Schoenfeld trades comfort for challenge of Capitals

February 05, 1994|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Staff Writer

Jim Schoenfeld had a nice, cushy job at ESPN. He worked as a color analyst. His contract had just been extended. He traveled two days a week for business and enjoyed the rest of his time home in Buffalo with wife Theresa and their four children.

And when he went to bed at night, he didn't have to worry whether the teams he would see won or lost.

Even Schoenfeld, the new Washington Capitals coach, admits there are those who no doubt think he is a little "screwy" for getting back in the NHL coaching business, a business he calls "iffy at best," where a coach's life is something akin to that of a Fourth of July sparkler -- brilliant and wonderful while it lasts, but normally short-lived.

"It's wonderful to be able to go to bed and sleep great every night," Schoenfeld, 41, said earlier this week. "But when you care about something enough that it keeps you awake, that's even better.

"Even though you look disheveled and you're susceptible to every virus going around because you're so run down, there is something invigorating about that. There is. Just caring greatly about something. It's worth the aggravation."

Schoenfeld is 6 feet 2 and a trim 210 pounds. His hair is red, his temper short.

He played 13 years in the NHL, mostly for the Buffalo Sabres, and coaching was not a profession he aspired to, though he probably had been preparing for just such a job since his father gave him the book, "The Power of Positive Thinking," when he was 15 and laid up in the hospital after knee surgery.

"I didn't want to be a coach after my playing career," he said. "I didn't think I'd like it. I saw through a player's eyes what a coach went through. He was hired and fired. He'd get so down in the dumps when a team wasn't performing hard or working hard. It was terrible. A crummy job. I thought you'd have to be an idiot to go into coaching."

It was playing that mattered at age 15 and beyond. He didn't play organized hockey until he was 9, but there were many pickup games in Galt, Ontario, and later in Owen Sound. There were many days spent with a hockey stick in his hands, trying to learn how to handle the puck.

Even these days, he exults at having skates on and a stick in his hand. Every Wednesday, he'd pick up Justin, his oldest son, after his classes at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., they'd join the Buffalo Sabres alumni on the ice for a game.

"It was a wonderful time, skating and talking with my son," he said. "It won't be long when there won't be times like that, when he'll be grown and gone. I've only been with this team six days and already I miss him. I miss them all."

Schoenfeld is not afraid of his emotions. He talks freely about his family and the joy that comes from being married for 20 years to Theresa -- "My favorite color is whatever color my wife is wearing," he said -- and the thrill of having a family.

"We had our first child a year and a half after we were married because we wanted to grow with them," he said. "It's been wonderful. Without Theresa, I wouldn't be able to do this now."

Theresa and their four children (Justin, 19; Katie, 16; Adam, 12; Nathan, 10) are still home in Buffalo and will stay there until the school year ends. Then they'll sell their house and move to Maryland.

"It's a real commitment," Theresa said. "We have mixed emotions, because it means moving and starting over. But [Jim] has always had this desire to still coach and this opportunity came out of the blue. I think he's very good at coaching, because he's definitely a leader. The players in New Jersey responded to him very well.

"He can explain things well, has an eye for the game and I think you'd say he has great people skills."

She says he has gone through it all before and knows what he's in for.

"It's been his whole life ever since he was 9 years old," she said. "And it is definitely his first love as a career."

Tampa Bay Lightning vice president Gerry Helper, who worked in public relations in Buffalo when the Sabres made their only trip to the Stanley Cup finals, forever will remember a scene in the locker room before the first game.

"A reporter came up and asked Schoeny if he was nervous," Helper said. "He got this boyish look on his face and said, 'Oh, gosh, no. This is every kid's dream. I just wish I could take myself out of my body and watch myself play the game.'

"I've never seen him lose that love for the game. I've talked to him over the years, and he has never been able to get the game out of his blood or get his drive to win to lessen."

At age 15, he left home to play Junior A hockey and found out what it was like to be traded, ,being dealt from London, Ontario, to Hamilton to Niagara Falls. In 1972, he was drafted by Buffalo and went on to become a three-time NHL All-Star as a stay-at-home defenseman who would throw his body anywhere. He retired when a shoulder separation resulted in nerve damage and failed to heal properly. He was 32.

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