Hockey nuts who have been around the game for a few decades will recognize the name Jason Bonsignore. He was the 4th overall pick in the 1994 Entry Draft by the Edmonton Oilers—drafted ahead of guys like Jeff Friesen, Ethan Moreau, Jeff O’Neill, and Edmonton’s own Ryan Smyth. In his draft year, he scored 22 goals and 64 assists for 86 points in his time with the Newmarket Royals and Niagara Falls Thunder (OHL). He was a 6’4” playmaking forward who looked like a sure thing. He even scored a goal in his first NHL game.
Unfortunately, that was the only goal he would ever score for the Edmonton Oilers. In 20 more games, he would score two assists as he started bouncing around more North American hockey teams than he guys who work for NHL’s Central Scouting. His final NHL totals read like a 5th rounder who was brought up to fill in the gaps: 79 games, 3 goals, and 13 assists.
How could a player with that size and potential flame out before ever really getting started? For a long time, Bonsignore has been hesitant to tell his side of the story. People just assumed that he was a “bust;” the type of player who shouldn’t have been drafted as high as he was. Of course, that still could partly be true.
In an extensive interview with TEAM 1260 in Edmonton, Bonsignore told his side of the story that led to his underwhelming career. Here are a few selected quotes from the transcription at Kukla’s Korner:
“…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.”
“It kind of got to the point at one stage where a couple of the veterans even went to the staff and said “You know you’re going to break this kid.” At this point, I was having absolutely no fun at all and was just miserable. Then you get put into the games, for five minutes, maybe get five minutes of playing on the fourth line and you’re expected to be a scorer. If you’re not scoring or producing points, then you’re a bust or they’re down on you. It was just really tough. I did get an opportunity to play sparingly there, but I was just so rusty and out of game shape, not physically but mentally and timing wise from not playing at all.
“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, 2 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.”
The stories that Bonsignore tells are like a guidebook for ruining a prospect. From the former prospect’s description of events, GM Glen Sather and the entire Edmonton organization pushed him too far and put him in a position to fail. In a day and age that drafting and developing prospects has become tremendously important for an organization’s success, the narrative gives an example of how fragile 18-year-olds can be as they enter the world’s toughest league.
Now, most teams seem to understand that enabling their prospects to succeed is one of the most important functions of an NHL team. The Detroit Red Wings have become one of the model franchises for long-term success through their patient development of draft picks. More and more teams are following suit as they help their prospects mature before they’re thrown into the fire.
Look no further than James van Riemsdyk and his four-year journey for 2nd overall pick to multimillionaire. He was given four years to find his game with the University of New Hampshire (and briefly with the Philadelphia Phantoms). Only recently has he started transition from a bottom six forward to a difference-maker up-front.
James van Riemsdyk, Cody Hodgson, Braden Schenn, and a wealth of other prospects represent the new way of thinking for NHL teams. Each and every organization wants to maximize the potential of every player they draft. They need to if they want to become successful. As long as they remain patient, each of their players will have an opportunity to become the best player possible.
Bonsignore was never given the chance.