Typically, assistant coaches don’t have much input into an NHL team’s draft choices, but this past season, Jim Schoenfeld was hardly a typical assistant coach.
In fact, as the Rangers prepare for the annual NHL Entry Draft on June 26-27 in Montreal, Schoenfeld is one of the organization’s key decision-makers. He might have stepped in to help new head coach John Tortorella last February, but the part-time assistant coach never gave up his primary duty as the Rangers’ Assistant General Manager, Player Personnel, and General Manager of the Hartford Wolf Pack.
|Jim Schoenfeld was no stranger to the coaching role he landed in last season. The former NHL head coach was more than willing to go behind the bench and serve as an assistant to John Tortorella after the latter came to the Rangers. |
Nearly four decades after being drafted into the NHL as a 19-year-old, the two-time All-Star defenseman known throughout the hockey world as “Schony” is still a player at the draft.
He certainly appreciates the importance of skillful drafting. Championship teams tend to be built through the Entry Draft, and the 2009 Stanley Cup winners from Pittsburgh were no exception with six of their own picks among their top 10 postseason scorers.
“Players win the Stanley Cup, and no matter what other capacity you’re in, you’re there to share in it with them,” says Schoenfeld. “… You’re just part of that process. Whether you’re a scout who drafted the kids, or the guys in Hartford who developed the kids, or John (Tortorella) here who’s pulling the right strings, or Glen (Sather), who oversees the whole thing. We all have our part in it, but it’s the players who win.”
Focusing on the players, rather than himself or other top Rangers executives, is typical Schoenfeld. He has seen almost everything that can be seen in hockey, but he is no less humble than the kid from Galt, Ontario, who jumped from the Niagara Falls Flyers to the Buffalo Sabres as a first-round pick in 1972.
Even a few minutes spent in Schoenfeld’s company reminds you why you fell in love with hockey in the first place. His passion for the game is always evident, and being a player for so many years before he entered the coaching and executive ranks has made him an ideal mentor for draft picks and other youngsters he helps bring into the organization.
Schoenfeld, who’ll turn 57 just before the start of training camp, has lived his life in hockey, and his resume is staggering. Since his own draft day, he has been in and around the NHL almost non-stop. In addition to his current position with the Rangers, he has played for Buffalo, Detroit and Boston, served as head coach of Buffalo, New Jersey, Washington and Phoenix, been a Rangers assistant coach, worked as a national NHL broadcaster with ESPN, and run the AHL's Wolf Pack as both general manager and head coach.
That remarkable track record didn’t stop him, however, from taking the assistant coaching position when Tortorella requested his help. In typical Schony fashion, he was right there for the good of his team and to aid a longtime friend in Tortorella, who had arrived at the Madison Square Garden Training Center as a relative outsider.
The 2008-09 season wasn’t the first time Schoenfeld made a dramatic shift to help his team. As a rookie pro coach nearly 25 years ago, he got Buffalo’s top minor-league affiliate off to an AHL-record 11 straight wins to start the season, and after 25 games, his 1984-85 Rochester Americans stood at 17-6-2. That was when Schoenfeld got an unexpected call from Scotty Bowman, the Sabres’ head coach and general manager at the time.
The Sabres’ defense was riddled with injuries in December 1984, and Bowman needed the 32-year-old Schoenfeld to come out of retirement and play. Just like that, Schony put his coaching career on hold to help out his boss. He played the rest of the season, and the Sabres made the playoffs. By the summer, he was able to retire again and take over for Bowman as the Buffalo head coach. The legendary Bowman had hand-picked Schoenfeld to be his successor.
That unique experience in Buffalo is just one chapter in the Schoenfeld legacy. He has a wealth of great memories, and it is a treat whenever he volunteers a story from his past.
“I was blessed,” he recalled in an interview last year. “I broke into the NHL and my playing partner was Tim Horton. I sat in the dressing room in the corner, and Tim was immediately to my left, and Larry Hillman, who had won four Stanley Cups, was immediately to my right. They had both played in Toronto together. Sometimes they would just sit there and tell me stories. The two of them. It was just terrific. They taught me a lot about the game and a lot about life in a short period of time. They really helped me. Tim was 42, and I was 20. A tremendous influence. It’s a real advantage for players to have mentors like that.”
Captain of the Sabres by age 22, Schoenfeld quickly took on the mentoring role himself. He became one of the most popular players in Buffalo history, elected to the team’s Hall of Fame in 1995.
“Everybody on the (Sabres) wanted to be like Schony,” recalled former Sabres roommate and defense partner John Van Boxmeer. “He had the most self-confidence in the world.”
|This Topps trading card from 1975 shows Schoenfeld during his playing days. Schoenfeld, who eventually went on to coach the Sabres, remains a popular figure among the hockey fans of Buffalo. |
Despite all of this success, there is one burning goal that Schoenfeld has yet to achieve. He has played or coached more than 1,300 regular-season games and more than 130 postseason NHL games, but has never won the Stanley Cup.
Each year, Schoenfeld comes to the draft table with a sense that he is building something that will help fulfill a championship dream – not just for himself, but for countless others.
“I would love to be on a team that won the Cup,” he said. “But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that really some of the most satisfying things that have happened to me haven’t been ‘for me.’ It’s been watching a player like a Dan Girardi
that comes to camp on an invitation, signs a two-way AHL/ECHL deal, starts in the ECHL and gets called up to Hartford, plays so well we can’t send him back. And then the next year he gets a Ranger contract, and then he’s playing in the Stanley Cup playoffs. It’s a feeling that I really feel good about, having some small piece of that part of their career. So I do draw great satisfaction from that. I don’t think it’s living vicariously through somebody. But it’s different.
“… I’m finding that I get tremendous satisfaction and joy out of watching players develop and watching their careers just explode right before my eyes. Whether you’re here or in the minors, that continues. When Ryan Callahan
scored his first NHL goal, I happened to be watching that game, and it was great. That was one of our (drafted) kids. It’s the same thing when a 10-goal scorer turns into a 25-goal scorer. That’s a great feeling. It’s a great feeling. So that kind of drives me more. Because it’s more about helping someone else, I guess. But having said that, don’t get me wrong. I still want to win a Cup.”
The draft -- and subsequent development of drafted players – are two areas Schoenfeld understands as well as anyone in the game.
“Whether the players become Rangers or whether at that point in time in the team there isn’t room for a player, he’s still a tremendous asset that we can use,” Schoenfeld said of draft picks. “It’s still critically important that even though there are different ways of building teams, you still have to remain organizationally strong and either have those players have an impact in New York or be tremendous assets. We’re all interdependent. If the scouts don’t pick correctly, it really doesn’t matter how talented your developmental staff is. Everything, from PR to marketing to drafting to developing, to playing for the Stanley Cup. You know, we’re all interdependent. And the teams that do best -- and the teams that continue to do well over a long period of time -- have a way of working that interdependency and maintaining it over the course of the years.”
Schoenfeld also appreciates the bond that forms between the organization and its draft picks. His selection by Buffalo in 1972 led to a 13-year association with the Sabres. That long run in Buffalo made him a true fan favorite.
“As much as you can, you sort of like to have people that are part of the Rangers organization from the time they are drafted until the time they actually play for the New York Rangers,” he said. “We made a real concerted effort that Hartford would really emphasize development. In order to develop players, you hope that you can do it in a winning environment. You don’t want to play youngsters and then win 10 games a year. That’s not developing much either. You try to give them an opportunity that you think they can grow into. We have been fortunate in that we have drafted very well in the last few years, and the players that haven’t been ready to step right into a Rangers uniform have come to Hartford have been really receptive. And the ideas that we had, they embraced. They went on the ice and tried to execute it.”
The list of Rangers draftees who contributed in Hartford this year is a long one, including 2004 pick Dane Byers, 2005 picks Mike Sauer, Brodie Dupont and Tom Pyatt, and 2006 picks Bobby Sanguinetti and Artem Anisimov
. All six of these players will compete for spots on the Rangers roster during training camp this fall.
|Jim Schoenfeld, who coached Ryan Callahan in Hartford before Callahan was called up, said it's always a thrill for him to see a draft pick graduate to the NHL. |
Schoenfeld is completely focused on the Rangers’ future these days, so it’s somewhat ironic that his “best memory in hockey so far” came on April 3, 1988. On that final day of the 1987-88 regular season, he coached the Devils past Chicago in overtime to claim a playoff spot at the Blueshirts’ expense.
“Johnny MacLean scoring an overtime goal to get the Devils into the playoffs for the first time,” Schoenfeld says, unable to repress his smile. “That meant so much to so many people in that organization that had never made it. Some of those kids had played six or seven years there. That’s the highlight of my career so far.”
Schoenfeld’s 1994 playoff run as head coach in Washington was also impressive, as his Capitals upset Pittsburgh in six games before falling to the championship-bound Rangers. That was no small feat for a coach who, like Tortorella years later, had been working as a broadcaster when he was summoned back to the NHL in midseason. Schoenfeld would go on to coach two more playoff teams with Washington and another two with Phoenix, his final stop as an NHL head coach before he joined the Rangers in 2002.
The Phoenix job was a fateful one. There he worked closely with Tortorella and current Rangers assistant coach Benoit Allaire, who were both on his staff with the Coyotes. All three are once again working together for the common goal of a Stanley Cup, which would be the second for Tortorella and the first for Schoenfeld.
“It’s funny. Growing up as a Canadian boy -- at that time the league was comprised probably 99 percent of Canadians -- the Stanley Cup was it," Schoenfeld recalled. "Whenever you played in the frozen rink in the backyard, or the pond down the street, or ball hockey on the road, someone won the Stanley Cup that day. Because the last game you played in your imagination was always the seventh game for the Cup. That was always just the way we did things.
“There is a void, and I would love to have done it as a player. I came close, but didn’t get the job done. It’s a void that won’t be filled as a player. I won’t be an NHL player again. But when you talk to people that have won as players, it’s difficult for them to put (the feeling) into words even having done it. So it would be kind of silly for me to try to put its meaning into words before it happens.”
On this point -- how it might feel to win the Cup after nearly four decades in the league -- Schoenfeld doesn't attempt speculation.
“Ask me again when we win,” he said.