Before any smart alecks pose the question: Yes, Dave Bonk and Mark Derlago do know we have hockey here, too.
That hasn’t stopped them from circling the globe to compete head-to-head on the ice. The Brandon buddies are two of the top scorers this season in Asia League Ice Hockey — Derlago with South Korea’s Anyang Halla, and Bonk with Japan’s Nikko Icebucks.
It might seem odd that two players from the Wheat City would find their way to one of the farthest-flung of professional hockey leagues, but less so when you realize that Bonk played a role in bringing Derlago, who played in Germany last season, to the Far East.
"I’d actually talked to him about trying to get him to our team a little bit earlier and he was still, I think, kind of leaning towards going back to Europe," said Bonk, a 30-year-old second-year member of the Icebucks who played with Derlago in 2008-09 for the ECHL’s Bakersfield Condors. "But he had lots of questions. I just kind of told him about the league and then he ended up going to Korea.
"I think it’s kind of like a hidden gem. … Guys don’t want to come over here maybe, but once they do they realize that actually they pay really well and they treat you really well and the hockey actually’s pretty good."
Although the style of play is different from what they’re used to, both players are impressed by the calibre and are handling themselves very well on the ice. Derlago is currently third in the league in scoring with 39 points (15 goals, 24 assists) in 24 games, while Bonk is sixth, with 37 points (15 goals, 22 assists) in 23 contests.
Derlago, a 26-year-old former Brandon Wheat Kings captain, said the biggest adjustments have come off the ice.
"It was definitely a culture shock getting over here," he said of his arrival in Anyang, which is a Seoul suburb. "There were a lot of big changes, but at the same time, it’s a big city with a lot of North American food chains and the building we live in is very nice and hockey is still hockey."
To be sure, the players have their share of not-in-Brandon-anymore moments. For Derlago those include watching teammates wolf down squid and octopus for their pre-game meals.
Bonk, meanwhile, has gotten used to Japan’s frequent earthquakes, although he admitted that a magnitude 7.3 tremor that shook the Icebucks’ dressing room during their pre-game meeting on Friday was a little unnerving.
Even the atmosphere at games takes a little getting used to.
"We get a decent crowd because there is an (American) army base nearby, so there are actually a lot of North American fans that come in and watch the games, so it’s pretty good," said Derlago, who is on a one-year contract, while Bonk signed a two-year extension with the Icebucks prior to the season. "All the guys come with their hockey jerseys on and they’re cheering and yelling."
"There’s no concessions at the game, so it’s bring your own food, bring your own beer, so it gets pretty wild in there," he added. "People just bring stuff in backpacks, bring whatever they want."
The biggest challenge the players face on a day-to-day basis, however, is definitely the language barrier, with teams allowed as few as two imports (it varies from club to club).
"It’s tough to hold a conversation with people here," Derlago said. "They can say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ but there is a lot of nodding and smiling.
"There are probably three or four guys only on the team that you can carry a conversation with. So in the dressing room and in team meetings, you kind of have to look to them. We have a translator who helps us out a bit, but he doesn’t get involved as much as you’d like."
Because of that, the imports tend to stick together in the Asia League — one of Anyang’s imports is former NHLer Ric Jackman — and it’s one more reason why Bonk and Derlago appreciate the chance to cross paths. Bonk has his wife Lane and daughter Vesper in Nikko, which is about 150 kilometres north of Tokyo, while Derlago’s wife Jenna is in Anyang and all of them appreciate seeing a familiar face in a sea of strangers.
"Both times we go (to South Korea) it’s kind of an extended road trip because there’s two teams there," said Bonk, who played hockey at Northern Michigan University before setting out on a professional career that has taken him across the United States as well as to the Netherlands, Germany and Norway. "… We were pretty close to his house and went out for dinner a couple nights, went over to (Derlago’s) apartment, saw his wife and stuff. That’s one of the really nice parts. …
"Here it’s a really small (import) community, so usually you kind of befriend the guys on the other team. You play hard against them, but if you have a day off you might go out for dinner and have a few beers or something and just relax. It’s kind of a tighter community than in other places I’ve played."
With files from James Shewaga