used as a Japanese greeting, cheer, and battle cry
Origin: Jpn < Sino-Jpn ban, ten thousand + sai, year, age - from Webster's New College Dictionary
"My job is to score goals, " - Peter Bondra.
Earlier this year, Bruins blueliner Zdeno Chara scored a hat trick in a game. Upon scoring the third goal, Chara motioned to his helmet and pretended to pull off an invisible hat and throw it to the ice. Some neophyte hockey fans may not have realized his celebration was an homage. But Washington Capitals fans knew. It was a tip of the cap to the most prolific goal scorer In Caps history: Peter Bondra.
"The Slovakian Sniper" in fact was not even born in Slovakia. He was born in 1968 in Lutsk, Ukraine where his father had moved after WWII to find work. In 1971, his father moved the family back to the former Czechoslovakia. After his father's death in 1982, Peter and his two older brothers were raised by their mother. Two of the sons (Peter and Juraj) took up hockey Peter played for the team in his hometown of Propad, Slovakia for a season and then advanced to play hockey for the VSZ Kosice team at age 18. His scoring totals went up each year there from 9 to 38 to 40 to 46. Kosice would win a championship with Bondra in the lineup in 1988.
Amazingly Bondra's scoring touch in the Czech league seemed to go unnoticed by NHL scouts until he was 22 years old. Caps longtime scout Jack Button spotted him and recommended Caps GM David Poile to take a chance on the sniper. In the 8th round of the 1990 draft, the Caps picked Bondra 156th overall. Bondra came to North America immediately to prove his worth to the Caps. His 1990-91 rookie season wasn't an easy one and the RW's line read 12g 16a for 28 points in 54 games played. Bondra talked about his transtion to the North American game in a late-career interview:
“Looking back at 1990 when I come here that summer, I didn’t know much about NHL. There wasn’t Internet. There wasn’t satellite to see any games. I knew about a couple players. I knew who Gretzky was. Maybe Mario Lemieux. That was pretty much it. I wasn’t ready. I just try and see what happen. If I don’t succeed or I don’t like it for some reason, I will just come back. That was my mentality. That was my talk in my head. I wasn’t here to make a career, make the top, or score 500 goals. I wasn’t sure what kind of player I was. I knew I could skate. Maybe I knew I could score some goals. I had some offensive talents. But I just came here to try it...(Caps teammate) Neil Sheehy come to me and told me to take the Jofa (helmet) off and take the CCM. I asked him why? Because the other team will know you’re European and will go harder against you. I just put a CCM helmet on. Some of those guys try to help you up, protect you when you go to battle. At the same time, you learn the game. I pretty much learn from beginning. Whatever I knew about the game, you come here, it’s different. Totally different game. Different coach. Coaches ask you to do different things. You learn as you go."
What did help his transition though was the presence of teammate Michal Pivonka who helped him on and off the ice. Pivonka had gone through a defection from Eastern Europe to play for the Caps a a few seasons earlier and his mentoring of the younger Slovak seemed to pay dividends. Linemates on the ice and friends off it, Bondra had a much more successful sophomore year scoring 28g and 28a for 56 points and raising his plus minus from -10 to +16. He also scored 6 goals in 7 playoff games that year in another first round exit for the Caps.
Bondra's main strengths were his skating and his shooting. His burst of speed was amazing and was like a shot out of a cannon when a loose puck was available. His wide skating stance gave him great balance and he was always amazing at puckhandling at high speed. It is no surprise Bondra won fastest skater at the NHL Skills Competition in 1997 and 1999. Bondra was probably the premier shooter in the league in his heyday. He had a quick, accurate wrist shot and an overpowering slapper. Combine this with his speed, and goaltenders had trouble getting an angle on his shot as he was so explosive driving the wing and blasting it high from along the boards. His skating and shooting skills are well captured in this video montage.
Bondra's third year (1992-93 ) was a career year in points scored with 85 (37g 48a). The following saw a drop in point production to 43 in 69 games but a career high +22 (he was always an apt defensive player and was effective on PK duty because of his speed). In the lockout-shortened year of 1994-95 he scored an amazing 34 goals in 47 games. The following year, his agent held out him and Pivonka and signed them to play with the IHL Detroit Vipers. After 8 games, the Caps settled with the two holdouts and they would end up having career years. With help from Pivo's 60 assists, Bondra would finish fourth in the league in scoring with 52 goals (80 points overall with the 28 helpers tacked on).
After a 46 goal campaign in 1996-97, Bondra once again led the league in scoring with 52 (tying his career high) and 78 points in the Caps' Stanley Cup year of 1997-98. He went 7g 5a and 12 points in 17 games played during that post season run which would be the closest Bonzai (his favoured nickname by Caps fans) would come to getting the Cup. One of his most memorable plays came in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final when he ran into Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek who was way out of his crease (link).
The next two years found a dropoff in production due to injuries but he rebounded strongly in 2000-2001 with 45g 36a and 81 points. The next two seasons saw him score 39 and 30 goals respectively. Many expected Bonzai to be a lifelong Cap but in 2003-2004 he was shipped off to Ottawa for Brooks Laich and a 2nd round draft choice (later traded to Colorado). Despite Laich's current status as a fan favourite, there was much disappointment in DC over this trade when it happened. After going back to Slovakia for the lockout season, there was rumour Bondra would resign with the Caps. It never happened though and he spent a lackluster 2005-06 season with the Thrashers scoring 21 goals in 60 games. He'd play one more season with the Blackhawks where his line read 5g and 9a in 37 games played--the definite highlight of the season being his 500th career goal against Toronto, the 37th player to do so. In October 2007, Bondra retired from hockey at age 39.
In 14 years with the Caps, Bondra scored 472 goals and 353 assists in 961 games played.He holds Capitals team records in goals (472), points (825), power-play goals (137), game-winning goals (73), short-handed goals (32) and hat tricks (19). With the Caps he appeared in five all-star games (1993, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999). A 2004 Capitals fan poll saw him rank second to only Olaf Kolzig as most popular Washington Capital ever.
These days, Bondra still has a hand in hockey as GM of the Slovakian National Team (this latter-day interview with Al Koken sees him at the Verizon Center doing some scouting).Bondra was a successful international player for Slovakia and scored the winning goal to help them win the 2002 World Championships. He lives in Riva, Maryland with his wife and three kids and was a recent member of the Winter Classic Alumni Game. Appropriately enough, he scored the game-tying goal there for the Caps.
Happy 43rd Bonzai!