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Bern coach no stranger to NHL hockey

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers
John Van Boxmeer is in his third season as the head coach of SC Bern, the Swiss team that the Rangers are facing today.

It’s often said that the hockey community is a small world, and there might be no better proof of that adage than one unlikely reunion taking place this week in Bern, Switzerland.

SC Bern head coach John Van Boxmeer knows the Rangers well from having played against them many times during his 10 years as an NHL defenseman. But Van Boxmeer, whose Bears team will be tremendous underdogs when they face the Blueshirts today, knows one member of the Rangers organization particularly well.

Jim Schoenfeld, the Rangers’ Assistant General Manager, Player Personnel, was also a longtime NHL defenseman. During his career with the Buffalo Sabres, Schoenfeld had Van Boxmeer as a teammate for two seasons, and they eventually began their coaching careers together.

Schoenfeld and Van Boxmeer weren’t just teammates and fellow coaches. They were also roommates and defense partners for the Sabres from 1979 to 1981. During the 1980-81 season, Schoenfeld helped Van Boxmeer in setting former Buffalo records for goals, assists and points by a defenseman. They were still teammates in November 1981 when Van Boxmeer picked up five assists in one game against the Islanders -- a single-game Sabres  record for defensemen later tied by Phil Housley.

Their coach in Buffalo was Hall of Famer Scotty Bowman, who had already won several Stanley Cup championships in Montreal before coming to the Sabres. In 1979, after taking over as both coach and general manager in Buffalo, Bowman made a trade with Colorado to acquire Van Boxmeer, whom he had known since Van Boxmeer was drafted by the Canadiens in 1972 -- just nine spots after Schoenfeld went to Buffalo with the No. 5 overall pick.

Bowman eventually made Van Boxmeer and Schoenfeld defense partners. It was a natural fit for a puck-mover like Van Boxmeer and a more defensive-minded player like Schoenfeld. The move paid off over the next two years, particularly in 1980-81, when Van Boxmeer scored 18 goals and 69 points.

“Schoeny used to have to stay back and bail me out a few times. He had a lot of 2-on-1s  when he played with me,” Van Boxmeer recalled with a laugh. “…Those were good teams. That Sabres team might have been the first team that kind of grew together. It started with (Gilbert) Perreault, and then Richard Martin and Schoeny and Danny Gare. They had a lot of star players that kind of came up as a family together and the team had some success. So for me going there from Colorado was a great experience because that team was so close. The team unity, I mean, the guys did a lot of things together. Really, that’s what as a player you remember in sports -- the camaraderie you had. That was certainly a great group of guys and a fun team."

Like Schoenfeld, Van Boxmeer never won the Stanley Cup as a player, although he played 46 games for a Montreal team that went on to win the Cup in 1976. Unfortunately for Van Boxmeer, his name was not engraved on the Cup because he did not appear in the playoffs, but he did receive a ring for his contributions to the team. Van Boxmeer had a lot of good defensemen on the depth chart in front of him, including Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe, so cracking the lineup was never easy. Bowman had coached those legendary Canadiens teams, and he ended up being an important mentor to Van Boxmeer.

“He (Bowman) definitely had a huge influence (on me),” said Van Boxmeer. “I think he did on a lot of guys. If you look back to those Canadien teams and how many guys are still involved in the game and are still coaching, I think he played a major role in that. One of the big things that Scotty was always a stickler on -- and you could never understand it when you played -- was why the small things bothered him. You could do big things wrong and it wasn’t a big deal to him, but if you did the small things wrong it drove him crazy. As a player you wondered what was the big deal, but then when you become a coach you realize that all of those little small things add up to big things and if you don’t really go after them hard then you start to get some chaos if you let it slip too far.

Roughly a month after Van Boxmeer’s record-setting night against the Isles early in the 1981-82 season, Schoenfeld was traded to Detroit, ending their run as teammates. Three years later, they were reunited in the Buffalo organization when Schoenfeld was named head coach of the Rochester Americans, the Sabres’ AHL affiliate, and had Van Boxmeer as a player-assistant coach. That ended up being Van Boxmeer’s introduction to a 24-year coaching career that eventually brought him to Bern.

“Jim Schoenfeld and I started coaching together in Rochester, and I was supposed to be the player-assistant coach,” said Van Boxmeer. “ Scotty Bowman had wanted me to play one more year, but I had had knee surgery in the summer (of 1984) and I tried to come back and play, and I wasn’t able to play, so I ended up just becoming a full-time assistant. And then Buffalo had so many injuries that Jimmy had to come back and play. So after 27 games, he went back to the NHL and played, and I took over as the head coach. I stayed there 11 years.”

Van Boxmeer’s run in Rochester was outstanding and included winning the AHL’s Calder Cup championship in 1987, plus two other Calder Cup Finals appearances.  He would eventually move up to the Sabres as an assistant coach for two seasons and then return to the minors with Rochester of the AHL and the IHL’s Long Beach Ice Dogs, where he spent another five seasons before being promoted to assistant coach of the Los Angeles Kings, where he served under Andy Murray for two seasons.

When Murray’s and his staff were dismissed from Los Angeles in 2006, Van Boxmeer suddenly felt an urge to see Europe.

“I’d had offers to come over (to Europe) before, but my kids were too young and I didn’t really want to move my kids twice a year,” said Van Boxmeer. “But now my family’s grown up and my kids are in college. So I thought it was a time to look at it. I called an agent and said I’d be interested in going, and it just so happened that this job (SC Bern) was open.”

While some coaches and players experience culture shock when they leave the NHL for European hockey, Van Boxmeer’s adjustment was smooth.

“I grew up in a small village in Canada,” said Van Boxmeer. “It was a Dutch-Irish community and everything was closed at 6 p.m. and nothing was open on weekends. There were only 750 people here. I really had no cultural problem adjusting to Europe at all.”

In fact, the biggest change for Van Boxmeer has been the type of hockey played in Europe.
“I’d characterize it as more of a speed type of game (than the NHL). The Swiss are all good skaters. So it’s a high-tempo game,” said Van Boxmeer. “The difference is that they don’t have a lot of production guys who are good at putting pucks in the net. They really work on their skills in their youth hockey here, but they don’t work on the goal-scoring part of it and the tenacity part of the game is missing.

Van Boxmeer’s other adjustment has been the ways in which talent is developed. Switzerland is very different from the NHL in terms of how players are brought up to the professional level. 

“ They work hard – they work extremely hard – and they’re certainly courageous enough, (but) … they’ve never had to compete for jobs,” said Van Boxmeer. “It’s not like there’s all kinds of players. If you play on our midget team, well, then you’d move up to our junior team. Kids keep moving up. It’s not like in North America where after, you play midget you go to junior and you have to compete with 100 kids for 20 spots on a junior team. They’re not used to having to compete every day for the job.”

It hasn’t taken long for Van Boxmeer to make an impact in Bern, which has a proud hockey tradition. This season, his team is off to a 7-1-0 start as it heads into today’s exhibition game against the Rangers. Being 7-1-0 in the Swiss league is quite different from doing it in the NHL, and Van Boxmeer knows how tough it will be for his team to do well against the Blueshirts.

Indeed, watching his young players look up to the Rangers with a sense of awe might actually remind Van Boxmeer of the respect young Buffalo players had for Schoenfeld, who remains as popular in hockey circles today as he was back then.

“Everybody on the (Sabres) wanted to be like Schoeny,” Van Boxmeer recalled. “ He had the most self-confidence in the world. He still does. If he thinks he’s right, you don’t even want to argue with him, because you’re not going to change his mind. But we all wanted to be like Schoeny. He had the confidence and was a big strong guy. We had a great time together.”
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