Ready to put feather in Cap

NHL: One of the league's most consistent scorers, right wing Peter Bondra closes in on the Washington Capitals' career record for goals.

November 09, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Peter Bondra, the right wing of the Washington Capitals, grew up waiting for his brother, Juraj, to bring him his used hockey sticks.

"I was always so happy with his stick," Bondra said after a recent game. "I'd be asleep, but would hear him come in and I'd get up and go ask him, `Did you bring me a stick?' "

Most of the time, Juraj, who played professional hockey in Czechoslovakia, did bring his younger brother what he wanted, only to see him take it and work diligently to curve the blade.

Bondra laughed.

"I changed it, to make it curve the way I wanted, to make it mine," he said.

Peter Bondra has never stopped curving sticks or scoring goals.

And he has been on a tear since 1995-96, the first of two 52-goal seasons, as he has cut, sanded and painted nearly 300 sticks a season to make them just right for his purposes.

But he never imagined that one day, possibly one day soon now, that he would become the all-time goal-scoring leader of an NHL team.

"I wasn't even dreaming to make the NHL," said Bondra, 33. "First NHL game I saw, I was in it. If things didn't go well, I was ready to go back home."

Now, Bondra is three goals away from Mike Gartner's Capitals goal record. From 1979 to 1989, Gartner rolled up 397 goals.

Bondra has 394 since joining the Capitals in 1990 as an unworldly 22-year-old. Born in Luck, Ukraine, his family moved when he was a child to part of Czechoslovakia that would eventually become Slovakia. He was not high on anyone's draft list, but then-Capitals general manager David Poile took him in the eighth round of the 1990 entry draft, making him the 156th player chosen.

"All the credit goes to [the late] Jack Button," Poile said. "Jack was our director of scouting, and he had gone to Europe to look at prospects in a five-nations tournament. ... Peter wasn't there, because he was ineligible to play for his national team because he was living in Czechoslovakia but had been born in Russia. But Central Scouting told Jack there was this kid, Peter Bondra, but the only way to see him was to go to where his team was playing. Instead of coming home after the tournament like everyone else, Jack stayed on and went to Czechoslovakia. When the draft came, Jack recommended Peter.

"He was exciting from the first time we saw him, and I think, today, he is the most exciting goal-scorer in the league."

Bondra scored his first goal Oct. 17, 1990, against New Jersey and led all rookies with 12 goals that first season. In 1994-95, he led the league in goals with 34 in the lockout-shortened 47-game season. He tied for the league lead in 1997-98, with 52 goals in 76 games.

Already, he holds Capitals records for power-play goals, game-winning goals, short-handed goals and hat tricks. This season, he leads the league in power-play scores with seven and is second in goals with 12.

Like the rest of the Capitals' offense, Bondra has been in something of a funk recently, though he seems to have found his touch again, scoring a goal in games Saturday, Tuesday and last night.

"He's shooting cannons," said Caps goalie Olie Kolzig. "I don't know what he's doing to his stick, but he's shooting laser beams."

Many of Bondra's goals still come as a result of his great speed. Any night, fans may see Bondra get out on a break, streak down the ice and simply overwhelm an opposing goalie with a wrist shot as he swoops in from a wing. Or they can see him unload a slap shot through traffic or finish off a series of passes from his teammates from the slot.

But most of Bondra's goals this season have come on the power play. It is there that he plays on a line that includes Jaromir Jagr and Adam Oates, who tied for the NHL assist lead last season, and Sergei Gonchar, one of the best offensive defensemen in the game. Even if the fifth man on that unit changes, Bondra can count on Jagr, Oates and Gonchar to be there, opening space for him. Capitals coach Ron Wilson says the power play is set up to get Bondra the puck in front of the net where he can unload.

Wilson isn't watching the record books. But he doesn't have to in order to know what he has in Bondra.

"Peter is a great player," Wilson said. "He has a great shot. He works hard every day in practice. And he works hard to continue to be our leading goal-scorer. Everyone looks at Jagr, but Peter has been there, right behind Jags, for the past six or seven years."

Jagr, of course, is the Capitals' newest addition and the player recognized as the best in the world right now. Jagr has a powerful shot and good speed like Bondra. But Jagr has other talents, too, that have allowed him to excel. Jagr has the advantage of finesse, and benefited from playing alongside offensive talent with the Pittsburgh Penguins, who most years were led by Mario Lemieux.

With Washington, Bondra has teamed with solid players, but few considered major scoring threats.

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