As told to: Steve Matthes
In 1985, Manitoba-born Ray Neufeld was enjoying life as Ron Francis’s winger in Hartford. Then he went home and everything changed.
It was 1985; I was playing for the Hartford Whalers, the team that drafted me. We were missing a couple pieces and one of them was a defenceman. I think the team knew that something was going to change with our group. At the time I was rooming with Ulf Samuelsson and we were in Philadelphia. We just got in from going out to eat and the phone rings. It’s Jack Evans, our coach. He says, ‘Ray, you got to come up to my hotel room’. So I went and Jack was standing there with his back turned to me. He was such an easy-going guy, I think he didn’t want to tell me the news. He turned around, looked me in the eye and said, ‘Ray, we’ve traded you to the Winnipeg Jets.’ He thanked me for everything, I thanked him and that was that.
Now, I was born in Winnipeg and grew up in Winkler, a town about thirty minutes from the ‘Peg. You would think this would be great for my wife and me but it wasn’t at all. During that time, I had a struggle I was going through that a lot of people didn’t realize. I was trying to get sober and at the same time play hockey at the NHL level. When the trade happened, I was about seventy days sober at that time so it was really discouraging news for me and my wife. We were choked. We really loved Hartford. We were in the community. We lived there year round. We were involved in all the different charities that we could be and all that kind of stuff. It was tough to move.
I was traded for defenceman Dave Babych, who was very popular in the room. I was fortunate enough to play with Dave on a junior team for that week over Christmas — just a wonderful guy and a really good hockey player. Our coach at the time — Barry Long — he and Dave were super tight and so that was a really difficult situation for him as a coach. I’ll be honest, I don’t think he handled it very well. I’m sure if he had to re-live that now he would do it differently.
I didn’t help myself by going 10 or 12 games without scoring after I got there. Fergie (Jets General Manager John Ferguson) was supportive, Randy Carlye took me ice fishing to try and get away from the rink and there were plenty of supportive players but as I said, Dave was popular there. Some guys never stopped talking about it. I won’t mention names, but there are some guys that I would never want to play with again that were in that room at that time. Nobody ever once said, ‘Why did the Jets make that trade?’ They just said it was the worst trade the Jets had ever made. They never held anyone else accountable for it as far as I knew — except for me. That one part of it was really ugly. I had no control of the trade. Fergie’s the one who made it, not me. And yet I felt I was the one that was criticized through the whole process.
If I sit back here today and I look at that trade, and I’ve certainly analyzed it 1,000 different ways, I thought the press was completely unfair. I think they were expecting way more [and] they had a misconception of what they were getting in return for Babych. If I was a GM today, I wouldn’t make a trade like that. I wouldn’t trade a top defenceman for a forward one for one. I’m just not doing that. At the time of the trade I was a point-a-game guy. I was scoring 20 to 30 goals in the National Hockey League. I wasn’t just some scrub hockey player. I was a pretty good hockey player. Fergie needed a guy that had a physical presence, which was my game.
After Long left, we got a coach named Dan Maloney and my role changed completely. I went from playing with one of the top two centers on the team to playing in more of a defensive role against other teams’ top lines. My role changed but I still managed to get 18 goals two years in a row that Maloney was there.
But the press never really cut me any slack. There was a writer for the Winnipeg Free Press named Scott Taylor and I wish that he would’ve sat down with me once to actually ask me questions. I know Scott now and we’ve talked. I guess he was trying to do his gig at that time.
One time Bryan Trottier was asked about me and he said that what he remembered most about Ray Neufeld was the consistency in my game and how hard I worked every night. So when I look at my career, that’s how I like to look at it. A lot of other people always mention the trade and they mention some of the negative things in my career, but I look at it as I gave consistent effort every night. My coach knew what he could count on. He didn’t have to guess what kind of a player I was going to be night in and night out. That’s all I looked at. I tried to be fair and honest in my game. I wasn’t the best player and I wasn’t the worst player. I contributed.
The trade wasn’t my fault.
This was an excerpt from the Pulp Hockey Podcast with Steve Matthes. You can find this interview in its full form and more at http://www.pulphockey.com/
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