As first-round busts go, if Jason Bonsignore, taken fourth overall by the Edmonton Oilers at 1994 NHL Entry Draft, doesn’t rate as the worst case of a swing and a miss by the franchise, he’s close.
Taken from the Niagara Falls Thunder two picks before the Oilers called Ryan Smyth’s name with the sixth overall selection, Bonsignore would play just 20 games with the Oilers and 79 in the NHL.
A lanky centre with unquestionable skills but a dubious work ethic, Bonsignore added cups of coffee with the Tampa Bay Lightning and with the Toronto Maple Leafs AHL farm team before retiring after the 2007-08 season, a campaign he spent with the Trenton Devils of the ECHL.
Promise unfulfilled is the chapter and verse story of Bonsignore, who is 35 years old now, retired from hockey and operating an amusement park in the Eastern U.S.
Gene Principe of Rogers Sportsnet, who’d not net arrived on the hockey scene in Edmonton when Bonsignore was here, and yours truly, who had at the Edmonton Journal, got a hold of the former Oiler when we hosted the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260 Wednesday.
While the death of Wade Belak was the news of the day, Bonsignore delivered a memorable rant when we asked him about his time with the Oilers, a period in his life that clearly still cuts close to the bone some 17 years after Edmonton drafted him.
IN BONSIGNORE’S WORDS
The following are excerpts of the interview we did with Bonsignore. For the full interview, including the questions asked and full answers, please follow this link: www.theteam1260.com/Episodes.aspx and click on the third hour of the Jason Gregor Show podcast.
NOT A BUST?
"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."
BEHIND THE SCENES
"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 was one of them and Kevin Prendergast, 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."
"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.“
"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-a-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."
"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.
SHOWDOWN WITH SLATS
"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 line-up during the playoffs up to that point. Then Glen corners me in the press box 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 press box 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, two 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."
FOR THE RECORD
I contacted John Rosasco, VP of public relations with the New York Rangers, told him about the interview with Bonsignore, provided a link to the audio on the TEAM 1260 site and offered to have Glen Sather offer his version of events, if he so desired. Rosasco has informed me the Rangers won’t be offering any comment.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.