Kyle Bonis and Ferris State came up one win short of the ultimate prize last season but it didn’t cloud their view of the journey.
“Last year was very special,” Bonis said. “It was by far my favorite year of hockey.”
With good reason.
Entering last season, the left winger had managed just 19 points in 56 career games. A high-flying scorer with the Traverse City North Stars of the North American Hockey League, Bonis struggled to find his way most nights during his first two seasons with the Bulldogs.
“He saw action in 20-plus games each of his first two years,” Bulldogs coach Bob Daniels said. “He was focused on trying to get himself into the lineup.”
A former walk-on, Bonis’ hard work and dedication helped him jump out quickly, scoring five goals in the first three games last season.
“He always scored in practice,” Daniels said. “He has never coasted in practice. He needed to work on playing good, solid defense first. The offense would come later.”
Bonis worked with assistant coaches Drew Famulak and Mark Kaufman as he went to task on improving his defensive game.
“Coming in, I was a scorer,” Bonis said. “It’s hard to create your space. Working with Coach Famulak, I am now trusting my own instincts. I try not to overthink things.”
After suffering a seven-game pointless streak shortly after that great start, he stormed back in early November with a four-point weekend at home against Lake Superior State.
In December, he suffered another five-game pointless streak. While he was struggling personally, the Bulldogs also struggled, going 2-3 over that stretch. Daniels and his staff struggled to find ways to engage Bonis because the Bulldogs took several penalties and Bonis rarely saw the ice for long stretches as his team worked to kill them off.
“Last season Kyle was such a big part of our offense,” Daniels said. “As a scorer, he wasn’t used on the penalty kill. It would take him another five or six shifts just to back into the flow of the game.”
He finished the season third on the team in scoring with 19 goals and 31 points in 43 games.
Awarded the team’s captaincy this season, Bonis has worked with the Bulldogs’ coaching staff on his short-handed play in attempt to find more ways to get him on the ice. But the rest of his game hasn’t suffered — he has already notched a team-high six goals, four of them on the power play.
“As the captain, he’s obviously front and center,” Daniels said. “Kyle has excelled in every way. We wanted to get him on the [penalty kill] in order to keep him fresh, and he’s done a good job.”
Two weekends ago, Bonis scored his first game-winning goal of the season in a 3-1 victory over CCHA opponent Bowling Green. He added another goal and two assists in a huge weekend for the Bulldogs, who were looking for a little redemption against the Falcons, the team that knocked them out of the CCHA playoffs last season.
Before taking a chance on the Bulldogs, the Lindsay, Ontario, native took his game first to the Indiana Ice of the USHL in the 2007-08 season. With just three points in 11 games, Bonis moved from the Ice to the North Stars, scoring 41 points in 39 games and helping them to a fourth-place finish in the NAHL’s North Division.
The following season, Bonis led the North Stars in scoring, netting 30 goals and 57 points, drawing the attention of Daniels and his staff along with other schools as well. He credits his coach in Traverse City, Anthony Palumbo, with helping him make the decision to forgo other offers and join the Bulldogs.
“Actually, Ferris State was the first team to talk to me, back when I was 16,” Bonis said. “Coach Palumbo helped with my decision by telling me that Ferris wasn’t a factory. They believe in their players.”
During his first three seasons in Big Rapids, Bonis has had the chance to study under some great captains. Watching and listening to players like defenseman Chad Billins and center Jordie Johnston gave him excellent models for how to lead a college hockey team, and he is quick to credit them for what he learned.
“Chad was so calm, so composed,” Bonis said. “He was kind of the voice of reason in the locker room. I’ve tried not to change too much in my new role.”
The Bulldogs are 6-4-2 and ranked 17th in the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll, but Bonis said he believes that the hockey world has yet to see the best the team has to offer, due in large part to injuries to top players.
“I think we need to find the right way to win,” Bonis said. “I’m excited about this group. You know, we are going to win some and we are going to lose some. But if we can find the right way to win, we’ll be there when it matters.”
Daniels said he believes in his captain and the leadership he shows both in practice and games.
“He’s an observer of the game,” Daniels said. “He leads with how he comes in and works in practice. With all the freshmen we’ve been forced to play, Kyle’s leading the whole time.”
The only thing that will satisfy Daniels’ captain is a return to the national stage. At this point, he is not focused on anything else.
“I’d like to leave no stone unturned here,” Bonis said. “At this point, I’m not looking too far down the road.”
Provided he can maintain his work ethic, Bonis is likely to make his senior season a special one, too.