"Then I read one day in the newspaper that a famous NHL scout was coming to our game in Vitkovice," Bondra says. "He was coming to see Richard Smehlik [now with the Sabres], who played for Vitkovice. I got really excited. I went to that game ready to play the game of my life. I scored a couple of goals and had a couple of assists. After the game the scout came to talk to me. The next game we played, he was there just to watch me."
The scout was the late Jack Button of the Capitals, the only scout who saw Bondra play. He saw that Bondra had explosive speed, the kind that keeps defensemen on their heels, and a wicked shot with a remarkably fast release. He saw that Bondra was strong on his skates and wasn't afraid to play in traffic. When Washington drafted him, Bondra immediately wanted to go to the U.S. There was the not-so-little problem of a Communist government that didn't allow its young players to leave, but this was June 1990, and suddenly there was no Communist government anymore. Bondra left his wife, Luba, and their one-year-old daughter, Petra, at home and headed for Washington and training camp. He told Luba that after a month either she would be coming to join him or he, having failed, would be coming home.
"It's an amazing thing," he says. "I came here, I didn't know a word of English. I didn't know anything. I didn't know how to write a check, go to the stores. Michal Pivonka, who had been here for a couple of years with the team, helped me. I made a whole new life. Amazing."
In eight years, that life has gotten better and better. He and Luba, who arrived with Petra in September 1990, have added two boys—David, five, and Nicholas, one—to their family. Bondra has been an All-Star four of the past five seasons. He even got that citizenship matter straightened out. After the breakup of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, he became a Slovakian citizen and played for Slovakia in the Olympics. In eight years more has changed than he ever could have imagined. Now it is Bondra who helps young teammates adjust to their new surroundings.
"I try to help Zednik the way Pivonka helped me," Bondra says in well-spoken English. "I help him with the language. I take him around, show him things. Slovakia is a small country, maybe six million people. It's quite a thing to have two players from Slovakia on the same NHL team." (Only seven players in the NHL were from Slovakia at the start of the season.)
One thing Bondra has helped Zednik with is motivation. Before Game 3, Bondra told the 22-year-old rookie wing that the game was being televised in Slovakia. Zednik, excited by the idea that his family would see him play, responded with two goals and an assist, playing his best game of the postseason. Bondra, who admitted he wasn't sure if that game was in fact televised in Slovakia, repeated the message last Saturday. He said he was telling the truth this time.
"Oh, for sure it would be televised on a Saturday," he says. "In Slovakia, they all are following this. There are stories about the NHL in the paper every day, especially now, the Stanley Cup, playing against Hasek. The people of Slovakia, they know all about the NHL."
Memo to The Washington Post: Take that picture of Bondra to Slovakia and show it around over there. The Slovakians will know who he is.
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