When Peter Bondra set foot in the United States, he couldn't believe his eyes. Everything was bigger than anything he had ever seen -- the airports, the traffic jams, the NHL arenas.
"For me, it was like coming from the country to the city," he said, sitting in the locker room after a recent Washington Capitals practice and recalling his own version of "Coming to America." "I come from Poprad, which is like a small town, and everything was new. It was a little bit frightening, too."
It was 1990, and he was 22 years old and married, but his wife, Luba, wouldn't join him here for another four months.
It all had happened so fast. One day, he had been playing hockey in Kosice, near Poprad, a Czechoslovakian, now Slovakian, town on the southeastern slopes of the High Tatra Mountains. The next day, he was drafted by the Capitals and on his way to America.
"I came, I didn't speak English, but I came to play hockey," he said. "What did I have to lose? I love the game from the time my daddy bought me a pair of skates when I was very little boy. I feel comfortable on skates."
Now, he is comfortable on skates in the NHL. He is comfortable on skates when taking a major-league hit. Three seasons after setting foot here, Bondra, a 6-foot, 200-pound right wing, continues to build on his rookie success and last season's career highs and is the Capitals' leading goal- and point-scorer.
"Bondra has replaced Dino [Ciccarelli] in terms of offensive production," said Washington general manager David Poile, referring to the Capitals' former leading goal-scorer, who was traded to the Detroit Red Wings last summer. "I think he is right on track at this point. Given the opportunity, he's done it, and I think he can be a consistent 40-goal scorer."
Bondra has 19 goals and 29 assists, compared with Ciccarelli's 16 goals and 32 assists going into last night's game. Bondra could be headed for a 100-point season.
But Bondra, who will turn 25 next month, is not yet so outgoing as Ciccarelli. And while Ciccarelli was well-known and a fan favorite, Bondra is just beginning to enjoy some fan adoration.
He has learned to speak English, learned to take a joke -- the Caps made him feel welcome as a rookie by filling his shoes with shaving cream and shredding his underwear -- and has learned to give as good as he gets.
"The first time I skated down the ice in the NHL I was so surprised," Bondra said. "I had read that there was a lot of fighting in the NHL, but I was just skating, not near the puck, and someone hit me with the stick. I asked Pivo [teammate Michal Pivonka], 'What is that?' and he explained to me that this is how hockey is played.
"I have made myself stronger, and I stand up for myself. But I did not come to fight. I came to do something offensively. Alan May or someone else can do the fights."
When Poile traded Ciccarelli, he said he hoped the Capitals who remained would find a way to compensate on offense. And when he and coach Terry Murray talked about which player might step forward, Bondra's name kept coming up.
"We wanted to give him more ice time, and that all tied in to what we were going to do with Dino," said Murray. "Who were we going to replace Dino with?"
When it became apparent that Randy Burridge wouldn't make it back from knee surgery this season and when Pivonka, the team's leading point-scorer from last season, and Dimitri Khristich, the second-leading goal-scorer, suffered injuries that sidelined them for the first quarter of the season, Bondra was pushed to center stage.
"He's showed me a lot of character with his intensity and his physical involvement, especially on the road, when he draws the other team's best checker," Murray said. "He's arrived. He's mature now and understands what this game is all about. He didn't grow up playing hockey like this. He's learned to play it. He takes the toughest hits out there. He'll take the body and take the hit."
If anything good can come from injuries, then something good indeed came from the early injuries suffered by the Capitals this season. They forced Bondra to go out on his own, without his good friend Pivonka.
From the moment Bondra joined the Capitals, Pivonka had taken him under his wing. He helped him find an apartment, helped him get a car, helped him to learn how to play hockey the American way.
"Peter has learned he can survive without Pivonka," Murray said. "And it has been very important that Peter's production has continued since Michal has come back in the lineup."
While Pivonka (eight goals, 26 assists) and Khristich (13, 10) have done their share since returning, Bondra also continues to score, having produced points in 17 of the team's past 18 games.