SUNRISE, Fla. — When Ray Sheppard was traded from San Jose to the Panthers in 1996, he had no idea he was coming home.
“I was coming here for a playoff run and that was it,” Sheppard said.
General manager Bryan Murray and coach Doug MacLean knew Sheppard from their time with the Detroit Red Wings and, with the Panthers needing a player who could put the puck in the net as they embarked on their first postseason, made a deal with the Sharks.
Murray took a lot of heat for his management of the Florida roster in the years following the Panthers’ magical run to the 1996 Stanley Cup Finals, but his trade for Sheppard was one of the better moves in the history of the franchise.
For Sheppard, Florida sent two draft picks (a second and a fourth) to the Sharks.
The Panthers ended up getting a forward (as well as a draft pick) who became an integral part of their success at the end of the 1996 season as well as the following season.
In 14 regular season games at the end of 1996, Sheppard had eight goals and 10 points as the Panthers advanced to the playoffs for the first time in what was their third season.
Sheppard was second on the Panthers in postseason scoring, getting eight goals and 16 points in 21 games as the Panthers ended up seeing their run end in the Finals against Colorado. Dave Lowry led Florida in the playoffs, getting 10 goals and 17 points.
“Pure and simple, Ray Sheppard is a goal scorer,” Murray said at the time of the trade.
“He has great hands and great offensive instincts around the net; he’s a real threat to score anytime he touches the puck.”
Sheppard’s stay in South Florida lasted much longer than he initially thought. After the Finals, he signed a three-year contract with the Panthers and ended his NHL career with Florida in 2000.
Although he played for Carolina (the Panthers traded him to the Hurricanes in 1998 for Kirk McLean) and he spent a season playing in Europe, Sheppard really never left town after the 1996 trade.
Sheppard still lives in Boca Raton with his family and has been a fixture as a junior hockey coach since his retirement mostly with the Jr. Panthers and North Broward Prep in Coconut Creek.
A few years before coming to the Panthers, Buffalo sold Sheppard’s contract to the Rangers for $1. That’s right: One dollar. He ended up playing another decade in the NHL.
It is a story he tells his younger players about bouncing back from adversity.
Catching up with Ray Sheppard
With no games going on, how much have you enjoyed watching the replays of those Florida games from the 1996 playoffs?
The biggest thing I take from it is the game was so different. It obviously wasn’t as fast as it is today. To me, there was so much more physical stuff going on. After every whistle, there was guys in there, you know, giving somebody a shot or a face wash. It was like non-stop.
I watched one of the Pittsburgh games (in the Eastern Conference finals), I think Game 3 in Miami. What we did to Lemieux and Jagr, you get suspended for doing some of the stuff nowadays.
Was it just the playoffs when officials swallow their whistles a little or just how the game was played then?
I think the referees definitely didn’t call as much back then. I really believe they had a lot more discretion. I think in today’s game, the refs don’t have a whole lot of discretion on a lot of stuff. You see a stick break and it’s an automatic slashing. Back then, that happened all the time, guys would be standing there with their arms in the air like ‘how did you not call that?’ Some called it, some did not.
What did you think when you heard you had been traded to the Panthers at the deadline in 1996?
I think at the time (Scott Mellanby) Mel was hurt. I had played for Bryan Murray and Doug in Detroit so I think I was coming because they kind of knew what they were getting. The team was a first place team and going to the playoffs. So, I was a rental. But as it turned out, I ended up signing here longer and it has been home ever since.
There was no quit in that team. We could lose one night, but it never ever shook the team’s conference. Obviously having (John Vanbiesbrouck) Beezer playing the way he was playing helped a tremendous amount. a lot of teams, when they lose a game or two, their psyche gets a little down and you lose confidence.
This team never had that. It was ‘OK, well tomorrow we get up and the sun’s gonna shine and we’re gonna get back at it.’ And it was probably one of the few teams that I played on in my career — there’s been a few good ones — that had that type of mentality. It was just like we weren’t going to be denied.
Buffalo has a number of former NHL players who have stayed in town after their playing days, Minnesota as well. But there’s a little Florida alumni group here. How much do you enjoy seeing those guys at the game and at the rink?
I see Peter Worrell a lot obviously; I see Billy Lindsey a lot, (Ed Jovanovski) Jovo a lot. To see those guys around, I don’t know if we realized what an affect we had on hockey down here, but every time we see each other, we talk about that team. It’s kind of neat.
I know we have the Dolphins, Heat and Marlins, hockey is still one of those things we’re trying to get going past the diehard fanbase. In places like Cleveland, the Browns and Cavs are a way of life. Here, I think hockey is close and we were a part of that, the beginning of that.
This is home and has been home for me and my family. My kids grew up here. I have one who is older and married but another who is in college and a daughter who is at North Broward. This is their home and always has been their home. They know Canada in the summer, but Florida is home.
San Jose was your second team in 1995-96 before you went to Florida. What was it like having to adjust to another locker room?
It took a couple of weeks to get fully accepted. They had a tremendous amount of guys who played a certain game, they would grind you. Guys like Tommy Fitzgerald, Mike Hough. Go down the list, Billy and Mel, everyone. I was more of a skill guy more than anything and I think it took a little time for them to accept the fact that, you know, skilled guys do things sometimes a little different than a grinder does, but they are still looking for the same outcome.
I think with that line of me playing with Stu Barnes and Dave Lowry, we kind of got going before the end of the season and it was a real nice mix.
When did you get started coaching youth hockey down here?
I started in 2001, the year after I retired. I started at the IceDen coaching what was Shayne Gostisbehere’s team, I think 10-under. The Jr. Panthers and North Broward is pretty much where I have coached. To me, it is a chance to give back. That’s how I look at it. It’s a great sport, I love to be at the rink and I love to see kids play. It’s funny, now that I’ve been retired for almost 20 years, I’m a fan. I’m a fan of the game and now, not really an ex- player.
We have some players down here. You build a base and it’s a lot of fun. The one thing about hockey here — people always ask how good could players from Florida be? — and it is that there are a lot of really dedicated kids playing youth hockey.
I don’t know if they’re playing it to play in the National Hockey League or whatnot, but they’re doing the things that somebody else up north would do who wants to play in the NHL. Who knows? It’s a a good mindset and it’s good for the kids. They enjoy it. You know, there’s a lot of talent out here.
In 1990, the Buffalo Sabres gave up on you and traded you to the Rangers for $1. You ever tell your kids that story?
Oh yeah. I told Shayne Gostisbehere that story years ago. I said, ‘listen, you’re gonna get in situations, as you move on where somebody doesn’t want you. And somebody will come along, somebody who does want you if you’re good enough.’
I played three years in Buffalo. My first two years were really good. Then I had an injury. Rick Dudley was the coach at the time when I came back and the GM was Gerry Meehan. They obviously didn’t really think I was, you know, all that important to them. So when I tell the story, I say, ‘they sold me for a dollar.’ Everyone just kind of looks at you. New York took over my contract and Buffalo got a dollar for it. To me, it’s kind of funny.
Was it funny at the time?
No. I was young, still wanted to stay in the league. At the time, yeah, it provided a lot of fuel to prove that those first few years weren’t it for me, I could play in this league a long time.
You had 38 goals as a rookie, 22 the next and then the injury. And they sell you for a dollar?
Yeah, well that’s just it. You can be somewhere and someone doesn’t like what you do and that’s it. Ted Sator was the coach my rookie year and Barry Smith was the assistant and they loved me. A few years later, Rick Dudley is the coach and didn’t love me so much. It is what it is.