How Acquired: 1984 Entry Draft, 3rd round (60th overall)
Buffalo stats (1987-1990): 159 games; 64-50-114, 29 PIMs
Career NHL stats (1987-2000): 817 games; 357-300-314, 212 PIMs
You hear it all the time. Before a player even plays a game in the National Hockey League, they are given a label. Some players have great hockey sense, while others are considered to be physical specimens. In the case of Ray Sheppard, he was just a natural-born goal scorer.
Selected by Buffalo in the third round (60th overall) of the 1984 Entry Draft, Sheppard turned pro in 1986 following an 81-goal season with the OHL’s Cornwall Royals. The big winger would go on to record 10 NHL seasons of 20 or more goals, including a career-high 52 with Detroit in 1993-94.
Sheppard scored 20 or more goals with six different teams, second all-time to the seven teams that Bill Guerin accomplished the same feat with.
But Sheppard’s transition to the pro game wasn’t as seamless as he hoped it would be. He spent his first season (1986-87) in Rochester, and quickly found out there’s more to hockey life than what happens on the ice.
“I was still learning the game, but I was also learning how to live on my own. It was the first time I had to grow up, and get my own apartment. In junior, you have the comfort level of a billet family – and you’re still in high school. It was a big learning curve.
“From the hockey standpoint, I had to learn to play in my own zone. There’s more emphasis on that in the pros than there was in junior hockey. It was all a learning process.”
I always joke with my buddies now that when I got a shot, I had to make the best of it since I was so slow. I always knew I wasn’t getting a bunch of them. - Ray Sheppard on his ability to score goals
Sheppard struggled early, but finished the season with 18 goals in 55 games. But when the Amerks went on a playoff run that resulted in a Calder Cup Championship, a confident Sheppard would score 12 goals in 15 games. (He added eight goals in the 1989-90 AHL playoffs, and sits third in Rochester franchise history with 20 goals in 32 playoff games.)
Sheppard’s confidence carried over to his rookie season with Buffalo in 1987-88 where he scored a team-high 38 goals in 74 games, and finished second in Calder Trophy voting to Calgary’s Joe Nieuwendyk. No Sabres rookie has come close to that total since then, and Sheppard remains tied with Gilbert Perreault for second all-time in franchise history behind Rick Martin’s 44-goal rookie campaign in 1971-72.
“Obviously I had a lot of confidence that season. But in order to gain confidence, you have to be put in a position to get confidence,” explains Sheppard. “Ted Sator was the head coach at the time, and he gave me a tremendous amount of opportunities to succeed. Fortunately things started to go my way. You adjust and you learn; it’s a day-by-day process. But Ted gave me the opportunity which I’m very grateful for.”
Sheppard dropped to 22 goals in his sophomore season, and was derailed by an ankle injury the following year that limited him to just four goals in 18 games in 1989-90.
On the verge of being let go by the Sabres with one year left on his contract, the New York Rangers jumped in to acquire Sheppard for the paltry sum of one dollar on July 9, 1990.
Talk about the one that got away.
“I was surprised. The way I look at it, there are more complete hockey players nowadays then there were back then. Back then, there were the offensive guys who weren’t so great defensively; guys who were great defensively like Mike Ramsey; and guys who were great penalty killers.
“I was still learning at the time. I was in a situation where I was frustrated as far as points were concerned. When you’re an offensive guy and you’re not getting (points), you have to work your way through it. But I was still a kid. As my career went on, I learned how to deal with these situations and adjust to them.”
Sheppard would play with five teams (Rangers, Detroit, San Jose, Carolina and Florida) over the final 10 years of his career, including four seasons with the Red Wings from 1991-96.
It was during his time in Motown where he skated alongside future Hall of Famers like Steve Yzerman, Paul Coffey and Nicklas Lidstrom, while under the guidance of the legendary Scotty Bowman.
In 1993-94 when Sheppard posted career highs in goals (52), assists (41) and points (93) with Detroit, he still finished second in team scoring to Sergei Fedorov’s 120 points.
Sheppard would spend most of that season paired on a line with Keith Primeau, and saw time with a couple of talented centers.
“The two of us were always together because Scotty liked to work in pairs,” explains Sheppard. “Keith and I were always paired together, and I think people forget how good he was. Sometimes we’d play with Fedorov, and sometimes we’d play with Yzerman. Either way we were doing okay.”
One constant throughout Sheppard’s career was his ability to score goals, and he did it as efficiently as possible. He only exceeded 200 shots in a season three times, with 260 in 1993-94 being his single-season high. Twice he placed among the NHL leaders in shooting percentage, including a second-place finish in 1994-95 at 24 percent when he scored 30 goals in 45 games on just 125 shots.
Sheppard’s career shooting percentage of 16.9 places him 62nd all-time, but he ranks ahead of players like Luc Robitaille, Gilbert Perreault and Mark Messier.
“I always joke with my buddies now that when I got a shot, I had to make the best of it since I was so slow. I always knew I wasn’t getting a bunch of them,” Sheppard said with a laugh. “I just had a knack for it. God gave me the ability to score goals, and I’m very thankful for it.”
These days, the 48-year-old Sheppard can be found taking shots of a different kind as he pursues his passion for golf while enjoying his retirement in Boca Raton, Fla. Sheppard spent the last 10 years as a coach with the Florida Jr. Panthers program, but has taken some time off to be more active in a sport where he was ranked by Golf Digest in 2007 as the second-best athlete-golfer behind only former major league pitcher Rick Rhoden.
Through it all Sheppard hasn’t forgotten where it all began. Despite only playing three seasons in Buffalo, he still has fond memories of the area.
“I loved the city, and I loved the people. The people of Western New York are fantastic. We still have really good friends in Rochester and Buffalo. They are just nice, down-to-earth, great people. Tough winters though.”