18 years (so far). Hundreds of former teammates. All different personalities. Some are funny, some are serious. Some are quirky, others are as straight as an arrow. Some have left a permanent impression on me. I will feature a few ex-teammates in a short package of stories of past experiences that I hope will help others to see the different personalities and characters that I, and most certainly others, have come across through the game of hockey. Throughout the game of hockey, there are some people that once having met them, you will not forget them. There will be a few from North America and a few from playing overseas. This is the first instalment. Enjoy.
Dennis Bonvie & Brian McGrattan
I was on the golf course, not surprisingly, when a call from my agent came. “The Rangers just included you in a trade. You’ve been traded to the Ottawa Senators.” So off I went, from Grand Forks, North Dakota, where I had been training at my alma mater (UND) with other pros and college players, to Kanata, Ontario. Training Camp had a completely different feel that year, however, as I watched with the rest of the Senators and “Senator-hopefuls” on the testing day of our camp (Tuesday, September 11, 2001), as the World Trade Center towers fell in an act of terrorism. Hockey was suddenly secondary to what was going on in real life, in the city that I had lived in the past season. Speaking to some ex-teammates in New York, they had felt the ground shake as the Towers fell. Scary stuff. Life, and hockey, did eventually go on and after a few exhibition games with the Senators, I was shipped to the Grand Rapids Griffins of the AHL for the season. We would eventually lose in the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs despite a 95 point regular season.
After re-signing with the Senators for one more year, I again was shipped out midway through camp. This time to Binghamton, New York, as the Sens would switch affiliates. Our team was stocked full of prospects. Jason Spezza, Antoine Vermette, Chris Kelly and Ray Emery were some examples of players that would go on to have success in the NHL. I was lucky enough to chip in the first goal in the B-Sens’ history, over Rick DiPietro’s glove, in our first game of the season. A backhand saucer pass that hit me right on the tape, from another future long-time NHLer, Brian McGrattan.
Quiet, huge, and usually with his hair spiked in some way, McGrattan was instantly a hit in the dressing room. He was the big kid with the serious look on his face that, as soon as he heard something funny, could not stop laughing. Dubbed the “big human” by veteran defenceman Steve Bancroft, he had a habit of looking at himself in the plexiglass on the ice during warmup to sneak a glance at his hair or how he looked in his jersey, a fact that I still ride him about today. He quickly made a name for himself in the AHL though, taking on all challengers and besting opposing veteran heavyweights in fights, while also chipping in a few goals. We were a few weeks into our season when McGrattan and the “baby Sens” would get a reinforcement from Ottawa, taking our team toughness to a whole new level.
Dennis Bonvie had signed with The Senators prior to the season and made the team out of training camp. He had shown what he was capable of in Ottawa, sticking up for teammates and playing physical, but a full roster up top meant that he would join us in Binghamton. An absolute fan-favourite wherever he had been prior, Dennis was an immediate presence in our locker room. He had a natural “Maritimer-wit” (from Frankville, Nova Scotia) that, despite the obvious intimidation in looking at his career penalty minute totals or glancing at his permanently swollen knuckles, could make any teammate feel like “one of the guys“. Looking over at a nervous teammate tightening his skates before a game he’d shout, “Relax dude, you’re as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs…”. Off he’d go onto the ice for warmup, shoulder pads consisting of shoulder caps tied to suspenders (that’s it) , no helmet (he’d wear an old-style Gretzky Jofa helmet for practices and a regular one once the games began) and stretch at the red line facing the other team, daring one of the opponents to come over for a chat. Sitting on the bench beside him during a game was always an entertaining spot. An opposing player would skate by and Dennis would yell loud enough for the bench to hear…”Jeez boys, get a load of this guy, starting centre on the All-Ugly team! He’s got a face like a horse eating thistles….”, to which our whole bench would crack up laughing. He would wheel through the dressing room, hiking his boxer shorts up to his ribs, giving the guys his “1950’s boxer” pose while picking out something about you or your wardrobe that may have been a bit off. To me, for example, it was “Jeez Ulms, watch that fake leather jacket doesn’t crack, it’s cold outside man.” After his arrival, he joined McGrattan and I on the right wing, forming what he dubbed the “Helicopter Line”, yelling out “Lucky you Ulmsy, you’ve got no wings!”
On the ice, playing between two of the toughest guys in the league definitely adds some swagger to your game. But it was on the bench, again, that we had some of the biggest laughs. On a night where we were able to play in Ottawa for a neutral-site game against the Leafs’ farm-team, the St.John’s Maple Leafs, McGrattan had came out on fire, chipping in two goals for us pretty early, while Bonvie had had an early scrap with Doug Doell, one of several tough guys on their team. Because the “baby Leafs” were trailing (and the “brass” was watching) they had started to get more physical, taking some runs at some of our players. As we were about to go onto the ice for our next shift, Dennis yells to Brian, “All right Gratts, we better go settle this down eh bud?”, to which Gratts replies as he jumps the boards, “It’s all you tonight Bonsai, I’ve got a good game going…”, giggling like a schoolgirl as he hit the ice…
We were in Hershey to play the Bears around mid-season, probably in the Sunday afternoon game of the dreaded “3 in 3” where we would play 3 games in 3 nights and then bus back to Bingo (Binghamton) after the game. McGrattan got into it with Hershey’s D-man Jeff Paul sometime early during the game and they dropped the gloves. Gratts caught one one the button, something that very rarely happened, and he hit the ice. After his five minutes was up and he hopped back onto the bench, he looked over and said “Jeeeeeeeasus, did you see that boys?”, as he giggled away and got ready to hit the ice again. Truly a big kid in every sense. Our Bingo Sens team would eventually lose out in the semi finals of the Calder Cup playoffs to a stacked Hamilton Bulldogs team and we would part ways after the season. Most of us into our SUVs to make the trip back home, but McGrattan, all 6’4″ and 235 pounds of him, folded himself into his Dad’s minivan for the trip up north, driven also by his Dad, back to Hamilton (a fact that we still ride him about to this day).
The next season I would spend in Finland, my first season in Europe. After a good year (still toeing the line between prospect and suspect), I would sign back with the Colorado Avalanche on a two-way contract. Sadly, the lockout would mean that there would not be an NHL to work my way towards that season, and I would spend all 80 games in Hershey, playing again in the AHL, against a league stacked full of locked-out NHLers. I was happy to see a familiar face on my team, however, in Dennis Bonvie.
We wouldn’t be linemates that season, but we would spend a fair bit of time together. Dennis would have us over for dinner with his wife Kelly often, treating me and my other roommates at the time (Cody McCormick, Jeff Finger and Chris Bala) to some good food, always some wine and lots of laughs. We would be roommates on the road occasionally as well, and it was a common occurrence for me to have to pry the remote control out of his big paws if I wanted to change the channel, as he snored away on his side of the hotel room, sound asleep from showing us his favourite restaurants in each stop on the road. In Hershey (as had been the case in Wilkes-Barre in the Penguins farm team, as well as most others he played for) he could have run for mayor. During one day of golf at a nice course in the area (probably free as well), him and I had made our approach shots and for some reason decided to wait by the green while Chris Bala made his approach shot. After hearing “Fore!!!!” and turning our backs, the shot one-hopped and hit Dennis square in the hand. He was fine, but I had to nearly leave the course laughing, as there was no safer place for him to get hit, with the scar tissue built up in those hands. I said “Jeez, anywhere else and that might have hurt eh Bonsai?”. 4493 penalty minutes in the AHL (as well as 311 in his 92 NHL games), including a then-record 522 pims in one season, will undoubtedly do that to your hands…
80 games would go by quickly, as they always do in a hockey season. Dennis would periodically check his phone after the game and shake his head….”F’ing Gratts, another 15 pims (penalty minutes) tonight…”. McGrattan, back in Binghamton for the lockout, was tearing through the AHL and sending us text messages throughout the year….”I’m going to beat Dennis’s record.” 522 is a lot of penalty minutes. A lot of fights, some misconducts, game misconducts and the odd suspension. Even Dennis and Brian would fight each other that year, with each getting a few good punches in and, in a memorable moment for both, Brian (the protégé) nibbled on Dennis’s ear-lobe after a fight and said, “Thanks Dennis. I love you man.”
He would, in fact, break Dennis’s record that year. And Dennis would call him after to congratulate him. 551 is the new record in the American Hockey League. That record is forever safe, I believe, as is Dennis’s lead atop the all-time American Hockey League’s penalty minute list. Hockey has changed too much for those records to ever be broken. McGrattan says “If I had never played with Bonvie I’m not sure I would have made it as a fighter in the NHL (He would play 317 games and tally 609 NHL penalty minutes)… He taught me that if you win or lose, you always go back, answer the bell. The basics in how to fight like a big man that he showed me have stuck with me for my career. I owe him thanks, and will always look up to him.” Bonvie responded, “For him to say that I was such a positive influence is truly gratifying. He worked hard to reach his goal of playing in the NHL. It was my responsibility as a veteran player to help him to see what it took to reach the NHL. Others did the same for me in showing what it would take to reach the NHL also. I am very proud of Brian, both as a hockey player and as a person.”
Gone are the days of a team having two heavyweights or even enforcers (most now have none) and gone are the days of fighting being a big part of hockey. The day may have also passed, where a veteran would take a rookie to lunch and break down what it would take for the rookie to make a living out of being an enforcer in hockey, like he is/was, and for the rookie to take that knowledge, build his own through experience, and later be known as arguably the toughest player in the NHL. Some say fighting will always be a part of hockey, while others say it slows the game down or causes long-term injuries. I’m not going to defend either side. Rather, I’m simply happy to have been given the chance to play with two of the all-time great enforcers (and people) and centre the “Helicopter Line” (far from it) for a while. They have taught me sacrifice, camaraderie and especially humour. I’m happy to say that we are still friends and do our best, despite young and growing families, to stay in touch. There may come a point in the future when fighting won’t have a place in the game of hockey, but I sincerely hope that the future of hockey includes character individuals like Dennis Bonvie and Brian McGrattan.
~Thanks for reading. I will post another article on an ex-teammate in the near future. All the best in and outside of hockey.
Hockey DB – Jeff Ulmer
Elite Prospects – Jeff Ulmer