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Alumni Reunion: Jim Schoenfeld

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings

Before there was Grinder – and its front man Darren McCarty – there were the wide-ranging vocal talents of a veteran NHL defenseman who spent a couple of seasons patrolling the Red Wings’ blue line in the early 80s.

Jim Schoenfeld is probably best known for his 1988 Stanley Cup playoff rant when as the New Jersey Devils coach he infamously went after referee Don Koharski in a hallway that led to the officials’ dressing room. But as a defenseman, Schoenfeld was a goalie’s best friend, solid, responsible and not afraid to stand up for teammates. He played in more than 700 NHL games, mainly for the Buffalo Sabres, but also with the Wings and Boston Bruins.

It was with a similar abandon that he attacked the music that he covered with the two albums that he released as a solo artist in the 1970s. His rendition of Bob Dylan’s American classic, “All Along the Watchtower” (PLAY ABOVE) showed far more musical talent than anything ever released by athletes since, including Shaquille O’Neal, Jack McDowell, Carl Lewis, William Perry and Manny Pacquiao.

Though the picture on the cover of his debut album, entitled “Schoeny”, has a striking resemblance to rock legend Jon Bon Jovi, nobody would mistake Schoenfeld’s primal screams for those of the New Jersey heartthrob.

Luckily, the Wings acquired Schoenfeld for his skills on the ice and not for his 18-karat vocals. Along with Danny Gare and Derek Smith, Schoenfeld headlined a six-player trade with the Sabres for Mike Foligno, Dale McCourt and Brent Peterson.

Schoenfeld eventually played in 96 games for Detroit, producing six goals and 19 assists and a minus-12 rating.

Now working for the New York Rangers as assistant general manager and as an assistant coach to John Tortorella, Schoenfeld has fond memories of his short tenure with the Wings.

QUESTION: Do you keep in touch with any of your former Red Wings teammates? If so, who?

SCHOENFELD: “I would say sporadically. Teammates that were here were teammates in other places. I was only here for a short period of time. But I would say that Derek Smith was one of my closest friends in the game, and he came to Detroit in the trade for Danny (Gare). So Derek and Danny for sure.”

Q. Which of the current Red Wings is your favorite? And why?

SCHOENFELD: “It’s hard for me to look past (Nicklas) Lidstrom. I think when Stevie Yzerman was here he was the class of the organization, and I think that moniker can easily fit Lidstrom.”

Q. What was your favorite memory as a Red Wing?

SCHOENFELD: “To be honest with you, in my time here, if I could rewind the clock a little, I would do things a little better. It was kind of toward the end of my career and like most players in the end you think that you should be playing a lot more then you are. … But same thing here as it was everywhere; it was the relationships that you make with the players, a lot of terrific guys. But in the year and a half that I was here, I wouldn’t say that there were a lot of team highlights.”

Q. Which of the guys you played with was the toughest?

SCHOENFELD: “Toughness is measured in different ways. When I was in Boston, Terry O’Reilly and I were teammates for a short period of time, but he was as tough and competitive as they came. Danny Gare, I always felt, was a highly competitive player, and he would go where he had to go to score the goal that needed to be scored. And he was willing to take on someone who was bigger.”

Q. Who was the funniest?

SCHOENFELD: “Derek Smith, by far. And he still is.”

Former NHL defenseman Jim Schoenfeld played parts of two seasons for the Red Wings in the early-80s. (Photo by Getty Images)

Q. Who had the biggest heart?

SCHOENFELD: “I think it goes back to the competitive people, the O’Reillys and the (Bob) Nystroms of the world, who I played with and against. (Bryan) Trottier and (Clark) Gilles, I thought those guys had tremendous heart, though I didn’t play with them. Again, I think Danny Gare, when you have to fight through what you need to, that’s a lot of heart.”

Q. What was your favorite restaurant in metro Detroit?

SCHOENFELD: “I don’t know. We used to go to Greektown, but I don’t remember a specific restaurant.”

Q. How has the NHL changed since you played?

SCHOENFELD: “I think it’s changed in some ways dramatically, and in some ways not at all. The standard line is that the players are bigger and stronger, and faster. That’s true. Each generation in any sport, the level of excellence has the bar raised. For a time the four-minute mile was unheard of. But then someone breaks it so now it’s the standard. … The players coming in are more physically prepared to play the game.”

Q. Toughest team (other than the Red Wings) when you played?

SCHOENFELD: “I always felt that the Islanders were a real tough team because they could play the game any way you wanted to play it. Their skilled guys would play in the combative areas, the Nystroms, the Gilles, the Trottiers. They were big, strong and mobile, and when push came to shove they just played a hard, in-your-face game. Boston had a similar team, but didn’t have as high a level of skill.”

Q. Who did you sit next to in the dressing room?

SCHOENFELD: “I sat beside Johnny Barrett, and Derek (Smith) was on the other side of me.”

Q. What do you love most about the game?

SCHOENFELD: “The relationships. To me that’s the only thing that endures. The money will probably get spend by you, your wife, your kids, or somebody after you’re gone. Whatever fame you had will probably be forgotten. The only thing that endures is the wealth of the relationships that you build. We’ve been very blessed to be with quite a few organizations and we have a lot of close friends all around the world. The rest is all gravy if you have all of that.”

Q. Who had the greatest influence on your career?

SCHOENFELD: “I would probably say three people, next to my folks. From the time I was 10 I never saw myself as anything but an NHL player, and they shared the same vision with me. … But actual playing, it would be Doug McKay, who was with the Red Wings back in the 50s. He coached me for a short while in junior when I was with Hamilton. He reinforced the principals that my parents sent me out the door with. Then Tim Horton when I got to Buffalo. He was my partner and my roommate for awhile. There are some things that I still teach that he taught me. And the other guy is Fred Atkins, who was an old retired wrestler when it was a sport back in the 40s. My first two years he was our off-ice trainer.”

Q. What advice would you give to kids playing today?

SCHOENFELD: “It’s a hard thing to do, because there is such an emphasis on results and winning, but I would say somehow pull yourself back as an observer of yourself, and realize just how enjoyable this thing is. Ever since we’re little piss-pots were players and then we make it and we forget that this is a dream come true. Just keep gritting your teeth and be the best that you can be that day, and then try to raise the bar a little bit higher the next day.”

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