College hockey – Part 1

As I sat on the bench, watching my team lose in the second round of the state playoffs my senior year of high school, most though that would be the end of my competitive career. As I look back objectively at my skill level, I’d probably agree, but I still had aspirations of playing at the highest level I could make it to.

As I started looking at colleges, I stayed away from larger D1 schools, because I knew I had no chance in making those teams. I started looking at smaller D3 schools. For some reason I was getting many academic recruitment letters from D3 schools in Minnesota. One of those schools, Saint Mary’s University in Winona, MN, had organized an overnight bus trip from Chicago to the school. One of my best friends at the time, a teammate and another classmate were all going on the trip, so I decided to go. An older teammate of mine was already at the school and playing on the hockey team. I looked at SMU as an opportunity to keep playing. Turns out the four of us on the bus ended up attending and graduating from SMU, and there was another person on the bus that I meet, and is now one of my closest friends.

As I toured the small campus of SMU nestled in the bluffs in the Mississippi river valley, it just felt right. They had their own rink, the campus was picturesque, my dad’s cousin was an alumnus. The only question was what to major in. I loved the idea of architecture, but they didn’t have a program, and I didn’t like math. I also liked the idea of journalism because of an incident that happened at our school my freshman year of high school that I felt wasn’t properly reported on. SMU didn’t have a journalism major, but that had one that was close enough – marketing.

So I visited on school, applied to one school, got accepted, and graduated four years later. I had no backup school. I picked the school for the worst reason – in the hopes I could keep playing hockey, but it worked out perfectly.

Shortly before I graduated high school SMU had an admissions event in Chicago due to the large student body population from the area. My admissions counselor knew I was a hockey player, and knew the school’s summer hockey camp was short a counselor that year. She gave me the coach’s phone number, and I called it the next day. There wasn’t much of a conversation, it was more him asking if I can skate, and can I be there by the date needed. When I said yes to both, I was given one of the best summer jobs I ever had.

My mom and dad drove me up to school less than three weeks after receiving my high school diploma. I was the first of my friends to go off to school, so they threw me a big going away party too. We arrived at my dorm for the summer on June 19. I remember the day, because it was the same day of Brett Hull’s infamous Stanley Cup game winning goal against Dominik Hasek and the Buffalo Sabers. I though I had missed the game because after all us counselors got moved into our rooms for the summer, we headed over to the rink to skate around 7:00 pm that night. We skated for about five hours until one shot literally knocked my helmet off my head. Because the Stanley Cup game went into double overtime we walked in minutes before the game winning goal.

I have never felt more like a sieve than I did that night skating with a bunch of college players that night. As I look back at it, I was skating with some of the top player in our conference. I knew I had a lot of work to put in that summer to come close to their level of play.

For five weeks we were paired up with a team of kids ranging from squirts to high school players (the last week two of my teammates were actually in the camp), taking them on the ice four times a day, to the classroom twice a day, and dry land activities once a day. Once it was lights out us counselors drew straws to see who had to stay back and keep an eye on the dorm. The rest of us went to the rink and skated for a few hours, usually getting back around 1:00 am. As the five weeks wore on I started getting my timing down, stopping more shots than missing, and also observed the off ice regiment these guys went through to be at their level of talent. I also got to know the coaches.

It was also during hockey camp that I got my nickname that stuck with me throughout college, and I’m still called by teammates to this day. We had had a few drinks before heading to the bowling ally. All of the other guys had known each other for at least one season, and they all had nicknames for each other. The guy who was entering the names into the computer was putting in nicknames, not real names. He turned back to me in a half drunk state to ask if I had a nickname. When I told him I didn’t he stared at me for a moment, then said, “Bondo! I like it,” and typed that into the computer.

I thought the name Bondo would last one night. Somehow the coaches caught wind of it, and our other exploits that night, and were pretty rough on us the next day. They also took to calling me Joe Bondo. It got to the point that they even put Joe Bondo on daily practice rosters, and sophomore year when the official roster was posted and they used my real name some of the freshman insisted that Bondo was my last name. I had to show them my driver’s license.

As far as nicknames go, Bondo isn’t bad. It has no meaning to it, but is quirky, and fits a goalie.

When camp ended I had a few weeks back home before school started. As soon as we got to campus for school captains’ practices started. Each day we had dry land activities, and on ice time. The dry land activities were the worst as we’d run through the bluffs trying to build up our endurance. As I started looking around I counted 18 goalies trying out for six spots (three varsity, three JV). I think on some level I figured I was done, but I was stubborn, and said no, I’m making this team.

Captain’s practices prepared us for what was four weeks of tryouts starting October 1 every year. October 1 was the date that the NCAA allowed coaches to begin organized activities with athletes. I’m not entirely sure why, but the head coach had a rule that before you could play in a game, JV or varsity, you had to run a mile in under six minutes, so October 1, the first day of tryouts, was mile run day. We ran the mile around the indoor 200-meter track in our rec center connected to the ice rink. It was eight laps around the track. I wasn’t going to leave it up to chance, when the coach said go, I went all out. Pace be damned. When I crossed the finished line, collapsed, and almost puked, the coach read off my time as 5:15. If I made the team, I wouldn’t have to sit any games.

The first two weeks of tryouts were all off ice as they put us through agility drills and strength test. It was really an opportunity for them to weed out any non-athletes who thought they had a chance of making the team, and keeping them from taking the ice. The third week of tryouts is when the on ice activities started, and was also a fall break, allowing us to have two-a-day practices. I already knew from captains practices who my competition was, but I saw who elevated their play in tryouts. I also notices I had elevated mine, and was playing well.

After the week of two-a-day tryouts they split the groups into to, and made some cuts. One of my teammates from high school who was at SMU with me didn’t make it past this cut. The first group was what they felt the varsity team would be and 6-10 players who could possibly skate fourth line. The second group was bigger, and would clearly makeup the JV team. My name was still on the daily practice list, so I kept working hard. Tryouts end with a Red-White inters quad game made up pretty much of the final roster. I was bummed when I didn’t see my name on the Red-White game roster, but they only dressed four goalies for that game, and they were all returning goalies.

The morning after the Red-White game the final roster was posted on the ice rink doors. I really didn’t think I’d make the team as there were five returning goalies, and a bunch of other good freshman goalies trying out for the six spots. One of the fellow freshman goalies had played in the Minnesota High School Hockey State Tournament the year before. I prepared myself for the letdown – heck, I’m a Chicago Cubs fan so I was better prepared for letdown than others in those days. I walked up to the rink alone, and found my name on the JV list.

I ran back to my dorm room, and quickly found my calling card so I could call my dad and tell him the good news. Sorry kids, we didn’t have cell phones like we do today back then. Cell phones were around, but they were reserved for executives and Zack Morris. After I hung up with my parents I went back to the rink to pack up my hockey bag, and move my equipment into the JV locker room. I picked I locker in the corner right by the door. I’ve always liked sitting as close to the door as possible. Little did I know that would be my spot for the next four years.

I remember that first practice. We were at center ice stretching when our coach skated out and said, “Gentlemen, look around. Each and every one of you is disappointed you didn’t make the varsity team. Keep that disappointment, and let that motivate you to give maximum effort each and every time you are on this ice, but also realize that making this team, you are in the top 10% of hockey players in the world. Be disappointed, but realize your accomplishment.”

I thrived in the college hockey environment. We practiced Monday – Thursday, varsity games on Friday and Saturday, JV games Saturday and sometimes Thursday or Friday. NCAA regulations that we had to have one day off a week, so being a Catholic school we took Sunday off. What I likes about this schedule was Monday practices were all individual skills, meaning lots of shots, and my favorite day of the week. By the time we got to Thursday we had transitioned to all systems work.

Saint Mary’s plays in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC). Not all MIAC teams had JV teams, so we rounded out our JV schedule playing Junior B teams from Minnesota.

I remember our first game. We played Augsburg college and I was the backup that day. The coach opened up the jersey cabinet in the equipment room and told us to go pick out our numbers. The varsity sweaters were already hung in the varsity locker room for their game that night. That meant number 35 was gone. I started wearing number 30 being an Ed Belfour fan. When a teammate of mine who wore number five passed away I switched to number 35. I started thumbing through the jerseys and came across number 39. It was the biggest jersey in the cabinet. I loved it.

When I pulled that sweater over my head I was overcome by a flood of emotions. I was very proud of what I had accomplished, but also wished a bunch of people could see me, because I had many teammates, coaches, opponents, etc. tell me I’d never play varsity high school hockey, and here I was playing NCAA hockey. I proved them all wrong.

We had a team stretch in the field house connected to the ice rink. My teammates all came walking out with their jerseys on, looking like normal people wearing a hockey jersey, then there was me, with this giant XXXL jersey, looking like an eight year old wearing his dad’s jersey. One of my teammates asked if it doubled as a 12-man tent in the offseason.

I got my first start on November 20, 1999, against the Minneapolis Kodiaks. My grandfather who passed away in 1998 was one of my biggest fans. I remember vividly the dream I had the night before this game. The phone rang, and my mom told me my grandpa wanted to talk to me. I reminder her that he was dead, and she said he knew, but still wanted to talk to me. I took the phone, and it was his voice, clear as day, wishing me good luck, and saying he’d be watching. Then I woke up.

The Kodiaks were a strong team for being a Junior B team. We skated to a 4-3 victory, and I still have that puck sitting in the garage.

Two starts later, December 4th to be exact, we were playing the Minnesota Ice Hawks. The Ice Hawks were a very chippy team that we just skated around. We were up something like eight or nine to one midway through the third period when the puck was heading my way, but didn’t have enough steam to be icing. I came out of my net and was halfway between the hash marks and top of the circle to my left side when I made a nice bounce pass off the boards to connect with a teammate at center ice. The fact I remember watching the pass connect tells you how late the hit was on me when an Ice Hawks player comes barreling down on me with both elbows raised so they’d connect with my head. My teammates who were on the bench tell me I did two rotations parallel to the ice before falling down, laying there motionless. It’s figured I was out cold for close to 30 seconds, but since it was a delayed penalty, and my teammates on the ice didn’t see what happened because they were already headed the other way, play continues. I came to when I heard the whistle.

These days with all the concussion talk the whistle would have been blown right away, and the trainers would have been out to check on me, and remove me from the game. What happened in that game though was I somehow got myself up. I saw the trainer standing at the door wondering if she should come out, but as I was getting up she decided not to. I made my way back to the net, holding onto the crossbar for the rest of the game – still making saves as we went onto win 11-1.

After every game we had a box of fruit in our locker room. It was when I was halfway through eating an apple that I remembered I didn’t like apples. My head felt funny so I made my way to the trainer’s room with just my breezers (in Minnesota that’s what we call hockey pants) on. The trainer looked at me and asked what was wrong. I guess I had a really puzzled look on my face when I asked her if I got hit in the game, because at the time I didn’t remember if I did or didn’t. Her response was, “Oh did you ever get rocked!” I proceeded to tell her I didn’t remember it, and her whole demeanor changed as she started running me through test to diagnose a concussion.

Our game was an early one, and was done by noon. The trainer was asking me if I had a roommate or any friends who could watch me as I should be sleeping for a few hours, etc. I said I could probably find somebody as my coach was walking by, getting ready to join the varsity team on a trip up to the Twin Cities for a game against Hamline University. He asked what was going on, looked at me, then told me to shower up as I was making the trip with the varsity team so they could keep an eye on me.

Before the bus departed I was asked what I wanted to eat when we stopped for a pregame meal in Red Wing, MN. Brian Trottier Jr. was told to keep an eye on me both on the bus, and at the game as he was a healthy scratch that night. I still feel bad for the kid as every bump in the road, and sway of the bus made me nauseous. Luckily for him nothing came of it. When we stopped to eat I asked for a menu, and tried sitting at the coaches table. My varsity teammates were getting a kick out of me. My mind is still a bit foggy, but I think that night was also the first night of Hanukkah because one of the varsity goalies was Jewish and lead the bus in the dreidel song on the ride home after the varsity team won.

This concussion was bad. The first few days after I had professors telling me to skip class because I wasn’t really there anyway. Luckily it was the last JV game before the Christmas break and I didn’t miss any games. I missed a week worth of practice though. When I was back home in Chicago our family doctor checked me out, and sent me for an MRI. At the time he said there appeared to be no permanent damage, and that I’d probably get the headaches for a few more weeks. Turns out I get migraine headaches to this day, and I never got them before college.

After sustaining the concussion I switched to a Hasek style combo helmet. I loved it. It was light, allowed for better movement of my head, and head better visibility. It also went with my number 39 sweater.

After the Christmas break I played a few more games, and played well. I think I played in a total of 8 of our 18 games that season. We lost a total of three games all year.

Once the season was over us players made a schedule of our own to keep skating in some loosely organized way until school got out. That year we created our own intramural season for hockey players only. In later years the school intramural department simply ran it for us.

The summer after my freshman year I again worked the hockey camp. Unlike the previous year, I wasn’t a counselor. I was asked to be a Zamboni driver. It was a great opportunity for me because the other driver bartended at night so he would work ever morning, and my days would start at 1 pm every day. The drawback was that I worked until 9:00 pm every night. That schedule was great because I was there all summer. I didn’t even go home when school ended. I simply moved into a singles dorm room (which was in our school’s haunted residents hall). My day started when I woke up and spent an hour in the weight room, then I went and swam laps in the pool for another 45 minutes –hour. I would then head over to the rink to help my goalie coach run his mid day goalie click (poor goalies had a shortened lunch because they were putting in extra time), then got some lunch before driving the Zamboni.

Because I was driving the Zamboni, I worked the five weeks of boy’s camps, and an additional two weeks of girl’s camp. For seven weeks that summer I worked out every day, swam laps, and played a lot of hockey. I was in the best shape of my life. One thing that worried me though is I wasn’t gaining any weight despite how much food I was eating in the cafeteria, and all the weight lifting, so the three week summer break I had back in Chicago I was back at the family doctor to make sure there wasn’t anything I should be worried about. After some test he determined I was just how I was, and one day my metabolism would slow down, but until then I’d probably be 150lbs. no matter what I did.

Upon arriving back at campus for my sophomore year I got my dorm room ready as quick as possible so I could then take my equipment over to the arena, and get settled in there. We again had a number of goalies trying out for the 6 spots. This time we again had five returning goalies, but I was one of them this time. We didn’t have as many goalies trying out, but I think there were a total of 12 of us. This year I knew what I was in for come captains’ practices and tryouts. I also knew that the coaches tried to have at least one guy in each group for the six-minute mile run who had run track in college, and could pace us. Sophomore year started my habit of finishing the mile run with a time of 5:59 for three years in a row.

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