Interview with Peter Bondra
It was February 6, 2007. Peter and I sat next to each other in front of his locker, alone in the Chicago Blackhawks dressing room in Calgary after his morning skate. All the other media and players had left the building. Only the equipment manager was there, tidying up for that night’s game against the Calgary Flames. Peter retired the following season.
His interview is reflective of why I like talking to European players about their experiences. I find it hard to put myself into their place – going to a foreign land where you don’t know the language, culture, or environment. How do you communicate, let alone play a professional sport at the level that is expected?
When did you first know you were going to play in the NHL?
“To be honest, it wasn’t my dream. The situation where I grew up was Communism. At that time, it was pretty impossible, unless you defected, like some players did. I didn’t think I was capable, to be honest.
“I grew up under Communism. My dream was to compete on national teams and the Olympics. As a kid, I went to bed and think about playing hockey. I know a lot of kids now grow up thinking about NHL.
“Looking back at 1990 when I come here that summer, I didn’t know much about NHL. There wasn’t Internet. There wasn’t satellite to see any games. I knew about a couple players. I knew who Gretzky was. Maybe Mario Lemieux. That was pretty much it. I wasn’t ready. I just try and see what happen. If I don’t succeed or I don’t like it for some reason, I will just come back. That was my mentality. That was my talk in my head. I wasn’t here to make a career, make the top, or score 500 goals. I wasn’t sure what kind of player I was. I knew I could skate. Maybe I knew I could score some goals. I had some offensive talents. But I just came here to try it.
“In my pocket, I had $1,500. When I left Slovakia, I told my wife, hey, if I don’t like it or something go wrong, I buy ticket and come back. Or the other way, if I made a team I will like there, you come over and meet me after training camp. That’s what happened.
“I made the team. It was a pretty tough training camp for me. I didn’t speak English. A couple things I knew – the words I knew were pizza and Coke. That’s what happened in Lake Placid, I went for dinner by myself. I got a menu in front of me, I knew pizza and Coke, so I got dinner.
“It was pretty tough. There was the first wave of Europeans coming here that was Hasek, Reichel, Holik…guys from Czechloslovakia. It was hard to compete for a job. It kind of felt like I had a big bulls-eye on my chest. They were very tough scrimmages for me. Everybody try to get a piece of you just because you’re skating a little faster than everybody else. You kind of show a little bit extra. All of a sudden, those guys, they know it. At the same time, when I made the team, it was different. I was already on the side of the players. They tried to protect me.
“Neil Sheehy come to me and told me to take the Jofa (helmet) off and take the CCM. I asked him why? Because the other team will know you’re European and will go harder against you. I just put a CCM helmet on. Some of those guys try to help you up, protect you when you go to battle. At the same time, you learn the game. I pretty much learn from beginning. Whatever I knew about the game, you come here, it’s different. Totally different game. Different coach. Coaches ask you to do different things. You learn as you go. It was tough at the beginning because coach talk about the game you’re going to play – the system, before the game give you a couple points. It was tough for me to get a couple words from his meeting. Every day was learning. Every day was something new.
“Even in life. My wife try to go to the bank and open an account, pay a bill by check. You go through the process. It was quite an experience for us.”
How do you know how to get to the rink and know what the coach says?
“That’s why you have your teammates that try to help you out. After the first month, I was excited to learn. I wasn’t a guy who was shy. I try to talk to my teammates, to coaches. I wasn’t perfect, but that was maybe what the team liked about me, about my personality. I was a guy who initiated being in conversation with the guys. That’s how you learn the English.”
How different is it when you come into a new locker room to establish yourself?
“My first trade to Ottawa was a little bit tough. I was playing for 14 years almost for one team and I kind of knew the system, the coaches and players. You pretty much feel at home. Being traded to Ottawa, I didn’t know what to expect at the beginning. I knew I come there to play hockey. The adjustments I was going through, I was better the second time because of it.
“No matter where you go, all the guys are same. You got all personalities, everybody’s different, but I’m the guy who try to be a friend to everybody. I just try to bond with the team and do the job which they ask me to do.”
Key to longevity?
“Don’t get satisfied. Compete. Play your expectations. Before you fight for a big contract, you go establish yourself as a player, maybe as a goal scorer. You sign a big contract, and now there’s more pressure to play expectations. You come play every game, every practice and be your best. When you get older, I would say to young players, compete. It’s everything inside of you – how much you’re willing to go to that kind of battle in your own mind, sometimes. When you challenge yourself more and more, you’re going to get better results. That’s why you going to stay in the game.
“And you have to like the game. I’m going to be 39, I guess tomorrow. I still like the game. I’m really happy to come to practice. The lockout year made me realize how much I missed the game. Even this year, early in the season. I would do anything just to come here, whether you win or lose, it’s something special. You appreciate when you’re older, more and more, come to practice, do the preparation for the game.”
How tough is it to have a family in this kind of environment?
“When you have the family around during the season, you try to help as much to your family, to your wife as much as you can, especially when you have kids – with all the schools, activities. They have hockey, each have couple sports. I’m really very proud of my wife and how she handle that stuff now when I’m in Chicago and she’s in Washington. You go to the games and if you don’t have good friends or on the hockey team, I don’t know if I’d be able to do it.
“When I was home, my wife would see me. I was kind of watching every night, four-five games with my kids at the same time. You’re flipping channels. She knew I was not ready to retire. She knew I missed the game.
“It’s tough, especially when my kids are their age, I should be around them as a parent. At the same time, my heart is still in hockey. Hopefully, I will pay them back. Hopefully, when the season is over, I will spend more time with them.
“Anytime I have a day off, I try to fly back. Any time they have school off, they come into Chicago.”
What do you think is the biggest misconception others have about you?
“I’m not sure. Maybe they don’t know me. If they knew me and I was on the same team as them, maybe they would view me differently. Mostly, they look at you, hey, there’s a guy who scored lot of goals, or I’m not sure…maybe he’s selfish. I’m not sure what they think. I hope I convince them wrong when I have a chance to play with them same team. I’m the type of person that gets along with everybody, on the team, on the staff. Maybe because I play with one team for so long, people don’t know much about me.”
How has your role changed as a player?
“Through the beginning was learning the game and not much experience. Later on, I be a team leader, a guy who’s relied for production and be a number one or two player on a team. Coming around to the end, I come to try and help and give people the experience that I have. I can help the young players. The roles are definitely changing. The game itself is changing. You have to understand your role and how you can help the team.”
What has the game taught you personally?
“I grew up with the game, as a hockey player and as a person as well. It gives you a lot of good things for your life. Only good things, I would say, is what I gained from this game. You try to be a good person, not cheater. You gain a lot of good stuff.”
What’s your passion outside of hockey?
“It’s always been in sport. Any time I play anything, I like to win and compete hard, whether it’s tennis or golf. It’s always a challenge. If you’re not good, you try to get better. Because I’m playing the game, you always challenge yourself. Even when I stop playing, I still want to be active in sports.”