Meet Las Vegas Thunder center Radek Bonk, the first European to play North American pro hockey at age 17 and, it is suspected, the only pro player in the world whose mother makes him take afternoon naps. One of Bonk's goals for 1994 is to be the first player selected in the NHL draft. Another is to get his driver's license.
Bonk, a native Czech who turned 18 on Jan. 9, has a combination much desired in hockey: soft hands and a mean streak. Through Sunday he had 19 goals and 25 assists for the 29-8-3 Thunder, who presently lead the International Hockey League, a refuge for former NHL players trying to scrape their way back to the Show. Bonk fears none of them. In his first game, on Oct. 8, he scored a goal, took four penalties, checked everything in sight.
Hoping to improve his position in this June's draft, Bonk signed with the Thunder last July in time to play in this, its inaugural season. His hopes may be realized: Last week the NHL released its midseason rankings, rating Bonk the top draft-eligible player available. Despite his burgeoning stardom and the glitz of Vegas, Bonk leads a sheltered life. His parents, Anna and Jaroslav, moved with him last summer from Koprivnice, in the Czech Republic. After each day's practice or pregame skate, Bonk is picked up by his father. At 1 p.m. sharp, Anna serves lunch—often goulash, with a delicious sauce called omacka. Then it is time for Radek's afternoon nap.
What is Bonk doing here? Why isn't he in Canadian junior hockey, with the rest of the teenagers?
Bonk played the last two seasons with men, in the Czech Republic's best league. To go from that to playing with boys, Bonk thought, would have been a waste of his time. Not everyone agrees. On a recent trip to Vegas to scout Bonk, Bobby Clarke, general manager of the Florida Panthers, who have the first pick in the upcoming draft, said, "He should be playing junior hockey. It's stupid for him to play here. He's playing against men. They're bigger, stronger, better players than he is." But the 6'3", 215-pound Bonk has proved that he belongs. "Even when he's not scoring, he still takes the body," says Thunder right wing Lyndon Byers, a former NHL enforcer who has "sorta taken Radek under my wing." How relieved Anna must be that her son is being watched over by Byers, who has taught her son to approach women thusly, "I am Radek. You are a babe."
For a guy with limited English, Bonk is having a pretty good time. Of course it makes things easier to have Las Vegas goalie Clint Malarchuk around. Malarchuk speaks fluent Czech, or so he told a reporter last month. Malarchuk translated the reporter's questions to Bonk and vice versa. It all worked very smoothly except Malarchuk knows not a word of Czech and was speaking gibberish to Bonk, who struggled to keep a straight face throughout the charade. During a recent, grueling practice, tempers were short. Bonk was floating a bit, so Malarchuk threatened him. "Better start working," he said, "or I'll shave you."
To his teammates' amazement, Bonk produced one of his longest sentences of the season: "I'll shave you."
Must have been time for his nap.
The top-rated NHL draft pick is a young Czech who has not found the IHL too tough to bear.