An Interview with the Former NHL Right-Winger
Impactus | Promise Keepers Canada’ resident sports writer Carter Brooks sat down virtually with former Hartford Whalers, Winnipeg Jets and Boston Bruins forward Ray Neufeld to talk about his walk with Christ as a professional athlete. Speaking from past experience, the now 62-year-old expanded on life in the NHL, his relationship with Jesus, and a few good friendships developed along the way.
Making his NHL debut for the Whalers in 1980 against his childhood hero Bobby Clarke and the Philadelphia Flyers, Neufeld also shared the ice with teammates Gordie Howe, Dave Keon and Bobby Hull that night. But despite his many on-ice accolades, Neufeld claims his biggest “win” came as the result of a trade to Winnipeg, where he met professed Christians Laurie Boschman and Doug Smail, who helped change his life for the better.
Carter Brooks: How did you come to find Christ?
Ray Neufeld: “I grew up in a Christian home in Winkler, Manitoba. My parents were believers; they went to church, they prayed, they did all the things you’re supposed to do from a Christian perspective. I was brought up in that type of environment where I learned about the Lord and what it means to accept Christ. At the young age of 13, I gave myself to the Lord, not fully knowing the whole dynamic in that.”
CB: I understand some things changed in your life, and you may have drifted away from God?
RN: “Yes, I went off to junior hockey and life really changed for me. I started getting involved in all sorts of other things, pushing God out of my primary focus. It wasn’t until I made it to the pros and got traded to Winnipeg, where I met up with some of the teammates on the Jets where I really re-found myself again. A couple guys – one being Laurie Boschman and the other being Doug Smail – really helped redirect me to focus back on my faith. Bosch was extremely instrumental in my life, helping me understand the goodness of Christ and why we want to live for him. So in 1986, I re-dedicated my life and have been a follower ever since.”
CB: What was it about your time with the Jets and Boschman and Smail that helped put you back on the right path?
RN: “I had lots going on in my life when I came to Winnipeg – a lot of things happening away from the arena. My wife and I were going through a few things with two kids at the time. I was also having lots of issues with alcohol, so I was really trying to find my way. I was failing at it quite miserably.
“But then I got traded to Winnipeg. What initially drew me to Bosch was that he was a non-drinker. He wasn’t living that lifestyle. Not that all NHL players are a bunch of drinkers either, but guys typically go out, you know. And when you’re struggling with alcohol, the last thing you want to do is go out to a nightclub or a bar or something. So from that perspective, I started spending a lot of time with them.”
CB: And what made those two teammates so great?
RN: “They just had that willingness to listen to me. I learned how to listen from them. That’s what really helped impact in me the need for Christ back in my life. I needed to turn and re-dedicate and surrender back to Christ.
“I remember coming home off road trips and just being so excited. I wasn’t excited about the hockey we played or any of that, but I was just so excited, A.) that I was sober and B.) that I had learned more about Jesus. So I would run home and say to my wife, ‘Hey hunnie, you wouldn’t believe what I learned this road trip,’ and it was all stories from the Bible. Their influence on me was their consistency toward how they lived their life and the character and integrity that they showed in their lives was a tremendous example. I was drawn to that.”
CB: How were things in the dressing room and on the road hanging out with Boschman and Smail?
RN: “When you’re playing a game and competing every day around a group of 20-25 other guys who have a different way of life, things can be interesting. Some of the other guys on the team used to bug Laurie quite a bit, actually. He’d get a lot of jabs and a lot of jokes made because of what he believed.
“So once I started living that way and associating with those guys all the time, they sort of teased me a bit too. But overall, you sort of just change and realize that this is how God wants you to live, learn and grow in your faith while being an example. You start to find yourself in situations where you have to make decisions that are right compared to ones that are wrong. So when you start making more right ones than wrong ones, you know you’ve found your way.”
CB: Are there certain verses or chapters of the Bible that you have turned to in difficult times?
RN: “There are so many, but I have often used John 3:16, Philippians 1:6 and Romans 8:28 in difficult times or times when I needed to make an important decision. There never was just one verse for me that held the sole impact; there are just too many. But those three are some that I have really stuck to. But for me, just praising God and spending time with him has been a big part of my everyday life, especially in those difficult times.”
CB: As a Black hockey player, did you ever have to deal with racism throughout your career?
RN: “From my point of view, hockey is the greatest game ever. I was just very fortunate to be able to play the game at such a high level. I had so many great teammates and players that I respect both on and off the ice.
“In saying that, there are always situations where things happen, but I just dealt with it internally. I had the odd negative experience here and there, but it was nothing that impacted my life hugely. But I know that it’s a much broader topic today. Jesus made us all and calls us all to love one another. And the color of your skin doesn’t matter. We are all children of God, and God wants us to love, appreciate and respect one another; it’s as simple as that. Christ’s love is for everyone. Just live that way. Christ loves everyone.”