley Cup Finals last spring. Long-term injuries to forwards Radek Bonk, Vaclav Varada and Mike Fisher prompted the powerful Senators to search for reinforcements.

The trade of Bondra is the latest payroll reducing move by the Caps since their disappointing first-round playoff loss to Tampa Bay last spring. Defenseman Ken Klee wasn’t re-signed. Captain Steve Konowalchuk was traded to Colorado on Oct.22 primarily because he could be an expensive free agent this summer, and All-Star right wing Jaromir Jagr was dealt to the New York Rangers on Jan.23 in a financially driven move.

“You absolutely can’t replace a guy like Peter, the production he gave this team,” center Jeff Halpern said. “No one in this room is going to fill that void.”

Bondra, called “Mr. Capital” by goalie Olie Kolzig, leaves 22 games shy of Calle Johansson’s franchise record of 983 games. No Capital scored more goals (472), points (825), power-play goals (137), shorthanded goals (32), game-winners (73) or hat tricks (19). Bondra led the NHL in goals twice. Only four active players have more goals, and only three European-born players have scored more than Washington’s eighth-rounder in the 1990 draft.

“Peter took it hard at first, but he realized that he has a phenomenal opportunity,” McPhee said. “Ottawa is a very good team that can win the Stanley Cup, and it’s also a good fit for Peter with the other Slovaks on that team and because of their [finesse-oriented] style. We had offers from four teams, but this one made the most sense from a hockey standpoint.

“This wasn’t a money deal. We’ve paid Peter all year. We could have easily held onto him for the next seven weeks, but we like the value we got for Peter.”

If the Senators decide not to pick up Bondra’s $4.5million option for next season, he could be back in Washington as soon as July.

“I’m hopeful that maybe one day there will be an opportunity for Peter to finish his career here, but for now this was the best of circumstances for him and the team,” Caps owner Ted Leonsis told WTEM-AM.

Laich, a 6-foot-2, 199-pound center, was Ottawa’s seventh-round choice in 2001. He had 41 goals and 94 points in his final year of juniors last year and is the third-leading rookie scorer in the American Hockey League this season. The Hockey News rated him the third-best prospect in a Senators farm system that has been among the NHL’s most productive in recent years.

Laich, who played one game for Ottawa this year, will join Washington’s AHL affiliate in Portland, Maine, where his teammates will include Boyd Gordon and Steve Eminger, with whom he played on Canada’s team that won the gold medal at the 2002 World Junior Championships.

“Brooks isn’t the same kind of player as Peter, but he’s similar in that he’s a late draft pick who has really blossomed,” McPhee said. “He finds different ways to score. He’s a reliable, smart player.”

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