Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bogo finds his mojo

Jets blue-liner's game taking off in his new surroundings

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A scene from inside the Winnipeg Jet dressing room in Buffalo the other night, while the players did their damnedest to stifle their frustrations following a crushing 6-5 overtime loss...

Zach Bogosian, all of 21 and with 214 NHL games under his belt, passes by Mark Flood -- some six years his senior but essentially to this point a career minor leaguer -- and gives him the proverbial "Keep-your-chin-up" slap on the backside.

 

As simple as it sounds, it could be said that small moment is representative of the tremendous growth Bogosian has made in a Jet uniform this season, a transformation that has seen him morph from under-achieving prospect into an emerging defensive rock who is respected in the room.

It also makes the organization's decision to re-sign him this summer rather than deal him -- as had been the rampant speculation -- look like pure genius.

"You know, it's funny... Winnipeg is my kind of city," explained Bogosian the other day in Buffalo. "I just feel comfortable now. I like the people there and I feel a lot more comfortable than I did in Atlanta, that's for sure.

"Winnipeg is huge compared to where I'm from, but it feels like a big small town. I love it. The people are nice. I can walk around in my cowboy boots and big belt buckles and no one looks at me like I'm a weirdo. It's going well. I like it there."

The feeling, it would appear, is mutual. Yes, as Humphrey Bogart said in that famous last scene from Casablanca: "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

Drafted third overall in 2008 behind Steve Stamkos and Drew Doughty, Bogosian entered the NHL with lofty expectations. And although he made the team as an 18-year-old it was, admittedly now, a lot to handle all at once. He had nine goals and 10 assists in 47 games as a rookie and 23 points as a sophomore but struggled last year. The most-glaring number: a -27 plus/minus rating and something that doesn't show up in the black and white of the stat sheet -- a shattered confidence.

Funny, then, how a change in scenery can breathe life into a guy's career again.

"A lot of things go into it," Bogosian explained. "In my first three years I experienced a lot of things I'm sure a lot of 21-year-olds don't experience. But that's in the past now. I just enjoy playing here now and we have such a good group of guys. That's a big part of, too: I feel more comfortable around the guys now to be myself.

"Confidence and being comfortable are huge. Last year, the way my year was going I really wasn't sure what it was going to be like day to day. Now I know I've kind of established myself as a hard working guy that comes to work every day. I love coming to the rink now.

"A lot of people had different opinions on where my career was going in the first three years," he added. "I'd be the first one to tell you it didn't go as smooth as I wanted. But I'm learning. And any time a team, like Winnipeg did this summer, says they want to keep you for two years it makes you feel good about yourself. I want to be here."

Bogosian was the youngest of three boys who grew up in Massena, N.Y., a town of about 14,000 along the St Lawrence River and just across the border from Canada. His father Ike is still a legend in town as a multi-sport star in the 1970s who played college football at Syracuse and was co-captain as a senior with future New York Giants star running back Joe Morris.

The Bogosians are tight-knit family that still visits and talks regularly -- Ike was in Ottawa and Buffalo to see Zach on this recent trip and his mom will be in Winnipeg later this month -- and are ecstatic their youngest has found a place in Winnipeg.

"The first thing he said to me was, 'The people are great. They're so friendly. I know I'm going to like it here,'" said Ike Wednesday from his office at B.C. Cleaning, a company that specializes in carpet cleaning and floor covering (Zach's grandparents live in an apartment above the office, the Bogosians' house is across the street). "To hear that coming out his mouth after three days of him being there was just great for us to hear.

"We know he's comfortable there. He's a guy who likes to wear boots and jeans, sweatshirt and a hat. He doesn't need a whole lot to make himself happy."

What he needed, it turns out, was exactly what the Jets provided this summer: a new deal that brought stability and a the affirmation that he was a franchise building block.

"Even as a kid, I can tell you if you put your arm around him as a parent he would go through the wall for you," explained Ike. "He's getting a chance to play there. He likes working with (Jets assistant coach) Charlie Huddy and the staff there... You know, it's like anything, if you have your heart and soul in something and get some positive feedback coming the other way it makes for such a healthy environment.

"I've always told that to Zach and my other two boys: there's going to be some things in life you have to do that you don't like. But pick what you want to do, strive to do it and have fun with it. I know he's excited to go the rink now."

Another scene from inside the Jets' dressing room the other night in Buffalo... check that, every night after every game. There is Bogosian, all of 21, respectfully and thoughtfully answering questions afterward -- win or lose; hero or goat.

"That's just part of the job," said Bogosian with a shrug. "You guys have a job to do."

A small moment, likely quickly forgotten by the man himself. But it speaks volumes about the ongoing maturation of Zach Bogosian from struggling prospect to defensive anchor.

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 10, 2011 C1

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