Late last week, Washington Capitals great Peter Bondra was inducted into Slovakia’s Hockey Hall of Fame. Bondra was previously inducted into the International Ice Hockey Federation’s HOF back in 2016.
The news of Bondra’s latest honor was met enthusiastically by our readers, but it also renewed an old debate (that’s actually not much of a debate at all) among old-guard Caps fans: Should Peter Bondra’s number 12 should be retired?
The answer remains a resounding yes. Bonzai’s number should be hanging in the rafters next to Rod Langway, Yvon Labre, Mike Gartner, and Dale Hunter.
I’ve resisted writing about this over the years, but Ted, I really think it’s time.
When I was going through the comments of the Slovakian HHOF story, I thought Witter4Norris presented Bondra’s credentials about as clearly as possible:
Bondra is a:
500 Goal Scorer
5x All Star
2x 50+ Goals
2x NHL Season Goals Leader
1 of 47 Players to score 5 or more goals in a game.
Bondra scored 472 of his 503 career goals with the Capitals — and 825 of his 892 career points. A majority of these goals and points came at Landover, MD’s USAir Arena. Bondra reached those heights on more salary-conservative Capitals teams (pre-Ted). The Capitals were a goodish, small-market team defined by their strong defense. It was Bondra’s brilliance and Olie Kolzig’s unflappability in goal that made them into regular challengers and eventually lifted the team to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in 1998. Bondra would have likely scored all of his goals in Washington if not for the Jagr trade and its resulting teardown.
Some might say that Alex Ovechkin and his elite production in the decades later lessen what Bondra did in a Screaming Eagle jersey. I would argue it’s only enhanced what Bondra did because Bonzai’s hanging with arguably the greatest goal-scorer in NHL history despite playing in three fewer seasons. In the 90’s, Bondra performed Ovechkian tasks slightly less routinely than Alex Ovechkin himself (minus the hitting, of course).
Among Capitals franchise records, Bondra sits first in shorthanded goals (32), second in goals (472), second in power-play goals (137), second in game-winning goals (73), second in shots (3,290), and third in points (825) – trailing only Ovechkin (1410) and Nicklas Backstrom (1011), who both seem to be shoo-ins for jersey retirement.
When considering someone for this honor, one must ask if their legacy will endure. So I looked at how Peter Bondra’s numbers stacked up with players from the Toronto Maple Leafs. Toronto, an original six team, has retired thirteen numbers in honor of nineteen players over their century-plus in the league.
If Bondra scored his 472 Capitals goals with the Leafs, he would be the franchise’s leading goal-scorer, and it wouldn’t be close. Mats Sudin would be a distant second, scoring 420 goals during his Leafs career. Sudin had his number retired in 2012.
Part of why I think Capitals majority owner Ted Leonsis has been slow to honor Bondra or Olie Kolzig is because he wants the honor to be meaningful – both now and in the future. It should not be an emotional decision. There are benchmarks that must be met.
A season after Peter Bondra retired in 2006-07, Leonsis did an online chat with fans on ESPN.com and explained his rationale for Bonzai.
“As you may have heard, we decided to retire Mike Gartner’s jersey and number next season. He was a long-term great player for the Capitals and is now in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Retiring numbers is a very difficult process, especially for a team like the Capitals who have never won a Stanley Cup. We need to be thoughtful on whose numbers we retire and why and when.”
“Certainly Peter Bondra is one of the all-time greats in our team. He is also a great man and I consider him a personal friend.”
“When the time is right, I am sure things will work out the right way and Peter Bondra will have his day, but he just retired last season so we all need to give this some time.”
In 2009, Leonsis also spoke about a possible Olie Kolzig number retirement after the Vezina Trophy-winner retired.
“He was an all-time great for our franchise,” Leonsis said. “He is deeply respected and beloved by all of us but I simply request that we all have the luxury of time. We all need to gain perspective.”
Now, this is where you think I might disagree with Ted, but I don’t. This might be jolting and unpopular, but time has gained us perspective on Olie Kolzig after Braden Holtby’s performance in DC. I went from Olie, who was my favorite player as a kid, being a sure-fire number retiree to being somewhat unsure. My feelings are the same with Braden years removed from him leaving DC. Both players’ career stats and milestones are similar. The only real substantial difference is Braden’s ring. Do both players deserve it? Does one? Does neither? As a fan, I’d like to see the requirements lowered slightly and have both of their numbers retired, but I’m not the one who makes these decisions.
Here’s another example of Ted’s rationale, but I believe illustrates his point. When TJ Oshie retires, I’m sure there will be a portion of the fanbase clamoring for his number 77 to be retired by the franchise. TJ’s charming, likable, other-worldly talented, and helped the Capitals win the Stanley Cup in 2018. He’s no doubt one of the most memorable players in Capitals history and in this NHL era in general. He made a ton of people hockey fans in this area that otherwise wouldn’t be. But when time calms our feelings, and when we’re able to look at TJ’s time cold-heartedly in DC, we’ll acknowledge that he was a very good role player in the shadow of Alex Ovechkin and was not here long enough or put up numbers big enough to deserve of the honor.
To further that point, Oshie has scored 161 goals and 325 points during his seven seasons with the Capitals, which ranks him outside the franchise’s top 10 in both. Is Oshie more deserving than Bondra just because he was a Stanley Cup winner? It doesn’t feel right to me.
Those benchmarks seem to be the reason why Bondra remains borderline for the honor. Not only did Bonzai not win a Stanley Cup in Washington (that team ran into a buzzsaw that was the Detroit Red Wings, a dynasty team when there was no salary cap), but he is also not an honored member in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Of the 46 players in the history of the NHL to score 500-plus goals, only five have not been named to the Hall yet who are currently eligible. Bondra joins Keith Tkachuk (538), Pat Verbeek (522), Pierre Turgeon (515), and Jeremy Roenick (513) who are still waiting for that call.
Mike Gartner, who was the last player to have his jersey retired by the Capitals in 2008, did not win a Stanley Cup, but scored 708 career goals and was named to the Hall of Fame in 2001.
As for the present, the Capitals appear to be in a holding pattern on the Bondra decision. Per Hockey Reference, only one player has worn the number 12 since Bondra left: Jeff Friesen in 2006. No one has been given Bondra’s jersey number in the 16 years since.
While the team may be unsure when or if to pull the trigger with Bondra, Capitals fans aren’t.
From Michael M.:
Uncle Ted needs to stop dragging his feet and do the right thing and retire Bondra’s #12. Bonzai made the experience of going to MCI Center an absolute pleasure, was always a threat when he was on the ice, and more importantly, was and is one of the nicest athletes I’ve ever met (I met him when I was 11 and he remembered me 20 years later). He is a class act and the team needs to do right by him (and Olie) and enshrine these legends in the rafters asap!
From Jonathan C.:
During the Bondra era, I’d go and see him play, and that is now the reason why I have become such a big Caps fan since!
From Alex J.:
Bondra was an awesome goal scorer🤘. Led us a Stanley Cup Final. Should be in the NHL HOF. Retire #12 for Washington
From Martha P.:
Congratulations. Enjoyed watching [Peter] play, now Caps come on retire His and Olie’s jerseys!
Headline photo: Cara Bahniuk/RMNB
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