by Lisa Brown on 09/01/11 at 02:20 AM ET
Drafted in the first round, fourth overall, Jason Bonsignore was a top pick of the 1994 NHL entry draft. He played one game with the Oilers in 1994-95 and the rest of the season was with his OHL team, the Sudbury Wolves. The following year, Bonsignore played 20 games with the Oilers 18 in the OHL and 12 in the AHL with the Cape Breton Oilers. That was the last Bonsignore would play in the NHL for the Edmonton Oilers.
Often touted as a bust, Bonsignore’s story has gone untold. All that most fans know is what they saw, another first round Edmonton Oilers draft pick just didn’t make the cut. Surely it was the scouting staff not doing their job. Or was it? In an extremely candid interview with Gene Principe and Robin Brownlee on the Jason Gregor show of the Team 1260 on Wednesday August 31st, Bonsignore told his tale and changed many opinions along the way. The twitter response was instant and so positive towards the interview that I wanted to share it with those inside as well as outside of Edmonton.
You can find the audio for this interview on the Team 1260 webpage, and it starts a third of the way through. In case you don’t have the time to find it or listen through commercials, I have taken the nearly couple of hours to type it up to share. If you have the opportunity, I definitely recommend listening to the interview in its entirety.
Currently, Bonsignore is running a family fun park in New York near a Nascar track. He is looking into adding a synthetic ice surface for family skating. I’ve seen some of these artificial ice surfaces in Florida around Christmas time. They are popular, and it is of no surprise that a professional hockey player would want to share his passion with everyone. I think that in New York, this could be quite successful.
Gene Principe asked “ After you were drafter fourth overall by Edmonton, did you have fun when you were with the Edmonton Oilers?”
[hesitation] “Obviously some fun times and some good memories for sure, but ya, it was pretty tough times. It just didn’t end up being the way that we had hoped and a lot of tough memories too, or difficult times. I was proud of what I was able to accomplish and wish it could have been more but, had some bumps along the road that were within my control and some were out of my control and I just had to do the best I could with it. I guess I still have a lot to be proud of, I accomplished quite a bit in the sport, so…”
Robin Brownlee asked if it was hard for Bonsignore to get his career off and running when it doesn’t get off to a good start when you’re that young.
“Ya, you know, part of the reason I agreed to come on today is because Gene had spoken with me last year and he seemed to sincerely appreciate my story and had some interest in it. A lot of people say “Jason was a bust.” My version of a bust is someone who maybe didn’t deserve to be in the situation they were in. I kind of feel like up until the point where I played for Edmonton I kind of deserved to be where I was and was in the right situation there as far as where I was drafted and everything. I was proud of that. It just never got off on the right foot with Edmonton and that’s not to say that I wasn’t excited about going there or the opportunity or the history it’s just for whatever reason it didn’t work.
“There were a lot of things behind the scenes that a lot of people didn’t know about that happened and I just never really felt like I belonged there, like I was really wanted there. There were a few great people that really stretched out their necks for me and made me feel welcome and tried to help me. Teddy Green [ex-Oilers head coach] was one of them and Kevin Prendergast [ex-Assistant General Manager, former VP of hockey operations and ex head scout] but it just seemed like there were only a few people that were really there to help me and whether the approach from other people was meant in the wrong fashion it just was a harsh and kind of negative way of handling things.
“And I guess to touch on what you were just talking about, when you’re 18 or 19 years old you don’t notice at the time, but now, I notice how young and impressionable you are. You look at some of the other people that were drafted in certain situations around the time I was and they struggled their first few seasons; Jeff O’Neill and Radek Bonk, some of the guys that were drafted in my draft year. But their teams stuck with them and nurtured them along and never really got down on them. They basically just helped them to progress and learn and mature. I guess I just never went through that process and never got to the opportunity where I got that point.
“For whatever reason it just didn’t work out and I went on to Tampa and things, it was a really welcome fresh start. Things were great there and I really actually did have a lot of fun there and felt like I belonged and felt I did a pretty good job. At one point I got runner up for NHL rookie of the month there and had a couple of point streaks and I think maybe one year ended up with one of the higher points per game averages on the team there in 35 games. They have a great team, but we try hard and then we went through a couple of ownership changes and contract expired the second year that we had the third different owner in my short time there, and we all got cleaned house on.
“I certainly regret it; I had nothing against the fans in Edmonton. They’re great hockey people, it’s a great hockey city and it was kind of a bummer later on to see, like Ethan Moreau ended up there for a lot of years, him and I were real good friends and had kind of a magical connection when we played junior hockey as line-mates. I would have loved to have had the opportunity to have played with him in the pros. Marty Reasoner was there who was a good friend of mine. I wish things had been different but there was a lot of stuff that happened behind the scenes and there was a lot that was going on in my personal life that was pretty difficult to deal with at that time and just for whatever reason, it didn’t work out.“
Robin Brownlee next asked about where the breakdown happened.
“I don’t mind talking about this stuff now but it’s been a sensitive issue for a lot of years. I mean Glen [Sather] just never seemed to, I mean one of the first things he ever said, I mean he never even said hello, was I’m not going to give you a million dollars. It was like, nice to meet you too.
“Ryan Smyth is a great guy, awesome player and he’s had a fabulous career, but right there around draft time, I mean his family were good friends with Glen and his mom and dad were hugging Glen and were close to him at the draft and it never really felt like he wanted me there. He [Sather] called me to the office one time and told me I was fat and overweight and that I was going to get fined if I didn’t lose 10 pounds in three days. And it wasn’t going to be $50 or $500, it was going to be $100,000 or $200,000 and I was going to have to move in with him. It was an abrasive way of handling things and some people kind of, later on; talking to me about it said that it was kind of like mental abuse. I don’t know, I’m not saying that he abused me. I’m just saying, it’s like later in life you wonder why did I have to get treated like that. I was a young kid just trying to fit in.
“I didn’t have the greatest work ethic the first couple of years there; I didn’t understand what it took to play at that level. I mean when you’re a junior hockey star and you’re playing 35 minutes a game you don’t have to worry about conditioning and it comes naturally when you have the puck half of the game. When you’re scoring a bunch of points and you’re on the power play and you’re in control of things you don’t end up playing a lot of defensive hockey and your defensive skill aren’t what they need to be to get to the pro level.
“There were a lot of things that I needed to learn and it just, for a stretch there, they had me going to the rink at 5:30 in the morning, alone for an hour, an hour and half with the strength and conditioning coach, just getting skated into the ground. And they’d put 300 pucks out in front of the net and I would shoot 300 pucks, then go into the corner and hit the heavy bag after every shot and then get wind sprinted for 45 minutes straight as a 19 year old kid by yourself.
“They’re weighing me the second I go in there and the second I come off the ice and the second I leave the rink for practice, and I’m drinking slim fast to try to lose weight and trying to be where they want me to be. I’m starting to black out when I’m out there being wind sprinted. Then I’d have to come off the ice and go through a full hour and a half practice with the NHL team which is tough enough by itself at that age or at any age, and come off the ice and not to mention doing all of this stuff in front of the veterans as they’re coming in and feeling embarrassed about it. Then be put through a rigorous workout that most people wouldn’t stand up to. I had to run up every single flight of stairs around the top of the coliseum, do ten pushups at the top of every level, do another hour and a half, or hour of kickboxing. Then I got to go home if I was lucky for a couple of hours, then I had to meet the strength and conditioning coach back at the gym, by myself at 6/7 o’clock at night and go through another hour and a half, two hour workout and through the whole thing, trying not to eat at all because they’re yelling at me about weight and body fat.
“It kind of got to the point at one stage where a couple of the veterans even went to the staff and said “You know you’re going to break this kid.” At this point, I was having absolutely no fun at all and was just miserable. Then you get put into the games, for five minutes, maybe get five minutes of playing on the fourth line and you’re expected to be a scorer. If you’re not scoring or producing points, then you’re a bust or they’re down on you. It was just really tough. I did get an opportunity to play sparingly there, but I was just so rusty and out of game shape, not physically but mentally and timing wise from not playing at all.
“It’s just really hard to shine in those circumstances and especially when you’re up against the toughest competition in the world. It’s just a lot of that stuff, people didn’t understand. You hear “Jason was a rich kid and didn’t have to play hockey.” It’s just hysterical this stuff, my family is extremely middle class. My dad is still working at 63 years of age right now and I had none of this stuff handed to me. I had to work my tail off for it my whole life and I guess part of the reason I got to where I was and was successful to that point was that I worked very hard at it and was on the ice for hours and hours by myself as a child, coming home after school and skating. But then you do all of that stuff because you love it and you’re enjoying it.
“When it gets to the point where it wasn’t fun for me whatsoever, it’s hard to be successful at it; regardless of how much money you’re making. For me it was never really about the money it was about, I mean sure it was great and I had a fancy car at one point, but it was about doing something you love and wanting to be good at it. All of my confidence went completely out the window.
“You go from junior hockey where you’re the big star and the team looks up to you and everyone looks up to you and the coach puts you in important situations, and I didn’t expect any of that to be just given to me in the NHL, and I probably wasn’t ready for it at that point, but the situations that I was used in were completely foreign to me and really just left me lacking confidence. It was difficult, especially at that age.“
Did the experience with the Edmonton Oilers take the fun out of hockey Brownlee asked.
“Yeah, I mean it definitely did. Over the years, whenever tough situations would arise playing anywhere else it was, all of the stuff would linger; it would be in your head. No matter where I went, or what I did the rest of my career, no matter where I was playing, I would hear about being a first round flop for the Edmonton Oilers and being a first round flop with 20 other guys that they considered to be first round flops with the Edmonton Oilers.
“I don’t know, it’s just how do you explain 10 or 15 or 20 guys over the years all being first round flops with the Oilers? You just got put in situations maybe they weren’t ready for but a lot of those guys were drafted in those slots because they had earned it to that point.
“ I’m sure that the organization is great now and it was great then in certain respects, I’m sure that there is a different policy in place now for bringing guys along, but for me however they handled it back then just didn’t work. That’s not to say I wasn’t at fault to, I mean I certainly, there were things that I could have done differently or could have done better, but it just didn’t work. That’s all there was to it and it’s just unfortunate but life goes on and you can’t turn back the clock.
“ There was one time in Hamilton I was the 2nd leading scorer on the team as a 21 year old and we made it a little bit of a ways in the playoffs and Glen came down to catch a game and I had been scratched for that game, or for a couple of games at that point. One of the scouts had told my agent how well I had played the last time I was in the lineup during the playoffs up to that point. Then Glen corners me in the pressbox and says “Do you know why you’re not playing tonight?” And I had to say “Mr. Sather, no I don’t. I really don’t understand what’s going on. You’re scouts said that I played well the last time, I was the second leading scorer on the team this year .” Well he said “you’re not good enough to play right now, you’re not good enough to play at this level.” And I said “Well I feel like I am.” I had 21 goals as a rookie, and he says “You’re just not good enough.
“At this point, this is after years of just knowing that it wasn’t going to work out. Three or four years of camp and I went to camp that year in the best shape of my life. I remember Kelly Buchberger telling Dougie Weight, because Dougie came late that year and I was living with Dougie, how well I was doing at camp and how good of shape I was in.
“They played me one exhibition game, and I had a really nice assist in that game, I thought that I played pretty decent. I got sent to the minors the next day. So I kind of knew the writing was on the wall no matter what happened at that point, that it just wasn’t going to work out. So then I got back to the minors there and it’s just kind of the same stuff again.
“At this point in the pressbox I just said “Well Glen why don’t you just trade me.” And he says, “Nobody wants you, nobody wants you.“ And at this point my agent told me that three or four teams had made some really attractive offers for me at this point with some big name players involved which I was quite honoured to hear and Glen tried to tell me I was lying.
“I just knew it was going nowhere. He just sort of pushed me and said “Have a nice career.” I was obviously pretty angry and I thought that if I tried to get back at him, or to try have a push and shove contest, or take a swing at him, that this is definitely the end of my career. And, I walked away. Then, 2 days later, my agent called me and said that Glen wants to have a meeting with me and apologize and I appreciated it, but they wanted me to come to camp the next fall? I mean how am I supposed to come back to camp after all of this and feel like I’m going to get a fair chance again or like its water under the bridge.
“I’m really sorry, I feel like I let everyone in Edmonton down and people think that I just didn’t care or didn’t want to play, and it’s not the case and it bothers me. I tried to block it out, but it’s something that lingers forever. I wish that I could go back in time and go back and play for them again and erase everyone’s doubts and make everyone happy. I know I’m never going to get that chance again.“
Clearly Bonsignore received different treatment than first rounders like Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi and even Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano. Times were different, the organization was different, but Bonsignore brings up an excellent point saying that there were a long string on first rounders that worked hard and earned their spot in the draft, but never worked out. That seems like too much of a coincidence.
It’s difficult to say where the breakdown occurred in the organization so many years ago, but clearly the situation was far from ideal. Player development is critical to building and maintaining a competitive team. If we connect some points, this could explain some of your memories of Oilers’ hockey in the 90s and maybe even early 2000s.
If you’ve made it this far, your eyes may be tired. I’ll leave you to ponder everything Bonsignore had to say.
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Lisa McRitchie is a fairly new writer, online at least, but makes up for inexperience with passion for the game of hockey and memories of Mrs. Leskiw’s English AP class; who knew they would pay off one day.
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