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From the ODR to Mr. Hockey to the Hobey to the NHL

01/28/2023, 1:15pm CST
By Bryan Zollman

Brian Bonin reflects on his White Bear Lake roots


Brian Bonin began skating as a youngster on his rink at his home. He eventually would become Mr. Hockey, win the Hobey Baker Award, and play in the NHL. PHOTO BY GREG NAYMAN


Bonin played in the alumni game Friday during Hockey Day Minnesota festivities. PHOTO BY GREG NAYMAN

You can’t have a conversation about White Bear Lake Hockey without the mention of one of the community’s greatest players to ever tie on a pair of skates.

Brian Bonin was a youth superstar, the Mr. Hockey winner in 1992 and the Hobey Baker Award winner in 1996. 

And it all started with a rink in the side yard of his White Bear Lake home he grew up in.

His dad, Phil, built the small rink and introduced his boy to the game of hockey. At first, Bonin wasn’t much of a fan.

“I really didn’t like skating at first,” he said. “It wasn’t until a couple friends came over that I starter skating more.”

Phil kept calendars in the home for when to flood the rink. Bonin said they only had ice before Thanksgiving once and never into March so his skating season was short. But he took to it early on, tooling around with his neighborhood friends. 

“I skated a ton,” he said. “I have fond memories of us neighborhood kids. In first and second grade we played outside on the rink all the time. Those were really fun years.”

He played in-house hockey to start and then played two years of squirts and three years of peewees. It was evident early on he was a gifted skater.

His two in-house years were played at the Hippodrome, which had natural ice. He remembers the team’s sponsor – Kokesh, a huge hockey supplier back in those days that was a popular stop for hockey families in the metro.

“Some days we couldn’t play because it was too wet,” he said. “We had a north and a south and played against each other. Later on we all became teammates.”

The Hippodrome became the hot spot after school.

“We would bring our hockey bags to school and then go skate on the rink and play keep-away before we had to go to practice,” he said. 

By squirts and peewees it was evident Bonin had a step on his teammates and opponents. He quickly became known as one of the best players in the hub of competitive metro youth hockey. 

His dad coached him those early years and kept his son humble and playing not for advancement, but for fun.

“Every year he just kept me at the level I was supposed to be at,” he said. “I give him credit for that. I wasn’t trying to go anywhere. I was just playing hockey and trying to win games.”

He remembers his dad always playing everybody, never shortening the bench in close games. It was still good enough to get them to the state tournament twice in peewees. 

“I think we could have won the state tournament in those two seasons had we played two lines,” he said. “But my dad was focused on developing everybody. That’s something I took into my coaching, and it can be hard when you really want to win. But you can’t break kids’ hearts  when they’re young.”

Bonin remembers getting frustrated at times when kids weren’t at his level. He would tell his dad “so-and-so” can’t catch a pass, so why pass it to him. But his dad, who never yelled, kept to his commitment on developing every kid on the team.

“He told me, ‘Brian, go back in the corner and pass it on his stick and if he doesn’t catch it, do it again, and again, and again. That’s your job.’” 

Bonin’s game continued to improve. He was simply the best skater whenever he took the ice. He played two years of bantam hockey before joining White Bear Lake’s varsity squad as a sophomore. He would help lead the Bears to the coveted state tournament.

“There was no expectation that year,” he recalled. “We knew we would be okay. And then Jason Reigstad moved to town and that really helped.”

Reigstad was a North St. Paul standout who would end up playing at the University of St. Thomas. 

“As a sophomore I just went out and played hockey,” Bonin said. “Both Reigstad and I ended up having pretty good years.”

They advanced to the state tournament.

“The section games at Aldrich and the section final at the Met Center,” he said, “were complete highlights. And then advancing to state , making the music video, skating at the Civic Center. For sure that was the highlight of my career.”

Bonin’s teams did not advance his final two seasons at White Bear Lake, but his game continued to. In 1992 he was the clear winner of the Mr. Hockey Award. He was also on the verge of becoming a Minnesota Gopher, joining ranks with future NHLers Craig Johnson, Joe Dziedzic and Darby Hendrickson.

That first season he scored 10 goals and had 28 points in 18 games. His sophomore year he took a big jump and had 44 points in 42 games. 

“Playing at the U, I was just trying to fit in,” he said. “But then a couple guys went pro so that’s when I thought maybe I had a chance, too.”

Again, he was never concerned about the next level, always focusing on the present, something instilled in him by his father. By the time he was a junior he was putting up impressive numbers with 32 goals and 31 assists in 44 games. His senior year he went 42-34-47-81 and won the Hobey Baker Award, beating out Brendan Morrison, Chris Drury and Martin St. Louis. 

At that point, Bonin knew he had a chance in professional hockey.

Bonin was chosen in the ninth round of the NHL Draft in 1992, 211th overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins. Despite his obvious speed and skill, it was a different game back then. Scouts were much more interested in bigger players who could win stick battles and keep opponents closed off from scoring opportunities by taking up space. At 5’9”, Bonin’s game was less clutch and grab, and more speed and creativity.

He still got his shot. 

He played three minor league seasons in both the International Hockey League and American Hockey League. His best season came with the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL in 1997-98 where he racked up 69 points in 67 games. The next season, while playing for the Adirondack Red Wings, he got the call to big club.

“I was very humbled when I got to the pros,” he said. “I had the same attitude that I thought it would be cool to play in some games. It was a healthy perspective, but maybe it hurt me because it is an absolute gauntlet. You get dropped in with a bunch of first and second round picks.”

It was every man for himself.

He would play in five regular season games and three playoff games. He remembers having a conversation with NHL Hall of Famer Bryan Trottier on the bench during a pre-season game. He asked Trottier what the forecheck was.

“He told me just get out there and figure it out,” he recalled. “You realize you aren’t going to get a lot of chances.”

Bonin said the level from the minors to the NHL is like three steps.

“The guys are so much faster,” he said.

He had another conversation with Brian Bellows, the former North Star, who was playing with the Penguins. Bellows told Bonin he was a good player, but as a scorer he would need to get better to be a top six forward because the bottom two lines were role players.

“It was all about the big guy who could skate,” he said. “It was not a skating league. You would hook the crap out of people and would never get called.”

A professional highlight was playing at Madison Square Garden when Wayne Gretzky was with the Rangers and on his farewell tour.

“Rumor was he was going to hang up the skates,” he recalled. “I was hoping to make the lineup that night and luckily I did.”

He remembers seeing Gretzky signing sticks for other players, and when the game started he silently hoped Gretzky would score.

“He got an assist and the place went nuts. That was pretty cool.”

The game went into overtime and Bonin had a chance to win it for the Pens. 

“(Mike) Richter robbed me,” he said. 

After another stint in the minors, Bonin was picked up by the Minnesota Wild and played seven games in their inaugural season. He played 72 games that year in the IHL and had 77 points. The next two years he played in Switzerland and returned to the AHL in 2004-05 before hanging up his blades.

Since then he has been very involved in hockey, coaching his sons, Ben, Brendan and Jude. Looking back he sees how the game has changed, from youth all the way to the NHL.

“We didn’t play year-round,” he said. “It was just one season of four. I loved soccer and baseball and fishing and looked forward to all of them.”

He cherishes his time as a youth and high school player in White Bear Lakes where he learned not just about how to play hockey, but to be a good teammate and person. That has carried over into his adult life and he instills the same values his father and other coaches like Charlie Basco and Tom Simpson did when he played for them.

Basco was his Bantam coach and really knew the game, Bonin said. Simpson was his coach in high school and instilled respect and discipline. He also learned a lot from Bill Butters, Doug Woog and Mike Guenztel, all Minnesota hockey legends.

He sent all three  sons to Hill-Murray, but it was more a Catholic faith decision than a hockey one, he said. 

“We chose Hill-Murray because our boys would be able to live out their Catholic Faith and Mass, the Sacraments and Praying, especially before sports events, is very important to us,” Bonin said.

Ben and Brendan have since graduated, but Jude will be suiting up against his dad’s former school and his former youth teammates.

“It’s going to be fun,” said Bonin.

He and his family roots remain in White Bear Lake, where if there were a Mount Rushmore of former Bear greats, he would be on it. He lives by the lessons of his father, who passed away several years ago. He currently works for a digital sales company, but hockey is still a big part of his life.  He’s been happy to take part in Hockey Day Minnesota and is proud of how the community has come together to make it happen.

“So many people have put in so much work,” he said. “When you talk about hockey in Minnesota you have to talk about White Bear Lake. It’s been really fun being a part of it.”

 

 

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