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Photo credit: Liz Wolter
Story by Matt Lawson
Jacob Bonkowski, forward for the Salmon Arm Silverbacks, is currently skating in his final BCHL season and looking to end his tenure with a Fred Page Cup. The 20-year-old Richmond, B.C. product has come a long way from lacing up for Seafair Minor Hockey.
Prior to playing in the BCHL, Bonkowski played two seasons with the West Vancouver Academy Prep teams. During these two seasons, Bonkowski says he developed the skills and habits necessary to make the jump to junior hockey.
“I played my U16 and U18 years there and both years I thought they had really good development and really good coaching,” said Bonkowski. “Every day, being at the rink, working out and watching video, I think it was a great step towards making the jump to the BCHL because it shows you what it’s going to be like once you get there.”
Early on in his U18 year, Bonkowski got called up to play a pair of games for the BCHL’s Powell River Kings. It was an experience that left him craving more.
“I remember, I flew out to Kelowna, the team picked me up, and I just got right into it,” he said. “I think we played Vernon the first night and then Salmon Arm the second night. It was super cool seeing all of the fans and people coming out to watch and just how fast and skilled the league was. I knew that I had to keep working to make the jump full time the next season.”
Bonkowski remembers fondly how he was welcomed into that Kings dressing room at such a young age.
“The older guys were all super nice to me. I remember that I was rooming with a 20-year-old and he made me feel really comfortable right away. I knew when I got there, I wasn’t going to be playing much or anything, but the guys were supportive and made sure I knew all the systems, felt comfortable in the room and stuff like that.”
Being a 20-year-old who is currently leaned on for leadership with his team, Bonkowski tries to replicate that warmth with the younger players of the Silverbacks.
“Every day at the rink, you want to encourage the young guys to get better, make them feel comfortable, and push them,” he said. “Because at the end of the day, no matter if you’re a rookie or a vet, everyone is on the same team and everyone wants to win – it takes a whole team to do that.”
After his first full year in the league with Powell River, the Lower Mainland kid got to come home and suit up for the Surrey Eagles in year two. Not only was he back with his parents, but he eventually also got to take the ice with his younger brother, Rylan, who played his rookie year as a defenceman with the Eagles in 2022-23. Bonkowski says he truly cherishes this portion of his young career.
“Just being so close to home and having my parents able to come watch every game, and having my brother on the team with me, was a really special experience for myself and my family.”
Last season with the Eagles, Bonkowski chalked up a career-best 27 goals and a matching 27 helpers in 53 games.
During the most recent offseason, he was acquired by the Silverbacks who were coming off an Interior Conference Finals appearance. He says that he has enjoyed the transition and really welcomes the new experiences with a team that he believes could go all the way.
“Moving away from home and billeting is always a good experience before you go away to college,” said Bonkowski. “Also, I think we have a really talented group of players on our team, a good coaching staff and a great facility and everyone is working extremely hard every single day. So, I know that it’s all going to come together for us and we’ll be able to start getting consistent wins. This is a championship team and I really believe that, so we just have to keep working hard and it will all come together soon.”
Making the switch from a Coastal team to an Interior team presents some underlying challenges too, such as varying styles of play. This is especially prevalent for Bonkowski, considering the Eagles play on an Olympic-sized ice surface and tailor their systems accordingly.
“One of the biggest differences is the physicality in the Interior compared to the Coastal,” he said. “Also, the Coastal is a bit faster-paced than the Interior where it’s more of an in-zone style – winning your corner battles, getting in front of the net and stuff like that.”
Bonkowski and the Silverbacks played in the BCHL Showcase in Seattle last month, where he got to lineup against his former team and his younger brother. It was a hard-fought battle that saw the Eagles walk away with a 3-2 victory. Despite the tough loss, Bonkowski says that he couldn’t be more proud of his brother.
“It was a super cool experience,” he said. “Getting to play with [Rylan] and seeing him every day last season was awesome and this is obviously his draft year, so he has high expectations of himself. Seeing him play in Seattle, he looked really solid and I know he puts in a lot of work every day and I’m proud of him.”
Bonkowski has already inked a commitment to the University of Nebraska-Omaha and, while he isn’t trying to look past this season, he is extremely excited about the opportunity to continue to pursue his childhood dream.
“I’m really fortunate to have that scholarship,” he said. “They have a really good coaching staff, hockey program and facility, so I’m thankful every single day. I just want to focus on this year, obviously, but I’m also really excited to go there next year and continue to pursue my dream of playing in the NHL.”
Bonkowski and the Silverbacks are currently fifth in the Interior Division, but still very much in contention for one of the top spots in the standings. With the majority of the 2023-24 season still to come, he has lots of runway to accomplish his goal of leading his new club to the postseason and their first-ever Fred Page Cup.