This story, on one of my favorite Komets players, is from Feb. 3, 2003. It's long, but you'll enjoy it. I'll be back from vacation on Aug. 10.
Shut up and play. That's what you're gonna do. That's all you can do. And that's what Eric Boguniecki did. He kept his trap shut, took whatever assignment he could get and played the game. Unabashedly hard, he played hockey.
He was unappreciated, unsigned and unsure what the future held back in 1997, at the age of 22. Fresh out of college he clung to one thing, a dream of being an NHL player, and that dream nurtured him in towns like Fort Wayne, Dayton, and Worcester, Mass.OK, maybe there was one other thing that haunted Boguniecki: the desire to prove them all wrong. All the people, the so-called hockey experts who doubted his dream.
They believed he was too small to play in the NHL. Not well-rounded enough. Not a viable prospect.
They were wrong.
Shut up and play. That's what you're gonna do. Even if it's in Indiana.
It was the fall of 1997 when Boguniecki arrived in Fort Wayne, unsigned by an NHL team, one of a slew of forwards invited to training camp by the Komets of the high-level International Hockey League.
Boguniecki had fine credentials - he tallied 78 goals and 169 points in 142 games at the University of New Hampshire - but he didn't have formidable physical attributes, standing 5-foot-8 and weighing 195 pounds. He also didn't have that knack for defending his own net.
So he didn't have an easy entry into the professional ranks.
"I always believed in myself and I knew I could play if given the opportunity," Boguniecki says now. "It was just getting the chance to make the adjustments and adapt to the pro style of play. It's a matter of that coach or general manager having the patience and then getting the opportunity."
The St. Louis Blues had made him an eighth-round draft pick in 1993, but they never gave him that opportunity. He would find out years later that Larry Pleau, the Blues' general manager, was the reason. Pleau didn't think Boguniecki had what it took and never offered Boguniecki a contract.
"I didn't think he'd be an NHL player, just didn't think so," Pleau recently told The Post-Dispatch in St. Louis. "I felt the kid would be a good minor-league player, but that's all."
And Pleau was a guy who saw Boguniecki play all the time. His son, Steve Pleau, was a teammate of Boguniecki's in high school and in college.
"He's always been feisty, but you always wondered can he play because of his size?" Larry Pleau said. "He had a lot of proving to do, a lot of guys to prove wrong."
That process began in training camp with Fort Wayne, where Boguniecki openly expressed relief every time a player was cut and it wasn't him. But the last day of training camp brought news the Komets thought he was too raw and were sending him to Dayton in the low-level East Coast Hockey League.
"Sure (he was upset) because at that age you think that it's not you, it's the coach," says John Torchetti, who coached the Komets then. "For me, it would do me an injustice if I don't teach him defense and let him be an offensive player. That's just a wasted year. It's tough love."
So Boguniecki packed his bags for Dayton, where his process of becoming an NHL talent truly began.
"Was he raw? No. Did he need to be humbled a little bit? Yeah. But there's nothing wrong with that," says Mark Kumpel, who was Dayton's coach then.
Shut up and play. That's what you're gonna do. Even if it's in Dayton.
There was a clamor from Fort Wayne hockey fans for the kid. The Komets were off to a wretched start, 6-10-1 through seven weeks, and Internet message boards slowly began filling up with talk of this Boguniecki kid, Fort Wayne property, who was tearing up the ECHL.
Boguniecki was leading Dayton in scoring with 19 goals and 37 points in 26 games, was named the ECHL's top rookie the first month of the season, all in a city he couldn't stand.
"I'll never forget he called me one night from Dayton," says his mother, Mary Lou, "and he said, 'It's like the movie 'Slapshot.' They were throwing things on the ice.' He definitely was disappointed."
That disappointment was no secret, not to his teammates or to his coach.
"What I think really had to happen was for him to understand there was a pecking order and a way he had to get (to the higher levels)," Kumpel says. "He wanted the fast track. He had a great college career. He thought he was going to waltz in there (to the IHL) and succeed."
That wouldn't be the case, not until his skills at both ends of the ice were developed.
"Don't kid yourself," Kumpel says. "(Boguniecki) thought the best way for him to get out of Dayton was to score 100 points and he forgot about (defending the) back end."
Komets fans got their wish in December 1997, when Fort Wayne recalled Boguniecki and never returned him. He wasn't much more than a third-line player with the Komets that season, scoring four goals and 12 points in 35 games as the team won a division title, but he carved a niche.
He became a favorite among the Memorial Coliseum fans, who adored the work ethic, who crooned for the feisty little guy with the wicked wrist shot and the ability to bash the bigger and supposedly better prospects.
"I was the guy sent to Dayton. Then when I was in Fort Wayne, who would play only a few shifts," Boguniecki says. "It wasn't until the following year that I established myself."
It was in Boguniecki's second season with Fort Wayne that the higher-ups began to take notice. He played center and right wing, led the Komets in goals with 32 and totaled 66 points in 72 games. He also won an award as the fans' favorite player.
Alongside the Memorial Coliseum fans were scouts from the parent club, the Florida Panthers, there to keep tabs on prospects Viacheslav Butsayev and David Nemirovsky. Those scouts developed a fondness for Boguniecki, who found himself with an NHL contract in the summer of 1999.
"He was a huge part of that team, no question about it," Komets general manager David Franke says. "He was one of the top players on the team and I think that second season with the Komets is what catapulted him (to greater things)."
Boguniecki spent a season and a half with in the Panthers' organization, playing mostly in the American Hockey League but also seeing four games of NHL action as an emergency call-up with the Panthers. But the knock on him was still his size and he was dealt in December of 2000 to, of all teams, the Blues for another unknown named Andrei Podkonicky.
Shut up and play. That's what you're gonna do. Even if it's in Worcester.
When a prospect is let go twice by NHL teams, it's unlikely that player is ever going to be more than a minor-leaguer. Boguniecki knew that much when he headed for the Worcester IceCats, the top affiliate of the Blues.
"I was in the AHL and I was having some pretty good success there," Boguniecki says. "It was making the decision, 'Do I want to be a career AHL player? Or do I want to do the little things to get me to the NHL?' I did a lot off the ice that has helped me."
Included in that was learning the intricacies of the game and improving his strength and conditioning. While the other players vacationed, Boguniecki spent the summer of 2001 in Worcester working with a trainer, something that didn't go unnoticed by the coaches in Worcester or in St. Louis.
"He was very, very committed (in) that part of the year and he really made significant gains," Worcester coach Don Granato says.
When the 2001-02 season opened, it was immediately clear the scouting reports on Boguniecki were no longer valid. His size wasn't a hindrance, not with his new conditioning regimen. His defense was finally sound. He wasn't an incomplete player.
He was dominant.
"He elevated the competitiveness of the entire game," Granato says. "When Eric Boguniecki was on the ice, there was a whole other intensity level on both sides of the puck. He always has the drive to be the best of everybody on the ice.
"He's a guy that had the ability to do that, to do everything. He was the guy to watch."
Boguniecki went on to tally 38 goals and 84 points in 63 games with Worcester - he also played one game with the Blues - and he was named the AHL's MVP.
He hasn't been in a minor-league game since.
Shut up and play. That's what you're gonna do ... in the freaking NHL.
Silence is what Boguniecki gives you when you ask about the money. He must be making some serious bucks, right? Bought a fancy car? How about some jewelry?
Finally he answers: "I don't get caught up in all that," he says. "I haven't forgotten where I came from."
But if you want to get Boguniecki talking, ask him about September. It felt like Fort Wayne all over again. There was waiting, waiting and more waiting in the Blues' locker room to hear he was being sent down.
But those words never came.
"We got a few injuries and I got to play with some of the top players," Boguniecki says. "I just kind of got a chance to showcase what I could do."
He put up three goals and seven points in the first seven games with the Blues. Earned a contract extension - a one-way deal with the Blues - and some job security through the 2003-04 season.
And he kept on chugging through the first three months of the season. Led the Blues in goals through November. Earned a nickname, "The Quote," because of his popularity among reporters. Found himself on a line with Doug Weight, one of the best centers in the league.
"I still play the same way that I did back in Fort Wayne," Boguniecki says. "My style of play makes up for the lack of size. I don't think it has been a problem."
He used his speed to crash the net. Banged in the corners with guys who towered over him. Fired that blistering wrist shot to beat the top goalies in the world. Displayed the nastiness that fans from Fort Wayne to Worcester had come to love.
"He still likes to mix it up," says his mother, Mary Lou. "Have you seen (he only has 24) penalty minutes? He's been doing it, but either he's not getting caught or he's doing it clean."
And Boguniecki did through December what he'd always done best, say those close to him: He played the game like he was out to embarrass those who doubted him.
"He always plays with a chip on his shoulder," Granato says. "He always feels he's got more to prove, which drives him to be better and prepares him for opportunities during games. He's got to prove tonight that he can be out on the ice with the guys around him and be the best guy out there.
"From a coaching side, it's almost the ideal makeup of what you want. You know he's going to go into that game with that chip on his shoulder, the desire to prove himself, even if he scored a couple goals the night before."
But then, in recent weeks, Boguniecki's fellow Blues began to heal and his ice time was trimmed. He began riding the bench for long stretches, just like that first season in Fort Wayne, waiting to seize any opportunity he could.
That's what he does now. He waits for more chances to prove the doubters wrong.
"Hopefully in the years to come, when I've earned it, I'll get the opportunity to be that go-to guy," says Boguniecki, who has 14 goals and 34 points in 51 games this season.
And as the minutes go by and his teammates skate past, the frustration mounts. It's then that Boguniecki reflects on what got him to the NHL and what, perhaps, will keep him there longer than anyone now expects.
"I just think a lot of guys mature over a year or two," he says. "When I think of myself back in Fort Wayne, I was just out of college and didn't know a lot. But I've definitely learned about the pro style of game."
And he also learned that patience can pay off, if the will to succeed is there.
-- By Justin A. Cohn, The Journal Gazette