London, Ont. – Radek Bonk and his wife, Jill, sit in section 103 of Budweiser Gardens’ crowded, gear-packed London Knights. Radek wears a black T-shirt with the “Spider Knight” logo on it and a classic black Knights baseball hat. Jill wears a black Knights hoodie and a black Knights ball cap as well, only to have a “59” tagged on one side for their son, Knights defenseman Oliver Bonk, who hopes to finish his NHL draft with an OHL championship en route to a potential Memorial Cup.
The two made the nearly six-hour trip from Ottawa to catch Oliver in Game 5 of the OHL Championship Series against the Peterborough Petes. Down 3-1, it’s either do or die for the Knights.
Admittedly, Radek is nervous about this.
“You know what? I find myself getting nervous, especially during the qualifiers now,” said Radek, who has been flying back and forth between London, Peterborough and Ottawa. “You get a little nervous when you’re playing and it’s a big game, but nothing like that.”
Of course, with 13 seasons in the NHL and 939 regular season NHL games between three NHL clubs on his resume, he knows a thing or two about pre-game nerves.
Except this time he’s a fan, watching his son play in the most important game of his life, just over a month away from his name being heard by an NHL club.
So yeah, he’s nervous tonight, but mostly excited. And proud, as always.
“You just want your kids to succeed. You just want them to do it well,” Radek said. “Today on the road here, you know, the whole game is smiling because you’ll see him tonight, and they’re all playing.”
The first period is coming to a close and is 1-1. Bonk has a secondary assist on the game-tying goal from 2023 NHL-eligible teammate Easton Cowan.
“That was a big goal,” Radek said when asked about the opening period. “You know? We had a bunch of chances to score and it looked like it was going to be one of those days when nothing happens. But Easton Kwan had a perfect moment in the period, you know, just to equalise. I hope they come out flying.”
When asked to paint a picture of a game Bonk, there’s a certain sequence of plays that comes to mind for Knights assistant coach Rick Steadman.
It’s late in the game and the Knights, with a one-goal lead, take a big penalty kick. The opposing team skates and discards the puck with three young men checking it out. Instead of roaming or throwing the puck away, Bonk creates a fight, taking a few jabs and making a backhand outlet between his legs off the boards.
“Being that young and calm and confident in your ability makes this elite game great,” said Steadman, who oversees Knights Power.
Bonk is a puck-moving defensive lineman who can move the ice quickly and make good decisions. He doesn’t try to do too much, and knows when to jump in on the play. the athleteScott Wheeler describes him as “a pro defenseman who plays an assertive game, generally possesses good skill, has strong runs and changes of direction, and escapes pressure well.”
“He reads when to jump and isn’t limited to road racing up and down the ice,” Steadman said. “He’s going to be one of those two-way defenders who’s going to give you points and that can also shut down the big players.”
Bonk, a 2021 second-round draft pick, was fit for just 10 regular-season games and all seven games of the first-round series in London with the Kitchener Rangers in the playoffs last year. He spent most of his 16-year-old season in Junior B with the St. Louis Cardinals.
But he returned to London the following summer ready to make an impression, and finished the season as one of the team’s most valuable fullbacks, playing big minutes in the top four over the course of a long play-off run. In his 67-game rookie campaign, Bonk produced impressive offensive performances (10 goals, 30 assists).
That insulting wit is something Bonk likes to think he learned from his father.
“Just seeing his reaction, the play, seeing how he reads the play — I think I got that from him and I own that. And I think that’s my biggest quality now is hockey IQ and thinking about the play,” Oliver said of his father’s influence.
Radek, born in Krnov, Czechoslovakia, was drafted by the Ottawa Senators with the #3 pick of the 1994 NHL Draft and played 10 seasons for the club prior to two seasons with the Montreal Canadiens and Nashville Predators (and stopped in the Czech Republic for the 2004-05 lockout season). After what would have been his final season in the NHL in Nashville in 2008-09, he signed a KHL deal for the following season but opted to return to the Czech League after seven games, where he finished his career before ending his skating in 2014.
Today, he coaches the Kanata Rangers team, his daughter Kennedy’s team, and the Kanata Blazers team where his son Cameron plays.
“I was a defensive attacker, I could give him a lot because I made my career, you know, shutting people up. I think I was good at that,” Radek said. “I always told him you wanted to be, you know, a defensive man both ways. But at the end of the day, you’re a defenceman, so take care of your back end first, and then if there’s room or opportunity to come up, you come out, but the defensive side is very important.”
Born in 2005 in Ottawa, Bonk has fond memories of watching his father’s games as a young child. One of his favorite memories was watching him win a championship with HC Oceláři Třinec in the Czech Extraliga in 2011 and going on the ice with him afterwards.
Now, all these years later, Radek is cheering Oliver on from the stands.
“It’s great to have him in the stands and to see him after the game,” said Oliver. “My heart gladdens to see that he’s watching me, you know, rather than watching him. It’s really cool.”
The Knights visit Ottawa only 67 times a year because the teams are in opposite conferences. Since the Bonks have three other children and often attend hockey tournaments on weekends, driving to games from Ottawa on a regular basis isn’t easy.
But if he can’t be there in person, Radek watches the games online, either live or later that night. He hasn’t missed a single match this season.
Oliver and Radek will often talk on the phone after games, and sometimes watch videos together and put on plays.
“We really understand the game in the same way, so it really helps me right my mistakes, see what I can do better,” Oliver said. “It’s nice to have someone who knows hockey to talk about.”
But as much as Radek is there to help with the pointers, he also doesn’t want to overstep and would rather leave most of the training to Dale Hunter, Steadman and the rest of the London coaching staff.
“I don’t want to call him after every game, he has to do this, he has to do it right,” Radek said. “He’s got good people around him who I completely trust.”
If you ask both Oliver and Radek, the Knights, headed by Coach Hunter and General Manager Mark Hunter, with their extensive list of notable alumni players and a winning track record, were an ideal team for Oliver to develop with.
“The history of this club speaks for itself, right? They’ve been developing players and helping players play at the next level. Not just the NHL, all the way out of the pros, you know, for a long time,” Radek said. “When (Oliver) was recruited here It was an easy decision to come here, like I said, they’ve done it for a long time and this was probably the most successful junior team in the country.”
Oliver credits the Hunters system and guidance for what he believes is the best preparation for him to achieve future success at the professional level, having had the opportunity to play in high-pressure situations as a 17-year-old with a supportive blue line and kit. From his teammates who helped him develop into a great penalty kick killer.
“It’s not very often you see a 17-year-old play that takes that many minutes, those many important minutes, and goes so far in the playoffs,” Steedman said. “Normally when you have guys in your squad, they can’t push that early. They don’t have the experience yet. They just haven’t. But he’s learned all year long – a credit to the culture of D (on) helping him learn all year long and grow… He’s He did a really, really, really good job, especially when he was 17 years old.”
Steady on the ice with minutes left in Game 5, Radek jumps to his feet when Ethan MacKinnon faces split fist pumps when Knights goaltender Owen Willemore makes a big save and lets him “catch!” When Logan Mallux shook the open net for the final 4-1 win. He’s celebrating his birthday with Jill as she dances in her seat in front of the Chelsea Dugger. After the last bell sounds, the players in green greet the audience, and Radek and Gil get to their feet, clap and wave. Knights live another day.
“They played a great game. It’s good to support the Knights,” Radek said with a big smile when asked about the team’s performance as he walked down the stairs towards ice level.
Bonk’s season ultimately ends in Game 6 the following Sunday with the Petes claiming the OHL title. He finished the postseason with 11 assists in 21 games.
From there, his sights turned to Nashville’s upcoming NHL draft.
Bonk is among the best defensemen in this year’s recruiting class. the athleteCorey Bronman of Corey Bonk ranked him No. 26 on his list of the 142 best prospects, Wheeler was ranked No. 44 on his list of 100 prospects, and NHL scouts ranked No. 20 in the final rankings of North American skaters. .
Having his dad, who of course went through the process as a top three draft pick, to talk to him along the way was helpful, especially in reminding Oliver not to get too caught up in ratings or expectations and just focus on his game.
“He’s playing the OHL now, but, you know, his goal is obviously the NHL. And I keep telling him he got drafted, it’s kind of the easiest part, right? I don’t want to say the easy part, but the easiest,” Radek said. “I said, ‘You don’t want to be drafted into the NHL, you want to play in the NHL. ‘” And that’s completely different, right? Because many children do not have the opportunity despite being recruited. So I’m just trying to drive it a little bit. But he’s a very smart kid and he can figure it out on his own.”
When Oliver returns to the London blue line next season — he should be on the NHL’s radar — Steadman expects he’ll work his way into his first power play and play for 28 minutes instead of the 24-25 he usually scored this past year. He already sees great leadership qualities in Oliver, and expects him to get better at skating when his legs get a little stronger, something he’ll be working on in the summer. He already has a shot that hits the net, but with more power, he stands to achieve higher numbers on the scoresheet.
“He’s just one of those guys that I think every team looks out for,” said Steadman.
And when the time comes for Oliver to finally step up to the pro level, Radek will be happy to provide assistance when needed. But he’s also confident that Oliver can discover a lot on his own.
Mostly, he’s looking to continue being a fan.
“The way they do it now is a bit different than it was in my day. But, I talk about it a little bit, I think he’s always a smart kid who knows what to expect,” Radek said, bulging proudly again. “He’s a wonderful kid. Hockey is something I’m very proud of there. But the way he handles himself, which is absolutely important for hockey, I’m a big fan of him.”
(Top photo by Oliver Bonk: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)