Monday, October 29, 2007

Bonzai Retires

There are some players that flit in and out of an organization, whose impact is never truly felt, whose mark is never really made on the team or the fans.

And then there are the people who, regardless of what jerseys they may have worn in their final game, will forever be linked in our minds with a certain team. Ray Bourque will always be a Bruin; Steve Yzerman always a Red Wing.

Here in DC we have had quite a few of the former, players who barely distinguish themselves in a Caps sweater before moving on. But we're also lucky enough to have several who are indelibly stamped on our brains as one of ours and only ours.

Dale Hunter. Rod Langway. Olie Kolzig.

And Peter Bondra.

Regardless of how he may have left the team or how he attempted to come back, Bondra - Bonzai to those who followed him lovingly - is one of those people.

It was announced today that Bondra will officially retire to become the GM of the Slovakian National Team, an appropriate role for someone whose poster likely adorned the walls of the young talents he will soon be guiding.

I doubt I'm alone in admitting that, while all that was basically missing was the "official" part for the last few months, the news is still a little jarring.

Those of us who were lucky enough to watch Bondra from the start know that there have been few superstars like him in Washington hockey history. He was never mistaken for a power forward or a great playmaker or a Selke candidate - he was a sniper, pure and simple.

But what a player was able to bring the fans out of their seats quite the way Bondra did back then. The way people lean forward in their seats now when Ovechkin or Semin have the puck, that's what happened when Bondra was on the ice. He was breathtaking, exhilarating, surprising. His goal celebrations were one of a kind, full of joy and excitement and pure hockey happiness.

When Bondra was traded along with the bulk of the superstars back in 2003-04, there was many a tear shed in DC. For most of us it seemed to be the unthinkable trade - how do you send someone away who was such a cornerstone of the organization, so beloved by fans and so integral a part of Caps history? Seeing him in a Senators jersey, a Thrashers jersey, a Blackhawks jersey, always seemed wrong somehow. Watching him score his 500th career goal was bittersweet because it was done in Chicago, in front of cheering fans who didn't know him like we knew him.

Yet I'm not here to argue that he shouldn't have been traded or that we should have re-signed him, because I believe the organization did the right thing on both counts. But even if I didn't, that's not what this should be about. Bondra has been the center of controversy here in DC these last few years - and frankly its a shame. One would hope that his legacy with the Caps would not come down to petty arguments over money and flagrant manipulation of the media. Those years should be nothing but a footnote in the history of Peter Bondra with the Washington Capitals; a sidebar item, not a headline.

So I choose to remember him as the man who put fear into the hearts of goaltenders, who terrorized the Lightning for five goals in one game, who reinvigorated a franchise and made us cheer night after night. I choose to remember him as #12 with the goofy smile, the wicked shot. I choose to remember him as Bonzai.

Good luck to Peter in all his future endeavors. We wish him all the best.


Anonymous said...

Great Post! During the Purge of '04, Banzai's departure was the one that REALLY hurt to see. Like you, I would have loved to see him get #500 in a Caps uniform.

Shelby said...

And now I'm going to cry. So thanks for that. Butthead.

On the other hand, and I don't want to jinx it, HOLYYY CRAP. Are you watching the beauty that is occuring in St. Louis? I think I may faint.