FROM THE CREASE with Bruce Berlet

bruce mug shot 1By Bruce Berlet

Talk about pressure.

Forget overtime in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals. Forget batting with two out in the bottom of the ninth and a run down in Game 7 of the World Series. Forget two free throws with two seconds on the clock and down one in Game 7 of the NBA finals.

No, that all would have been child’s play to Ray Neufeld.

When the Hartford Whalers traded Neufeld to the Winnipeg Jets on Nov. 21, 1985, the headline in a local Canadian publication screamed: Jets Trade Babych for “Stone Hands” Neufeld

As if that wasn’t blunt enough, the fourth paragraph of the story was downright cruel: Coming to the Jets is St. Boniface native Ray Neufeld, bringing with him an established reputation for his lack of finish around the opponent’s net and little else.

Nearly a quarter century later, in his acceptance speech upon induction into the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame in 2009, four years after close friend Jordy Douglas, Neufeld even made note of “the most controversial trade in Jets history.”

Jets general manager John Ferguson, a noted tough guy himself in his playing days, gushed about Neufeld’s qualities when he announced the acquisition of a player whom he had sought for a while. Neufeld immediately fought for space for himself and his teammates, but it didn’t help that Babych, a gifted defenseman and point man on the power play who had been the second overall pick by the Jets in 1980, helped elevate the Whalers to the two best seasons in franchise history, their only playoff victory that season and only division title in 1986-87.

Yes, his current baldness – “I’m a cue ball,” he said – shows life hasn’t been a simple skate around the rink for Neufeld, the broad-shouldered product of Winkler, Manitoba, who has used his size, strength, kindness and strong faith to get through even the most difficult of times.

Ironically, Babych has been thin on top for years, so he and Neufeld can share hair tales and others this weekend when they play for the Whalers legends against the Boston Bruins legends Saturday at 4 p.m. in the opener of Whale Bowl, the featured attraction of the historic “ Whalers Hockey Fest 2011” at Rentschler Field in East Hartford. The legends game will be followed by the second AHL outdoor game in history between the Connecticut Whale and the Providence Bruins at 7 p.m. The day’s activities begin at 1 p.m., when Army faces American International College.

But, Ray, what happened to your hair?

“I don’t know,” the 51-year-old Neufeld said with a chuckle. “It’s a stressful life. Something got to me, I guess.”

Like dealing with overbearing hockey parents or the controversial trade, though Neufeld says the latter proved a blessing as he battled a bout with the bottle and insensitive racial slurs from fans and players to become a strong believer in God, a Hall of Famer in his native province and coach of youngsters in Winnipeg, some on a nearby Indian reservation.

“The trade sure was controversial, for sure,” said Neufeld, who has lived in Winnipeg since he retired in 1990. “It was a tough transition getting traded for Babych, who was high draft pick and a very, very popular player. Coming home was good. At first, I wasn’t that crazy about getting traded to Winnipeg, but it all turned out really well, though at the time I didn’t realize it would be because the trade itself was very difficult. Every place and every rink I went to people were always asking about the trade, and I started getting a little negative about it.

“I felt pressure to produce, and I don’t want to discredit any of the players in Winnipeg because I have a tremendous amount of friendships with those players, but it was tough being accepted there. It took quite a while for the team to sort of warm up and for me to start to feel like I belonged there. They had a terrific team with guys like Dale Hawerchuk, whom I play hockey with all the time now, and Randy Carlyle, and with the city of Winnipeg, it has been a blessing to be able to have played with the Jets.”

Besides the public persona, Neufeld also was dealing with personal issues for which he received lots of help from teammates Laurie Boschman and Doug Smail.

“I had some challenges off the ice, and some of my habits weren’t conducive to hockey,” Neufeld said. “I was trying to battle all of them when I was traded, so it wasn’t easy at all. But I managed to find my faith when I came back to Winnipeg and became real good friends with Boschman and Smail, who were Christian guys, and started to live a whole different lifestyle in Winnipeg. I rededicated my life to my Lord and Savior.

“At the time I was traded, it was an ugly thing, but it turned out to be just a great thing for my wife (Dawn), myself and my family (son Josh and daughters Brittany and Kristin). I was able to give up alcohol and move on with life, so from that standpoint, I can’t be more thankful. It was the best thing that could have happened to me, for sure.”

Neufeld said that when he left Hartford, he was in the midst of trying to stay sober, which a lot of his teammates didn’t realize.

“It was a struggle for me,” Neufeld said. “Then when I got traded to Winnipeg, I sort of just crashed and started ‘running again’ if you will. But Boschman and Smail were strong in their faith, and I gravitated to them because I didn’t have to feel threatened. They never were going out to party all the time, not to say NHL guys did that all the time, but they went out and had their drinks.

“But those two guys were different in that respect, so it kind of gave me a place to hang my hat and not feel sort of threatened that I wasn’t going out with the boys. I was able to get that part of my life on track. And I grew up in a Christian home, so I knew that was just part of my life that I had to get right, and I did. So from that point on in 1986, I’ve been walking the straight line.”

So like the Whale celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Whalers hosting the NHL All-Star Game at the Hartford Civic Center, Neufeld is celebrating a quarter-century of sobriety. He has an occasional five percent O’Doul’s, but “won’t indulge, not even a glass of wine.”

But what about this weekend with all his ole Whalers buddies around?

“You can have a Coors Light for me,” Neufeld said with another chuckle.

Neufeld will stick with the O’Doul’s or Diet Coke and reflect on his days living in Glastonbury not far from Anderson and Greg Adams before Adams was traded to the Washington Capitals. Not to mention playing with Hall of Famers Gordie Howe, Ron Francis, Bobby Hull and Dave Keon, among many other notables.

“I liked playing in Hartford,” Neufeld said. “I was part of the community. I lived there all year long, so Dawn and I were torn big-time when I got traded. We had some really terrific friends, and I helped out a lot with different (charity) things in the summers and whatever the team needed. And I got to play with arguably the best player who ever played in Gordie Howe, and Bobby Hull and Dave Keon were all on the same team. And Ronnie Francis was just a tremendous player and tremendous person. And Kevin Dineen … you can go on and on and on.

“Being able to play with them and walk in the same (dressing) room with them, put your gear on and practice with them every day was phenomenal. Plus, I roomed with Keon for part of my time in Hartford. All those things are neat experiences, for sure. It’s hard to put into words. Hockey has been so good to me, so incredible. I continue to owe hockey more and more and more because it has been me so much in my life. It’s just incredible.”

Especially since Neufeld was a late bloomer. He didn’t start skating until he was 8, and then the rink in Winkler burned down so his hockey career didn’t begin until nearly two years later. But because he was big for his age, Neufeld played against older youngsters by his second season.

That was about the time Neufeld heard his first racial slurs, though most were from fans.

“There was nothing really serious, but when I got to junior hockey, it got a little bit more intense,” Neufeld said. “But I grew up with white kids all my life, so I never felt slighted in any way, though guys would throw some racial slurs. When I got to the American Hockey League, one night in New Haven the fans were brutal, got a little bit nasty. They also (got nasty) in Rochester at times, but as far as players, I never recall anything really bad. Nowadays there are a lot more black guys playing hockey at a high level, so I think there’s less and less of it.”

Neufeld recently did a show on TSN with former Buffalo Sabres wing Tony McKegney, Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban and San Jose Sharks forward Jamal Mayers discussing what it was like being an African-American in a predominately white game and how the sport has changed.

“Racial slurs were never a big deal for me,” Neufeld said. “I just played the game because it was something that I loved to do. And if my teammates ever felt anything (negative), they never said it. There were never any issues there at all.”

Neufeld advanced through the Winkler youth ranks until he was 16 and then headed 500 miles north to the Flin Flon Bombers. Neufeld now actually travels even farther north to play in old-timers games in small towns where there’s only one hour of daylight in the winter.

“It’s pretty amazing being that far north,” Neufeld said, “but it’s fun giving back and helping out kids.”

After a solid junior career with Flin Flon and the Edmonton Oil Kings of the Western Hockey League (90 goals, 113 assists and 425 penalty minutes in 197 games in three seasons), Neufeld was ranked the ninth-best prospect by The Hockey News. But Neufeld and other top junior prospects slipped in the draft because players from the four World Hockey Association teams that merged with the NHL that summer were tossed in the draft pool. That group include Michel “Whalers Killer” Goulet and Craig Hartsburg, plus underage selections included future Hall of Famers Ray Bourque and Denis Savard. Neufeld ended up being picked 81st in the fourth round by the Whalers, who had never indicated they were interested in him.

“I knew I was going to get drafted, but no one from the Whalers ever phoned me,” Neufeld said. “I kept getting bumped down, but I was just happy to be drafted because it didn’t matter to me where I went.”

Neufeld spent most of his first three seasons with the AHL’s Springfield Indians and Binghamton Whalers, getting 58 goals, 67 assists and 175 PIM in 159 games as his Hartford memories started quickly. He and Steve Alley were called up for a game against the Philadelphia Flyers at the Hartford Civic (now XL) Center on March 21, 1980. The two wings were in Rochester and got stuck in Baltimore on their flight, so the Whalers sent a jet to pick them up and fly them to Bradley International Airport.

When Neufeld and Alley arrived, they found a limo waiting to whisk them to the Civic Center, though they didn’t get to the rink until the first intermission. When they walked into the dressing room, coach Don Blackburn told them to get into their uniforms so the team wouldn’t have to play two players short any longer.

“I was kind of in awe,” Neufeld said. “It was a huge thrill and memory for me because (future Hall of Famer) Bobby Clarke was playing for the Flyers and Wayne Stephenson was in goal. When I was a kid, I had watched Stephenson play with the senior team in Winkler for one year before he went on to the St. Louis Blues, so that was kind of cool.”

After the game, Neufeld and Alley jumped back on the Whalers plane and flew to Montreal for a game the next night at the Montreal Forum.

“All my life I was thinking about whether that was ever going to happen for me, to be able to play that first game in the Montreal Forum,” Neufeld said. “I had watched the Canadiens on TV from the time I was eight years old, so that was a huge, huge thrill.”

It became even more of a thrill when Neufeld scored his first NHL goal in the Taj Mahal of Hockey on a breakaway from center ice against Bunny Larocque.

“I went five-hole on him,” Neufeld happily recalled. “It was incredible to just walk into a place with such a persona and see all the great players who played for the Canadiens. It was always special to play in any of Original Six arenas, but the Forum was just so special.”

A fun recollection – kind of – was the card games with captain Russ Anderson, Blaine Stoughton, Pierre Larouche and Chris Kotsopoulos. On a trip to Binghamton his rookie season, Neufeld lost his month’s paycheck in one of the games to “the bad boys.”

“That happened more than once,” Neufeld said with a laugh. “Those guys took advantage of me in cards all the time. I don’t know what it was, but I know I wrote a few checks to those guys.”

Neufeld also was a major giver in another way, tossing a half-dozen pucks to youngsters before every Whalers home game.

“Nick Fotiu did that a lot, too, in my first year I played with him, and I sort of just carried it on from there,” Neufeld said. “I started chipping in, and it just carried on through the time I played in Hartford.”

Neufeld started on a physical line with Fotiu and Don Nachbaur, then played on more offensive lines with Sylvain Turgeon and Olympian Mark Johnson. He had 95 goals, 131 assists and 396 penalty minutes in 331 games, then a Whalers record, and was the last player from the Whalers’ first NHL draft when he was part of the life-changing trade to Winnipeg. Before leaving, Neufeld had three seasons of 26, 27 and 27 goals, including the 1,000th goal in Whalers history against – appropriately – the Flyers on Jan. 13, 1985.

Neufeld sustained several knee injuries that sidelined him before and after he was traded to the Bruins for Moe Lemay on Dec. 30, 1988 after he got 61 goals, 66 assists and 386 PIM in 249 games with the Jets. He had one goal, three assists and 28 PIM in 14 games with the Bruins before tearing up his knee again. He returned for the playoffs and had two goals and three assists in 10 games as the Bruins beat the Buffalo Sabres in the first round and then lost to the Canadiens.

Neufeld played only one game with the Bruins the next season, when he had 27 goals, 29 assists and 117 PIM in 76 games with the AHL’s Maine Mariners.

“I guess I just didn’t fit in the Bruins’ plans for whatever reason,” Neufeld said. “Terry O’Reilly was coaching, and the next season he wasn’t going to come back, so Mike Milbury took over, and that was when I was told to go to the AHL. I had a pretty good season and probably could have kept playing, but my wife and I looked at each other and said, ‘Hey, our kids are young, let’s get on with life.’ ”

Neufeld had offers from the Washington Capitals, Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers and Pittsburgh Penguins to attend training camp and try to earn a contract. But after 11 pro seasons, Neufeld decided that was a lucky number to leave on, so he opted to stay in Winnipeg. He finished his NHL career with 157 goals, 200 assists and 816 PIM in 595 regular-season games and eight goals, six assists and 55 PIM in 28 playoff games.

Neufeld’s departure matched his usual demeanor.

“I quietly walked away from the game,” he said. “I didn’t make a big hooray, ‘I’m out of it; I’m retiring.’ I just walked away, played a little bit of senior hockey that year and then stepped out of hockey for about eight years.”

Neufeld’s retirement started with paramedic training and teaching, but he decided against that field after two years. He moved on to multi-level marketing and got involved in a company with former University of Connecticut football and baseball standout Brian Herosian, who later played with the NFL’s Baltimore Colts and Canadian Football League’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers and now owns Pro-Fitness Training, one of the fastest-growing private training facilities in Western Canada. He trains more than 400 personal training sessions a week and is also a fitness consultant for the Manitoba Junior Hockey League and Pro-Fitness Training.

After several years with Herosian, Neufeld left in 2005 to begin his coaching career with the MJHL’s Southeast Blades, who played on an Indian reservation. Neufeld started as an assistant, but the head coach left midway through the season and he stayed three years. He then helped several teams before Don MacGillvary asked Neufeld to join him as an assistant with the MJHL’s Winnipeg Blues, who are mostly 18-to-20-year-olds who have earned scholarships to Division I schools or get drafted by NHL teams. After being the head coach, Neufeld is now the assistant general manager and assistant coach who works on the ice with the players and off the ice schmoozing potential corporate sponsors.

Neufeld also occasionally has to appease parents, though that task was more difficult at the lower youth levels.

“Handling parents is always an ongoing thing, but hockey has changed quite a bit,” Neufeld said. “When I was 17 and leaving to go play hockey (in Flin Flon), my mom just brought me to the bus station in Winnipeg and said good luck. Nowadays it’s a lot different. Parents are really involved, and they’re watching everything. They’ve got their kid training 12 months of the year, and the cost for them to participate and have their kid play at a high level is expensive so parents are involved for sure.

“They like to have their input, though you don’t see it as much at the junior level. But certainly at the midget and Triple-A levels in Manitoba, you see that. And it’s sort of an ongoing thing. Some of the parents get it, and some of them are still trying to figure it out. They want to make sure their kid is getting a fair shake and getting the reasonable amount of ice time. It would be no different than if my kid was playing. You’d want him to make sure he’s getting a fair shake, so it puts the onus on the parents, and they don’t leave it up to the kid to determine that anymore.”

The job of Neufeld and the other coaches is to develop youngsters and help them move along, so they have to be given the opportunity to play and get better.

“Sometimes in a game you might shorten the bench late,” Neufeld said, “but for the most part, if you know the teams you’re playing against and get the right matchups, you can put the kid in an environment that he can excel and succeed in. That’s what we try to do, so we don’t get a ton of parent complaints, though some of the teams are not as fortunate.”

Always the conscientious individual, Neufeld said this weekend he’ll be seeking out any Connecticut prospects who might be interested in joining him in Winnipeg.

“I’ll look for anyone who can come in and help our program,” said Neufeld, who is flying into Hartford with his wife on Thursday. “If they’re of age and wanting to play hockey, we’re certainly not going to turn them away.”

It could be the start of another Hartford-to-Winnipeg connection. That player or players could only hope that things work out as well as they have for Ray Neufeld.

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