March 1st, 2024

World juniors a family affair for Oliver and Radek Bonk: ‘I had a tear in my eye’

By Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press on January 1, 2024.

Canada's Oliver Bonk (5) is upended by Finland's Samu Bau (21) during first period action at the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship in Gothenburg, Sweden, on Tuesday, Dec. 26, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christinne Muschi

GOTHENBURG, Sweden – Oliver Bonk remembers every word of the call.

His dad, former NHL player Radek Bonk, was on the other end of the line.

Oliver shared some big news – he had made Canada’s roster for the world junior hockey championship.

“Extremely happy for me,” the 18-year-old defenceman said of his famous father. “Some of the happiest I’ve ever seen him. Just pure joy. He was really excited.”

Radek Bonk, who is in Sweden to watch his son chase a gold medal, watched the tournament every year with Oliver.

“I had a tear in my eye when Oliver told me,” he said. “It was a proud moment.”

Any other year, Radek Bonk would be cheering for Czechia, the country of his birth and where he fell in love with the game.

The veteran of 19 professional seasons is sitting with the other parents of Canadian players at Scandinavium arena. But unlike any other year, he will be rooting for his son and the 22 other teenagers sporting the red Maple Leaf when they hit the ice against the Czechs in Tuesday’s quarterfinal.

“Definitely cheering for the Canadians,” Oliver Bonk said Monday. “I don’t think he wants the Czechs to win one bit.”

That wasn’t the case 12 months ago – or at any other tournament – when Canada beat Czechia, which hasn’t won the under-20 event since 2001, for gold in Halifax.

“This year with Oliver on the team, my allegiance is Canada,” Radek Bonk said in an interview before the playoff matchups were set. “My allegiance has switched for now, but I am still Czech. I want Czech hockey to do well.”

Oliver Bonk was born in Ottawa, where his father played 10 seasons with the Senators after being selected third overall at the 1994 NHL draft.

After stops with the Montreal Canadiens and Nashville Predators, the family moved to Czechia, where Radek played five more years – and where Oliver was truly introduced to the sport.

“One of the only kids that could skate backwards really good,” said the elder Bonk, who was a forward. “It started out as a necessity. He was good at it so I was like, ‘Why don’t you do that?'”

Radek Bonk saw potential in the boy. Like his own father, he pushed Oliver hard at times.

“Very hands-on,” said the No. 22 pick at the 2023 draft by the Philadelphia Flyers. “Sometimes as a kid, you didn’t like it. But looking back now, you see exactly what he was doing.

“It’s probably what got me here. I owe it to him.”

Radek Bonk, who played 1,042 regular-season and playoff games in the NHL, was attempting to keep his son on course.

“With kids, sometimes they have other things they want to do, and that’s fine,” explained the 47-year-old. “I was really honest with him. When I thought he was straying from his path, I tried to put him back.”

Radek Bonk knew the oldest of four his children could take the heat.

“He always told me since he was little, ‘I want to play hockey like you,'” said the Krnov native, who along with wife Jill moved the family back to Ottawa after he retired in 2014. “I’ve been through it and I know how hard it is. He had that dream. When I told him something, he knew that was for his development.

“When I was hard on him, he knew that was for his future. My dad was hard on me. I’m not sad about it. He wanted the best for me. A lot like Oliver, I played, I loved it, and my dad saw potential in me. It’s kinda the same.”

Oliver, who sported a mullet at last June’s draft in honour of Radek’s 1990s flow, saw his paternal grandfather for the first time since before the COVID-19 pandemic when the family reconnected at the world juniors.

“He shrank a little bit or maybe I got a bit taller,” said Oliver, who’s in his second full season as a dependable blueliner with the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights.

“He’s on board with us, too. Converted a couple Czechs.”

Radek said there wasn’t one moment when he knew the younger Bonk would make hockey a career.

“Always one of the best kids on the team, but there’s lots of ‘best kids on the team’ when they’re 10 or 12,” he said. “A lot end up playing beer league, which is awesome, but you never know. He had a dream. There’s still a lot of work to be done.

“I was just always enjoying that he loved it. He’s happy when he plays. That’s all I really wanted.”

Along with a victory over Czechia. And eventually, a gold medal.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 1, 2024.

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