By Kevin Iole
|Bonk “a la” Las Vegas Thunder. ©BBS|
Visitors to the Las Vegas Thunder’s practice sessions who want to talk to teenage center Radek Bonk are often forced to wait.
The 6’4”, 215-pound native of the Czech Republic, who was taken by the Ottawa Senators as the third overall pick in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft, is nearly always the final Thunder player to leave the ice.
There’s no one thing he works on for all that extra time, either. He’ll work on his skating one day, his shooting the next and his stick-handling a third.
It probably should be noted, though, that to Bonk this is not work at all. He is clearly a man who loves his job and looks forward to going to the rink every day.
“He loves the game,” says Thunder coach and general manager Bob Strumm, the man who engineered the deal to bring Bonk to Las Vegas as a 17-year-old in 1993.
Bonk surprised just about everyone but himself and his family with the way he performed for the Thunder last season. As the youngest player in the International Hockey League, and the first underage player to play professionally in North America since Mark Messier (in 1978), Bonk began last season as somewhat of a mystery.
But Bonk proved early on that he would be able to handle the pro-level competition despite his tender age. Just a month into the season, he racked up four goals and an assist in a game against Peoria, and scored the winning goal with less than a second remaining on the clock.
That game against the Rivermen stamped Bonk as the top prospect available in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft, and he was rated No. 1 by the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau for nearly the entire season.
He exceeded all expectations
“You read the reports on him and you knew he was a talented kid,” says Butch Goring, Bonk’s coach with the Thunder last season and now the head coach/general manager of the IHL’s Denver Grizzlies. “But who knew how he’d be able to stand up to the competition, and all the other things that make it so difficult in professional hockey?”
To be certain, Goring confided to those close to him that he would have been satisfied if Bonk had been able to get 10 or 15 goals.
Instead, Bonk had a mere 42 goals and 45 assists in 76 games, centered what was arguably the IHL’s top line and was an easy choice as the league’s Rookie of the Year.
The Thunder rolled to the IHL’s best regular season record, and Bonk was no small part of the team’s success.
“There were games he’d just dominate,” says Strumm. “He’d just decide it was time to put the piano on his back and (we’d) let him carry it.”
Bonk had hoped to carry the piano for the Ottawa Senators this season. The whole reason he came to play in North America in the first place, he says, was to better prepare himself to play in the NHL.
He also desperately wanted to be the first overall pick. But when the Florida Panthers and Anaheim Mighty Ducks both opted for highly-touted defensemen (Ed Jovanovski and Oleg Tverdovsky, respectively), Bonk fell into Ottawa’s lap.
And to say that Senators GM Randy Sexton was thrilled would be an understatement.
“We feel we got the best player in the draft,” says Sexton. “Never did we think we’d have a shot at him.”
Ottawa fine with Bonk
Many in his adopted hometown of Las Vegas— “The people here love this kid,” says Strumm—never believed Bonk would don a Senators uniform. Bonk, though, insists he would be happy to play in Ottawa.
“He wasn’t trying to pull (an Eric) Lindros,” and force a trade, Strumm says.
But negotiations between the Senators and Bonk’s representative, Michael Barnett, bogged down and Bonk somewhat unexpectedly found himself back in Las Vegas.
“I love Las Vegas, and it’s my home now,” says Bonk, who remains immensely popular in Las Vegas and still attracts long lines of autograph seekers whenever he appears at a card show or a store opening. But he plans to move on.
“I want to play in the NHL,” he says. “It’s the best league in the world and it’s been a goal (of mine) for a long, long time. But the Thunder has been very good to me and I have a lot of friends in Las Vegas. I’ll be happy to play in Las Vegas and try to help the Thunder win a Turner Cup.”
Bonk’s first goal against NHL competition thus came in a Las Vegas uniform—on a 55-foot slap shot that beat Chicago Blackhawks goalie Eddie Belfour in a September 1994 exhibition game at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas—and put Bonk in the uncomfortable position of playing minor league hockey when he, and most scouts, felt he was ready for the NHL.
No contract, but no trade
Prior to the NHL lockout, Bonk turned down a three-year contract from the Senators that would have netted him a little more than $1 million a season.
There were reports early in the season that it was Bonk’s father, Jaroslav, who forced him to say no to the Senators, opting to gamble that another big season in the IHL would mean an even bigger bonanza at the NHL level.
And while all involved vehemently deny that to be the case, Sexton once alluded to it during an interview with an Ottawa radio station.
For the record, Bonk says he was convinced he wasn’t being treated fairly, and refused to sign for what he felt was less than he was worth.
“I’ll play in Ottawa and I never said I wouldn’t,” says Bonk. “But I also have to get a fair contract. When they give me a fair contract, then I’ll sign.”
It appeared early in the year Bonk had made a poor gamble, since he got off to a slow start with the Thunder. For his part, Strumm is convinced the pressures of turning down untold millions has taken its toll on the youngster.
“It has to,” Strumm says. “There was so much going on there, and he’s just a young kid. It’s had to have had an impact.”
Barnett isn’t discouraged by Bonk’s slow start, and says it hasn’t decreased his value on the open market either. He says Bonk’s unique combination of size and skills continue to make him an attractive commodity to NHL scouts, and Barnett believes Bonk will emerge unscathed from his contract wars.
“I think you’d realize what people think of Radek if you saw the type of players they were willing to trade (to Ottawa) to get him,” says Barnett. “That would show you that there is plenty of respect for him around the (NHL).”
Sexton says the Senators aren’t of a mind to trade Bonk, anyway. In fact, Bonk may become a Senator not long after the NHL lockout ends.
“We want to win a championship and to do that, you need championship-type players, which this kid is,” Sexton says. “It wouldn’t make sense for us to (trade him).”
Senators would jump at talks
NHL teams are prohibited from negotiating new contracts during the lockout, but Sexton admitted he would look into reopening negotiations with Bonk at the conclusion of the lockout. He says if Bonk was interested in talking again, the Senators would jump at the chance. And Ottawa owner Rod Bryden was reportedly in Las Vegas recently, and took his potential star out for breakfast and a heart-to-heart discussion.
The thought of playing in the NHL clearly motivates Bonk, who played his two best games of the season in the Thunder’s exhibition games against the Chicago Blackhawks and Edmonton Oilers.
Then, when Philadelphia Flyers captain Kevin Dineen signed with the visiting Houston Aeros, Bonk perked up noticeably. He was given the assignment of checking Dineen that night, and took to the job with glee.
He locked Dineen up, and barely gave the NHL veteran a sniff at the net—providing a hint of what Radek Bonk can do when he’s motivated.
“He loves a challenge, and he’s the type of guy who will rise to meet the occasion,” Strumm says. “When you put a big challenge in front of him, he’s going to be right there to prove himself.”
That’s part of the reason Bonk is wearing an “A” on his jersey this season. Strumm says he felt Bonk, as a would-be superstar, would become looked upon to handle a leadership role in the future. Thus, he gave him the “A” with the Thunder in order for Bonk to get a taste of what being a captain is all about.
Bonk has struggled this season, though, and there has been public speculation that the weight of the alternate captaincy, as well as the pressures of the contract negotiations, have negatively affected him.
Bonk, however, dismisses such talk. He is determined to get back to where he was last season, when it seemed everything he touched turned to gold. His recipe to turn it around won’t come as a surprise to those who know him, either. It’s work, work and then work a little more.
“We have some good games, but we haven’t played the way we can consistently,” Bonk says. “We just have to make sure we work hard enough every night. If we do that, and I do that, we’ll be all right.”
Kevin Iole covers hockey for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
This first appeared in the 02/1995 issue of Hockey Player Magazine®
© Copyright 1991-2011 Hockey Player® and Hockey Player Magazine®