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Invisible Man Quick, who has scored more goals in the last four years than any other player in the league? It's the Capitals' Peter Bondra, hockey's best-kept secret

June 08, 1998
June 08, 1998

Table of Contents
June 8, 1998

Invisible Man Quick, who has scored more goals in the last four years than any other player in the league? It's the Capitals' Peter Bondra, hockey's best-kept secret

A reporter from The Washington Post tried an experiment on the day
Peter Bondra scored his 50th goal for the Washington Capitals
this season. She took his photo--a good head shot--to various
metro area locations and asked people if they could identify
this man. She received the response she thought she would
receive. No one knew who he was.

This is an article from the June 8, 1998 issue

"No one," Rachel Alexander, the reporter, says. "A policeman
outside the MCI Center a couple of hours after the game had no
idea. I got all kinds of guesses. The best was from a guy who
was sitting in a sports bar with SportsCenter on the television
behind him. It was surreal. The television was showing Bondra
scoring the goal as the guy said, 'Is it Jeffrey Dahmer?'"

Beautiful, huh? In this era of media overkill--Flash: Dennis
Rodman has decided to keep the same modern-art pattern to his
hair for the seventh and deciding game against the Indiana
Pacers--the man who tied for the NHL lead in goals this season
(52, with Teemu Selanne of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks), and who
has more goals than any other player over the past four years
(184, six more than John LeClair), is as anonymous as a guy
sorting mail at the post office. He shoots! He scores! He's
invisible!

Even as he taught his teammates how to huff and puff and blow
down the house that Buffalo Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek had
built during a golden season, Bondra was overlooked. Even the
Sabres had forgotten him--until he jumped them for two goals
last Thursday night in Buffalo, the second in overtime to give
the Capitals a 4-3 win. That victory, coupled with a 2-0 shutout
two days later, gave Washington a 3-1 series lead in the
best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals. (Game 5 was scheduled
for Tuesday in Washington.)

"We forgot that Peter Bondra is a superstar," Buffalo coach
Lindy Ruff glumly noted after that loss in Game 3. "We didn't
treat him the way a superstar should be treated. You can bet
that we will now."

They probably were too late. Coming back from an ankle injury
that knocked him out of half of the first-round series against
the Boston Bruins and a concussion that sidelined him for a game
in the second round against the Ottawa Senators, Bondra has
returned to his quiet superstar form at the right time for the
Capitals. Having grown up in Poprad, Czechoslovakia, he'd known
about the abilities of Czech native Hasek since Hasek was 17
years old. Bondra told his teammates that the best goalie on the
planet was also human and beatable.

To prove his point, the 30-year-old right wing scored on a power
play with five seconds left in the second period of Game 2 in
Washington to break a 171-minute, 10-second scoreless string by
Hasek against the Capitals, dating to Oct. 9, 1997. See, boys?
That's how it's done. The goal started Washington toward a 3-2
overtime win. Exhibit B was the two goals he scored in Game 3.
His line--Bondra, Russian center Andrei Nikolishin and
Czech-born Richard Zednik--accounted for all four Capitals goals.

By Game 4 last Saturday, the message had been received: The
Dominator was not so dominant anymore. Craig (the Chief) Berube,
who had been the only forward in NHL history to have played more
than 50 postseason games without scoring a goal, slapped one
home from just above the face-off circle, and Joey Juneau
slapped home another from just this side of the Canadian border.
The Capitals, looking as strong as they have all season, were
2-0 winners and one victory from reaching the Stanley Cup finals.

"When we struggled on offense against Boston and Ottawa, we got
dumped on a little bit, but people were forgetting that we
didn't have Peter," Washington coach Ron Wilson said after
Saturday's game. "That was a big thing for us. He comes back,
the fastest skater on our team, a goal scorer, and he's a scary
sight coming at you. He's one of those guys, too, who scores in
flurries. He gets hot. It's good to see him get hot."

A ninth-round draft choice for the Capitals in 1990, when he
already was 22 years old, the 6'1", 200-pound Bondra is
accustomed to emerging from obscurity and surprising people.
Because he was virtually unknown to NHL scouts, he might be the
alltime draft bargain. Bondra was not eligible to play for
Czechoslovakian national teams because he was born in Luck,
Ukraine, and was a Russian citizen. (Motivated by the promise of
farm land and employment from the conquering Russians, his
parents' families had immigrated from Czechoslovakia after World
War II before his parents returned to their homeland when Peter
was three.) When scouts gathered at international tournaments to
see Hasek or Jaromir Jagr or any of the other budding Czech
stars, Bondra was home playing in the Czech Division I league
and despairing.

"Then I read one day in the newspaper that a famous NHL scout
was coming to our game in Vitkovice," Bondra says. "He was
coming to see Richard Smehlik [now with the Sabres], who played
for Vitkovice. I got really excited. I went to that game ready
to play the game of my life. I scored a couple of goals and had
a couple of assists. After the game the scout came to talk to
me. The next game we played, he was there just to watch me."

The scout was the late Jack Button of the Capitals, the only
scout who saw Bondra play. He saw that Bondra had explosive
speed, the kind that keeps defensemen on their heels, and a
wicked shot with a remarkably fast release. He saw that Bondra
was strong on his skates and wasn't afraid to play in traffic.
When Washington drafted him, Bondra immediately wanted to go to
the U.S. There was the not-so-little problem of a Communist
government that didn't allow its young players to leave, but
this was June 1990, and suddenly there was no Communist
government anymore. Bondra left his wife, Luba, and their
one-year-old daughter, Petra, at home and headed for Washington
and training camp. He told Luba that after a month either she
would be coming to join him or he, having failed, would be
coming home.

"It's an amazing thing," he says. "I came here, I didn't know a
word of English. I didn't know anything. I didn't know how to
write a check, go to the stores. Michal Pivonka, who had been
here for a couple of years with the team, helped me. I made a
whole new life. Amazing."

In eight years, that life has gotten better and better. He and
Luba, who arrived with Petra in September 1990, have added two
boys--David, five, and Nicholas, one--to their family. Bondra
has been an All-Star four of the past five seasons. He even got
that citizenship matter straightened out. After the breakup of
Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, he became a
Slovakian citizen and played for Slovakia in the Olympics. In
eight years more has changed than he ever could have imagined.
Now it is Bondra who helps young teammates adjust to their new
surroundings.

"I try to help Zednik the way Pivonka helped me," Bondra says in
well-spoken English. "I help him with the language. I take him
around, show him things. Slovakia is a small country, maybe six
million people. It's quite a thing to have two players from
Slovakia on the same NHL team." (Only seven players in the NHL
were from Slovakia at the start of the season.)

One thing Bondra has helped Zednik with is motivation. Before
Game 3, Bondra told the 22-year-old rookie wing that the game
was being televised in Slovakia. Zednik, excited by the idea
that his family would see him play, responded with two goals and
an assist, playing his best game of the postseason. Bondra, who
admitted he wasn't sure if that game was in fact televised in
Slovakia, repeated the message last Saturday. He said he was
telling the truth this time.

"Oh, for sure it would be televised on a Saturday," he says. "In
Slovakia, they all are following this. There are stories about
the NHL in the paper every day, especially now, the Stanley Cup,
playing against Hasek. The people of Slovakia, they know all
about the NHL."

Memo to The Washington Post: Take that picture of Bondra to
Slovakia and show it around over there. The Slovakians will know
who he is.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOE TRAVER DEAD ON Bondra, who tied for the NHL lead in goals for the regular season, scored two against Hasek in Game 3, including the OT tally. [Overhead view of Peter Bondra taking shot against Dominik Hasek]COLOR PHOTO: BILL WIPPERT [Peter Bondra]

A REAL GOAL-GETTER

Peter Bondra (left) has scored more goals over the past four
regular seasons combined than any other player in the NHL. Here
are the top five during that stretch.

PLAYER, TEAM GOALS

Peter Bondra, Capitals 184
John LeClair, Flyers 178
Jaromir Jagr, Penguins 176
Teemu Selanne, Mighty Ducks 165
Keith Tkachuk, Coyotes 164