Distant Cheers for Bondra
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 11, 1998; Page E1
For 25 years, from Poprad youth leagues to the National Hockey League, it has always been so: Bondrova does not watch live games involving her son, Washington Capitals star right wing Peter Bondra. And the biggest stage in North American hockey won't change that.
"It has always made me so nervous," said Bondrova, 65, smiling broadly as she stood in the yard where she keeps her hens and pigeons.
"I can't watch them smash him into the glass; it's too much for me," she said. "I watch the repeats when I know what happens and even that makes me nervous because I'm such an old woman now."
Bondrova was one of the few residents of this small industrial city who didn't watch at least some of Game 1 against the Detroit Red Wings, despite the 2 a.m. start Wednesday morning, local time.
From the hulking winter stadium where Peter Bondra first played competitive ice hockey, to the downtown pedestrian mall where families stroll and teenagers sneak kisses, the fate of the Washington Capitals is the talk of Poprad. And the mere mention of the name Peter Bondra elicits a chest-swelling pride.
"I believe in Washington," declared Miroslav Glatz, 33, a factory worker, as he sipped a tall beer at an outdoor cafe hours before the game. "We will be keeping our fingers crossed for Peter and we will be trying to stay awake."
"Tomorrow will be tough at work, but we have to watch the game," said Pavol Fialek, 21, a clothing salesman who was strolling downtown. "Poprad is very proud of Bondra."
Since the Capitals drafted Bondra in 1990 he was the 156th player chosen overall the speedy forward has blossomed into one of the NHL's superstars, earning the nickname "Bonzai" along the way. Over the past four seasons, Bondra has scored more goals than anyone else in the league, and his 52 goals this year tied him for the league best.
Despite his quiet demeanor off the ice, this season Bondra has taken many of the Capitals' European-born rookies under his wing, particularly fellow Slovak Richard Zednik, who has emerged as a star in his own right during the playoffs.
Bondra, 30, who left Slovakia with his wife, Luba, and a year-old daughter, has since added two sons to his family. But he retains his Slovak citizenship, and played for the country in the Olympics a bow to his hockey roots here in Poprad.
Soccer and ice hockey are the twin passions of this unlovely city of factories and gray apartment buildings, which look up at the wild and snow-flecked peaks of the Tatra Mountains. It is said that if you bathe in the mountain lakes you acquire the gift of seeing through doors and walls. And, in a variation on that legend, locals believe Bondra can see through defenses.
"He has the eyes and the luck," said Alois Vagas, 53, who lives next door to Bondrova's small two-story home on the edge of the city. "He's so fast to the goals."
Bondra's mother, a Pole, met his father, a bus driver who died in 1982, in Ukraine where they had gone to seek work. The family of three boys moved back to Slovakia, the father's home, when Peter was 3.
"He was my youngest," said Bondrova. "He was the smartest and the fastest, a little devil."
Under the tutelage of his older brother, Juraj, Peter Bondra learned to skate on frozen local streams and at the 6,000-seat winter stadium, which looks like an oversize hay barn. Poprad, which is planning to bid for the 2006 Winter Olympics, would like to replace the stadium, locals said.
"We skated wherever we could find ice," said Juraj Bondra, 38, the assistant coach on the Poprad ice hockey team, which competes in the Slovak professional league. "I told him you have to learn how to skate great before you can be a great ice hockey player."
Both brothers played professionally for Poprad and then Kosice, another Slovakian city, before the fall of communism. On Aug. 26, 1990, Peter Bondra left for Washington and Juraj went to France, where he played professionally for four years.
"I've just got a little piece of his big talent," said Juraj, the second-eldest of the Bondra brothers. "Peter is not just for Poprad, he symbolizes Slovakian ice hockey."
The eldest brother, Vladimir Bondra, 45, also works in Poprad as a driver, but he claims to be something less than a hockey fanatic.
"I might watch it," he said nonchalantly when asked about his interest in the game.
"Don't worry, he'll be watching," said Juraj when told of his brother's indifference. "Everyone lives by ice hockey here. People have been stopping me on the street asking me what I think will be the results and I'm saying, 'I'm here, not in America. Ask my brother.'‚"
His wife and two children asleep, Juraj watched the game with a visitor. He sat in an armchair, his arms folded, and his fingers pressing into his flesh as the action picked up. But the first minutes of anticipation quickly turned into a frown as the Capitals fell two behind, their play matching the thick fog that was settling over Poprad.
"They're asleep," Juraj said. "This is not beautiful hockey."
Even as the Capitals scored a goal and outplayed Detroit in the third period, Juraj, ever the older brother, continued to shake his head.
"Washington is very aggressive but they don't always use their heads," he said. "They can win the Stanley Cup, but to do that, they need to think more."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
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