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Bonvie still has a little fight in him

by Brian Coe

There was a bit of a statistical anomaly during the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins’ recent swing through Syracuse, Manitoba and Toronto: not once during the four games did tough guy Dennis Bonvie pick up a penalty minute.

That’s right, the American Hockey League’s all-time leader in time spent in the sin bin went four straight contests without picking up a PIM.

That string of clean sheets only appears to be delaying the inevitable, though. As the Penguins prepared for a weekend homestand against the Toronto Marlies and Manchester Monarchs, Bonvie needed just 31 penalty minutes to reach the 4,000 mark for his AHL career. That’s a dubious mark to be sure, but one that also shows some impressiveness in a 13-year career.

“I don’t think it’s a big deal," said Bonvie, who is considered by fans and foes as one of the toughest guys ever to lace up the skates. "It’s an accomplishment in some sense. I would think people look at it in different ways. I’m thankful for my longevity, that I’ve been able to play and stay half decently healthy for my whole career.

"It’s a tough job, and I think a tough guy’s career is a lot shorter sometimes. So I’ve been lucky to still be playing. And I also think it’s good that I’ve had some consistency in what I’ve done, and I continue to do my job year in and year out.”

Bonvie’s job has had more to do with fists than sticks throughout his career. He is the measuring stick when it comes to hockey fights, having thrown down the gloves more times than he can remember. But his career could have taken an entirely different path.

“I scrapped a few times in Junior-A and did OK,” Bonvie said, recalling the formative days of his hockey career. “I’m sure if it went the other way and I’d not done so well in those fights, I probably wouldn’t be in this role. I went in to junior, and I did it, I did it, I did it.”

Bonvie racked up 599 penalty minutes during just two seasons in the Ontario Hockey League, then attended a pro tryout held by the Edmonton Oilers. The undrafted rookie landed a spot with the AHL’s Cape Breton Oilers in 1993, and has since gone on to incite hatred and fear in the hearts of the opposition.

“I’ve been fortunate. There’s a lot of people who have got a tryout and never made and went to university. And that would have been fine too. If you look at all the people who want to play and all the people who end up playing pro hockey, it’s a big difference. I’m one of the lucky ones who got a chance to play.”

And he’s been fairly lucky in the health department as well. There have been bumps and bruises, broken noses and fingers along the way. But Bonvie’s warrior mentality was one of the reasons former head coach Michel Therrien wanted to bring the former Penguin back to Wilkes-Barre this season.

“[The enforcer’s role] takes a hard toll; there’s a lot of injuries along the way,” the right wing from Antigonish, N.S., said. “I broke my hand, I broke my finger one time where I missed five weeks, a knee where I missed a few weeks. It’s probably through my stubbornness that I should have missed more time but I didn’t. I’ve prolonged operations and said I’d get it a little bit later or in the summer.”

Despite the fierceness and the competitive nature of the fighter in hockey, Bonvie says there is a definite etiquette in his role, as odd as that may sound.

“I’ve always said, ‘Live and die by the sword,’” he said. “I’m not one to go out and sucker somebody, because I figure that sometime, maybe not tomorrow or the next day, but sometime I’m going to get suckered back. And I don’t want that.

“I’ve fought everybody, and for the most part squared off with all of them and said, ‘You know, we’ll start off even, and whatever happens, happens.’ I’m a firm believer in that. If you go around sticking guys, sooner or later you’re going to get cracked with a stick or something’s going to happen. You play the game as clean as you can and as hard as you can. And for the most part, I think you’re going to get treated back the same way.”

Bonvie also believes there’s a time and place to fight. If your team is up by a goal or two, you want to stay away from dropping the gloves; if it needs a little pick-me-up, that’s the prefect time to throw a few punches.

“The biggest thing is that the game is all ebb and flow,” he said. “It’s all about energy. Sometimes you’re down here and you have to bring the team back. Sometimes you’re up here and you want to keep everybody flying.

“I could be sitting in the dressing room and say, ‘Man, I don’t like the feeling, I don’t like the feel of the room right now.’ For the most part you know when to do it and when not to.”

There also seems to be a genuine camaraderie among players who do Bonvie’s job, a fraternity of fighters if you will.

“For the most part those guys do their jobs for 60 minutes. And when it’s over you say ‘Hey, how you doing? Good job. See you next time,’” he stated. “I think that’s the way it’s got to be. Everybody knows what his job is, you go do it, and if something happens, it happens. Otherwise you play the game, you go up and down the wing and play hard.

“You look at a guy like [the Philadelphia Phantoms’] Josh Gratton," Bonvie said. "I think he’s a great kid. He goes out, does his job, plays hard, plays smart, plays clean. You look at other guys in our division, (like Norfolk’s) Shawn Thornton, Mike Brown, you play them so much and things happen. That’s the nature of the beast.”

After more than a dozen years bouncing around AHL rinks, Bonvie has become synonymous with his craft. And as the dean of the enforcers, he knows that a young guy looking to make his name is the business is apt to challenge him. That’s a proposition with which he has no problem.

“When I started I was the same way,” he said. “I wanted to go in there and fight all the toughest guys. They obliged so I’m going to oblige the next guy, there’s no doubt. If it’s right for our hockey team and right for us, I’ll go do it."

Now closer to the end of his career than the beginning, Bonvie looks back with pride at some of the heavyweights he has taken on.

Bob Probert, when I fought him in an (NHL) exhibition, was pretty big for me. My name (as a fighter) was out, but that circulated my name a little bit more,” he recalled. “I’ve fought guys like Tie Domi, Georges Laraque, Stu Grimson, Donald Brashear, Tony Twist three times. You fight all those guys and it’s nice to know you’re in that category somewhat. And yet there’s a lot of guys in the AHL who never get a break but are just as tough.”