Larry Wigge | NHL.com columnist
Jan 6, 2007, 9:34 AM EST
Peter Bondra's speed, shot and instincts will suit Chicago well.
It was the morning of Dec. 1 and Chicago Blackhawks coach Denis Savard was energized. Not unlike he used to get when he was on the ice creating offense over his 17-year Hall of Fame career. His voice was excited. The words were coming out as fast as a 100 mph slap shot.
The one word Savard kept repeating was "threat." It's a word Denis knows something about.
This was the day that Peter Bondra, who came into this season with 498 career goals in 15 previous seasons with Washington, Ottawa and Atlanta, was scheduled to play his first game for the Blackhawks -- after signing as a free agent a few days earlier.
"(Blackhawks GM) Dale Tallon has been trying to add an offensive threat since the season began," Savard said. "When we lost Marty Havlat and Michal Handzus with injuries early this season, we were on a daily search to find a threat ... but not at the cost of giving up some of our great, young prospects."
Tallon was really looking for a center to replace Handzus, who was lost for the season with a knee injury, on the team's first line with Havlat. The Blackhawks were in the running for free-agent center Yanic Perreault, before Yanic signed with Phoenix. The Blackhawks were front-and-center in many other rumors. All the while, they had been in contact with Bondra -- a winger who twice had scored 52 goals and four times had 40 or more goals in his 13-plus seasons in Washington.
"We really missed that offensive threat when Marty was out of the lineup," Savard said. "Just look at the numbers. We had no threat."
Now the Blackhawks have a couple of triple threats in a healthy Havlat and a hungry for action Bondra.
"Peter is one of those guys you have to make sure you know where he is on the ice," said Blackhawks goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin. "He's got great speed (one threat). He can beat you with his shot from the blue line on the power play (two threats) and he's got the instincts and moves around the net that make his so dangerous (triple threat)."
That Dec. 1 night, Bondra paid immediate dividends, scoring a power-play goal in Chicago's three-goal, third-period comeback victory at St. Louis. Career goal No. 500 was another game-winner in a 3-1 victory against Toronto on Dec. 22. Then, just over a month later, "Peter Gun" shot holes in another Blues third-period lead, giving him three goals and three assists in 10 games.
As the rest of the teams in the NHL look for impact in the way of deals before the Feb. 27 trading deadline, the Blackhawks clearly got a head start on everyone else.
Don't buy into the theory that the 38-year-old Bondra was the free agent the rest of the NHL seemed to forget. He didn't suddenly lose it after scoring 26 and 21 goals his last two seasons. Far from it.
"I remember one year when I was in Ottawa and we played Washington and Peter scored four goals in a game. He was all over the ice," Havlat recalled. "When he first came back for us, he may not have been the same Peter he was in Washington for so many years. But the skills and speed and quickness are still there, believe me."
In reality, Peter Bondra was not with another team when the season started by his own choice. Actually, he was working on three free-agent signings, of sorts, in the Bondra family. In addition to finding a team for dear old dad, Peter wanted to be a part of his daughter Petra's decision over where to go to college, plus find a good high school for his son, David.
"At this stage in my career, my family comes first and my daughter was looking for a college and my son was getting ready for high school and I wanted to be a part of those decisions, so I took my time before picking an NHL team," Bondra told me. "It wasn't long after the season began that she decided to apply to Georgetown, that's her first choice. Then ... I started doing extra homework on my decision. I watched games all hours of the night. In fact, my wife, Luba, became annoyed because my son and I were always watching hockey. One day, she asked, 'When are you going to pick a team?' "
Bondra wasn't on the couch watching games all the time. He joined with a group of former NHL and former college players in the D.C. area for a pickup game every Thursday night. They'd play from about 10:45 til after midnight and then sit in the parking lot and talk hockey for another hour or so afterward. Plus, Bondra went back to Poprad in his native Slovakia to do hard game practices with the team he played for in 2004-05 during the NHL lockout. That was for two weeks in mid-October.
"That was like like my mini-camp," Bondra said, laughing. "It was a high level of competition."
The final decision to come to Chicago was made for Bondra when Savard called him when Peter was weighing offers from the Blackhawks, New York Islanders and a couple of other teams.