If Queens Park Arena in New Westminster were a stage and each lacrosse game a theatrical spectacle, the headliner performing front and centre would undoubtedly be Jack Bionda.
Flamboyant, wielding his lacrosse stick like a samara sword, Jack dominated the box lacrosse scene during the 1950’s and early ’60s.
He was the commanding presence in a sport liberally sprinkled with superstars. Slow afoot but gifted with incredible reflexes, Jack would run – perhaps plod is a more apt description – down the floor, creating magic with his lacrosse stick. His powerful shots and pinpoint passes were delivered in so many different ways that defenders often just stood in disbelief.
A native of Huntsville, Ontario, Jack first performed before box lacrosse fans in British Columbia in the 1952 Minto Cup playoffs, leading a powerful Brampton club to victory over Vancouver.
In 1954, Jack brought his skills west at a time when lacrosse needed an injection of excitement to lure fans back into the arenas and national titles back to B.C..
The impact was immediate. With his tongue firmly lodged in his cheek like an oversized plug of tobacco, Jack bulled his way through the opposing teams into the hearts of box lacrosse fans. The charismatic Bionda admitted he showboated a bit, which often irked his frustrated adversary but explained the exuberant flair drew fans to the game.
He was right – Queens Park Arena was filled up to its dusty old rafters.
Jack’s first team in Western Canada was Victoria. He captured the league scoring title while leading the Shamrocks to an unsuccessful challenge for the Mann Cup. He played a partial season in 1955 and no games in 1956; but he was back in 1957 to take his second scoring title while again directing Victoria to a Mann Cup run. Although hockey commitments prohibited Jack from playing for the Mann Cup, the Victoria club took the Canadian title.
He took his genius for creation to New Westminster in 1958 and 1959 – two more scoring titles and two more Mann Cups. Then it was off to Nanaimo in 1960 where he registered his fifth scoring title while leading the Timbermen to Mann Cup play (Port Credit won). Another partial season in Nanaimo and Jack returned to the Salmonbellies where he racked up his sixth scoring title and one more Mann Cup victory.
His personal scoring prowess was incredible. He captured six scoring titles – one for each year he played an entire season; his commitments in hockey often restricted his time spent on the lacrosse floor.
A back injury put Bionda on the shelf after the 1964 season although he played a handful of games with New Westminster, Portland and Huntsville until 1970. He kept his stickhandling deftness sharp over the years since retirement with exhibitions at Oldtimer and All-Star games across the country and even, at the age of 48, played one more senior game for Victoria, twice setting up Kevin Alexander on power-play goals.
Jack was what could be called a double-schedule athlete. His combined hockey-lacrosse commitments totaled over 100 games each year, not including playoff and exhibition games – an average of one game every three days year round.
Bionda’s first love was always lacrosse. He practiced four and five hours a day from the age of 11, honing the stick magic that later brought him fame. As for hockey, he didn’t even begin skating until he was 14 but still managed a lengthy professional career in the Western and American Hockey leagues. Oh, yes, he also put in three seasons with Boston and Toronto of the National Hockey League.
Hockey paid the bills but it would never take Bionda into a Hall of Fame. He was an honest journeyman, often described as “gutty” or “hardrock”.
Lacrosse was the sport that carried him to glory. In 1974, Jack was inducted into the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame; eight years later, he became a member of the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame along with another former Boston Bruin player, Bobby Orr. Then, in 1998, Jack was added to the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame.
In addition to the three Mann Cup rings in five attempts, Jack was twice named the Most Valuable Player in the national championship (1959 and 1962), was the Western MVP in 1958, the Western playoff MVP in 1955, and was a five-time All-Star. His career scoring total was 697 goals and 529 assists for 1,226 points in 340 games. Jack also played a handful of games with Brampton in the early 1950s but the scoring records for those years have disappeared with age.