Never for a moment in the three months since he and his family arrived from Czechoslovakia has Peter Bondra given the impression he wasn't trying with all his might to make the Washington Capitals glad they picked him in this summer's draft.
In fact, he was so intent on making that impression that he was getting in his own way. But a little success led to a little confidence, which led to more success and more relaxation. And as he has relaxed, he has become an increasingly important part of the team.
"Before the season, I not relax," Bondra said. "Now is good. Not very good. Next month, maybe is very good."
Bondra's play is progressing at that sort of rate -- he has 12 points in the last 12 games -- as is his English. He knew only a word or two of the language when he got off the plane for his first visit to North America.
He still uses Michal Pivonka to interpret some things that don't yet compute. And recently, because he also speaks Russian, he's been able get some help from John Chapin, who was hired to interpret for Soviet defenseman Mikhail Tatarinov.
"His English is coming along real well," Coach Terry Murray said. "Now, when I want to talk to him, I just go to him and not always use Michal. Either with words or hand signals, he picks it up."
After 13 games, the 22-year-old Bondra had four points. Although the words were spoken very quietly, management was beginning to wonder if they might be rushing Bondra into the NHL.
The adjustment to a new continent with a decidedly different brand of hockey has taken time for nearly every player who has made the trip. On Oct. 30, Bondra was scratched from the lineup for the first time. A trip to Baltimore was a distinct possibility. He knew what that meant.
"He said, 'Baltimore -- small money,' " said goalie Don Beaupre, who at the time was going to play two games with the Skipjacks to improve his conditioning.
"I didn't worry about it," Bondra said through Chapin. "I just concentrated on playing hard and practicing well."
Since watching that game in Vancouver, Bondra has four goals and eight assists, has been shut out in just three games, and is tied for fourth in scoring among rookies. He had an assist in each game of the Capitals' weekend split with Pittsburgh and is hoping to extend the run tonight when Washington plays the New York Rangers at 7:30 at Madison Square Garden.
"I think he's feeling much more confident in the league," Murray said. "You compare yourself to others and see the talent level. That's a big part of a lot of players' success. You score a couple goals, make a couple big plays and, for a young guy, that can do tremendous things."
Murray gives Pivonka much credit for the improvement. He and Bondra have been paired together for much of the last 10 games. Both are good skaters who like the offensive part of the game, and both are starting to get a sense for where the other is going. Also, they can talk to each other, which Bondra cannot do yet with the other players.
"He helps me and tells me where I should go," Bondra said.
"It's not like I'm telling him what to do, but it's just communicating and that helps," said Pivonka, whose own production has increased at a similar rate. Pivonka has 15 points in the last 13 games.
Pivonka has been strictly at center since that Vancouver game (when Peter Zezel was hurt), with Bondra on right wing. A couple of players have been on the left side, Kelly Miller lately.
"Kelly Miller gives that line good intensity and forces them to work at a high level," Murray said. "Certainly, Pivonka's play has picked up. Is that related to Bondra and Miller? I don't know. They are players that like the skill part of the game. They complement each other."