There are a lot of different positions to fill when making up a winning hockey team. The obvious players are the forwards that score a lot of goals, a solid goaltender, and defenseman that aren’t afraid to sacrifice their bodies to protect their goalie. But there are other players that are just as valuable but can sometimes get overlooked. Players that deliver the hard hits and drop the gloves to defend their teammates can change the momentum of a whole game.
Jimmy Bonneau is getting ready to kick off his 9th professional season and has made his living as a hockey player that is not afraid to fight. The native of Baie-Comeau, Quebec definitely knows the importance of a player like himself. He has dressed for 404 regular season games between the AHL and ECHL so far, registering 144 fighting majors. He will be joining the Worcester Sharks for a third season and knows the importance of his role.
“It definitely takes some of the load away from guys that play a physical type of game. They know that I’m going to be there to deal with tough stuff. Then the more I play, the more I can bring a physical part myself too with the hitting and the stuff that isn’t actually fighting,” Bonneau said. “I think it’s a pretty important role, especially in the east. In the Sharks division in the AHL, it’s usually really tough. I think it’s a great fit for me.”
Fans might assume that there are games fighters go into expecting a fight with a certain player. While sometimes things carry over, many times it’s just about the heat of the moment. Over the last two seasons, there have been cases where he expected something against a team from the same division. Rivalries form quickly and tensions often run high.
“You kind of know the guys you’re going to have to face if stuff happens. Sometimes there’s carry over from previous games. I can’t really say that tonight I know I’m fighting this guy. It’s just not how it works, you just have to go with the flow,” Bonneau said. “Sometimes it happens out of nowhere and sometimes you’re answering back to something that happened. There are a few players in the past few years that I’ve ended up fighting a lot. It’s not that I hate them or anything, it’s just part of the game.”
Now the QMJHL is not a junior league known as much for fighting and physicality. But when Bonneau was there, it was different. It was playing in that league that made him the fighter he is now.
“It’s changed a lot in juniors. Now, they’re trying to take some of the fighting out of the game,” said Bonneau. “When I was there, it was really physical and I was probably fighting 30-35 times a year.”
After his first season in the QMJHL, Bonneau was eligible for the NHL Draft. He would not have thought there was much chance of getting selected, but he worked to get noticed. He started fighting and playing a physical game.
“I wasn’t a guy that was always seen as an NHL type player or someone that would get drafted. I was initially surprised by the time that the draft came,” Bonneau said. “If you would have asked me two years before that if I thought I would get drafted into the NHL two year later, I would have said there was slim to no chance. I made things happen and I was really proud of myself.”
While it is obviously a huge honor to get drafted into the NHL, it is not a guarantee of success. Bonneau knows that the most important thing is to keep up a good work ethic.
“Getting drafted into the NHL doesn’t necessarily get you there. Lots of guys don’t even get signed after being drafted,” said Bonneau. “It’s a year-by-year thing and you have to keep improving. As long as you do that, you still have a shot, at least that’s what I think.”
As a 20 year old, Bonneau turned pro and says that it was not the easiest transition to make for a guy that’s used to fighting. While he was learning to be more efficient on the ice, he had to sit out games. He also struggled initially with earning a spot on an AHL roster as opposed to bouncing between the ECHL and AHL.
“That was an adaptation for me because the game is so much faster and the guys don’t let themselves get intimidated as easily as in juniors. You’re not dealing with 16 or 17 year old kids, you’re playing against men,” Bonneau said. “Kevin Dineen, the coach in Portland, really helped me become a full time AHL player. I was kind of a bubble guy before that year. He put me into the lineup and worked on my game a lot.”
There have been a lot of great memories that Bonneau has had so far as a hockey player. When he was playing in the ECHL, he won a Kelly Cup, something he will never forget. Being a Quebec native, he will also never forget the day in 2003 that the Canadiens drafted him. But, always having a positive attitude, he will always be happy when he signs a new contract to continue playing hockey.
“As happy as I was to get drafted into the NHL, I was just as happy when I signed my contract this year with Worcester, knowing I’m going to be back in the place I love. I have a new challenge ahead,” Bonneau said.
Now going into his 9th professional season, Bonneau still believes in always working hard and having a positive attitude. That is likely part of the reason that the Sharks wanted to bring him back for his 3rd season in Worcester.
“I didn’t exactly know how it was going to play out because now I’m an exempt and a veteran. They said they were happy with what I brought so they were going to check into their roster and see if they had room,” Bonneau said of his new contract. “Then, they called me back with an offer and that’s the place I wanted to go. I was thrilled.”
For him, there was never a question about where he wanted to play during the 2013-2014 season. He wanted to be with the Sharks. That’s something fans will definitely be happy to hear, as he has become a favorite there.
“I’ve just been really happy there the last two years. I get along great with the staff and the people from San Jose that come down. We have a good team to be around,” Bonneau said. “I really love it there and the fans are great to me. The organization and the city are good, there’s a lot of civility I got there, so I would like to stay there as long as I can.”
As a guy that’s going into his 9th professional season and his 3rd with the Sharks, Bonneau feels like he has a lot that he can offer off the ice as well as on the ice. On the ice he’s responsible for maintain order and sticking up for his teammates.
“I’ve been around the league a long time and I know the league. I know what it takes for young kids. Lots of times they’ll peak early and then start to fade away, like the guys coming from college who have never played that many games,” said Bonneau. “I just try to be there for them if they have questions or anything. I try to help them perform as well as they can.”
During his professional career, Bonneau has unfortunately been no stranger to having to sit out games here and there. He knows that it’s important not to let sitting out for a game or two get to you.
“I’ve always been the guy that loves the game and I want to play as much as I can. If you’re not in the line-up, you can still bring something to the team with a good attitude and work ethic. I’ve always tried to keep my head up and work hard,” Bonneau said. “I haven’t reached all my goals, but in some ways it’s paid off. I feel like I’m better than I’ve ever been, so I’m happy with my progression.”
Even though he is 28 years old now and talks about having been around the league awhile, he is still learning. He knows there are still things that he can learn and areas that might need work. He’s open to working on his game.
“My years are still wide open and I know I have lots of stuff I need to improve. Anyone that has a tip that’s going to help me in my game or in fighting or in my overall knowledge, I’m always willing to listen,” Bonneau said. “That’s what I love with San Jose with the staff there and in Worcester that take time with me. We have a great relationship that I appreciate. They’re a big part of the reason I’m in Worcester for a third year and why I enjoy it so much.”
At 6’3, 220 pounds, Bonneau is definitely a big guy. There are a lot of things he works on in the offseason relative to developing skill at his size. But, he also has to condition his body for a season full of fighting and physicality.
“I’m a pretty big guy and I try to work on my speed a lot to keep up with the game that keeps getting faster. I do lots of footwork stuff,” Bonneau said of his offseason training. “Then I have the usual weight training to keep my strength for the physical stuff and I do lots of cardio too so that I don’t run out of gas in games or in fights.”
“It’s a big focus of mine to get faster, I do a lot of power skating,” Bonneau added about looking faster his second year with Worcester. “I’ve tried to shed a little bit of weight too. I might have been a little heavier my first year in Worcester than last year. I think it’s helping me.”
As a veteran on the Sharks, Bonneau hopes that he can help younger players the same way he got help when he was just starting out. The role of a veteran in shaping a young player can be invaluable.
“I’ve had the honor to play with some amazing veterans. Ajay Baines, JP Cote that’s in Syracuse now, and Alex Henry are some of the guys that when I was a little bit younger really helped me,” Bonneau said. “They were big physical guys themselves. They were smart guys and they were vets. They were great leaders on the team.”
Bonneau can’t wait to get back to being in a rink with his teammates, his favorite place, for the upcoming season in Worcester. One goal he hopes to accomplish this season with the Sharks is to see the team make it back to the postseason. However, his biggest goal is the same as any hockey player.
“Making the NHL would definitely be my biggest goal. Is it going to happen or not? I don’t know but it’s not something I’m going to give up on, not until I’m done playing,” Bonneau said.