Dennis Bonvie has yet to drop the gloves in his new career as a pro scout for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and his new colleagues in press boxes around the league can rest easy.
“I don’t plan on doing it, either,” he said laughing.
The days of fighting are over for professional hockey’s all-time penalty minutes leader, who is now breaking down some of the very players he once policed and pounded into submission.
Few players chucked them as often, or for as long, as “Dennis The Menace” did during a 15-year career that ended last spring when his Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins were beaten in six games by the Chicago Wolves in the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup final.
Now, after hooking up with the Maple Leafs over the summer, the 35-year-old from Antigonish, N.S., is leaving the 4,804 penalty minutes he amassed in 871 AHL and 92 NHL games in the past. He’s embracing the transition from a player who did the dirty work so his teammates could succeed, to a scout who does the legwork so executives above him make the right calls.
“My time was up and I’m not going to lie to you, I didn’t really want to keep fighting anymore. I did it every time I was asked, but you get somewhat tired of it, I guess,” he said Wednesday en route to New Jersey to watch the Leafs play the Devils.
“I wanted to stay in the game, it’s what I know, it’s what I love most importantly. When you’re done your career, you’re not sure what path or where the road is going to lead you. I was fortunate to get this opportunity. (Scouting) is something that always intrigued me.”
In a sense, Bonvie’s background may have been the ideal training ground for his new gig. To survive for 15 seasons in the tough guy role – especially at just five foot 11, 205 pounds – a player would need a relentless determination and plenty of smarts, not to mention incredible toughness and a keen mental discipline.
All those skills are also part of a scout’s skill set and Bonvie’s ability to read a game and sense of when to act as a player should give him insight on what’s happening on the ice.
While some people tend to think of enforcers as thuggish brutes, it takes a finer understanding of the game to have longevity in the role as much as it demands an ability to withstand the physical toll.
“Mentally it’s just as hard or probably even harder (than the physical part),” said Bonvie. “I know a lot of guys who couldn’t handle it mentally. You’ve got to be a special breed to do it, you’ve got to accept that it’s going to happen and you can’t really think about it. It just happens, you do it and deal with it.”
That perspective no doubt helped keep him level through some staggeringly high penalty-filled seasons, including a career-high 522 in 1996-97 with the Hamilton Bulldogs. He also has years with 431, 422 and 357 on his resume and every once in a while even he gets awed by his record total.
“You’re like, ‘Holy crap, did I really do that?”‘ he said. “But yeah, I did and I did my job to the best of my abilities. Every game, every time I played I wanted to make a positive impression and make sure people knew I played and did what I could for my teammates. That’s what it kind of amounted to.”
While fights with some of this generation’s toughest tough guys – including two with Bob Probert, a Hockey Night in Canada tilt with Tie Domi, a “bunch” with Tony Twist and a go with Georges Laraque – are among his career highlights, two other memories stick out in particular.
One was his first NHL game with the Edmonton Oilers in 1994-95; the other was his only NHL goal in 2001-02 for the Boston Bruins.
“I had warmed up a bunch of times with Edmonton, I was an extra guy, and coach Ronnie Low comes up and says, ‘You’re in kid, Jason Arnott’s sick,”‘ Bonvie recalled. “That was big-time because we were playing L.A. and Wayne Gretzky. I was out a little bit long and he came out and was in the corner and I was standing right beside him. I think I just left the puck and gave it to him because I didn’t want to screw up that bad on my first shift.”
The goal came on the road against New York Islanders goalie Chris Osgood.
“You’re up and down, up and down, it’s been a long career and I get a chance with Boston, and at that point I’m like, ‘Man, am I ever going to get a goal?”‘ said Bonvie. “I ended up getting it down the wing, took a slapshot and it went in the net. Benoit Hogue came up to me, hugging me, ‘Hey Bonvs, great job, you scored.’ And I’m like, ‘I never scored before in the NHL, this is a great feeling.’ He was just laughing, it was pretty special.”
Only in recent days has Bonvie began to pine for the ice, to feel the loss of the camaraderie of his teammates. But then his body starts to ache, the lingering soreness from five knee surgeries acts up, the pain in his hands returns, and he knows he’s made the right choice in moving on.
He hasn’t been in the NHL since playing one game with the Colorado Avalanche in 2003-04 and that window has closed on him. With his two kids growing up, he understood it was time for a change.
“I played my whole career to play in the National Hockey League, to stay in the National Hockey League, to get back to the National Hockey League, and that wasn’t the case the last couple of years, I knew I wasn’t going to get there. That’s when it’s decision time,” said Bonvie.
“I talked to my wife, I have two young kids. If they see me doing it on YouTube in a couple of years, that’s fine but I didn’t want them to see me doing it live.”
Bonvie’s travelling in different circles now and he feels welcomed by his new fraternity. But really, who’s going to take their chances and give the guy attitude?
“They’re a pretty good bunch of guys,” said Bonvie. “What’s nice is when you first start, it’s a little bit overwhelming, so you’re like, ‘How am I going to find my way and do this?’ A lot of scouts travel the same path and are on the same schedules and I’ve met a lot of people who have been very good to me.”