Ray Sheppard was once bought for a buck. As in four quarters. A crummy eight bits. In 1990 New York Ranger general manager Neil Smith actually paid that paltry sum for Sheppard. Then, during the '90-91 season, while Sheppard was scoring 24 goals in 59 games for New York, becoming the biggest bargain in Manhattan since the purchase of the island itself. Smith visited a card show and noticed a Ray Sheppard rookie card for $2. Said Smith to the vendor, "I'm not spending more for the card than I did for the player."
Sheppard, now a Detroit Red Wing, has a history of being sold short, having been cut at age 15 by his hometown team, the Pembroke ( Ont.) Lumber Kings of the Central Junior Hockey league. Coach Jim Farelli told Sheppard he couldn't skate. Slower than a tax refund.
But that was then, this is now. And as of Sunday the 27-year-old right wing had 47 goals, just there less than Boston Bruin Cam Neely, the NHL goal leader. Sheppard could become the most anonymous goal-scoring champ since the Bruins' Bronco Horvath tied Bobby Hull with 39 goals in 1959-60. "I'm still driven by that cut by the Lumber Kings," says Sheppard. "My whole life there's always been somebody telling me I'll never make it. It's been my goal to prove that skating isn't everything. You can score just as easily standing still in the crease."
Says Red Wing teammate Paul Coffey, "We kid Shep that he skates like he's on a Nordic Track. His arms and legs pump like crazy, and he newer seems to get anywhere, but who cares? His hands belong in the Smithsonian."
Detroit G.M. Bryan Murray first spotted those hands when Sheppard was 11. Murray was coaching, of all teams, the Lumber Kings when he saw Sheppard at a local hockey camp, slipping pucks past tiny goalies. "At that age you notice kids with a special talent," Murray says. "Ray was no speed demon, but he had a knack with the puck, a gift. When everybody else is frantic, Ray is calm, reducing the game to slow motion."
Murray kept tabs on Sheppard for 14 years and watched as the kid was drafted in 1987 by Sabre G.M. Scotty Bowman, the current Red Wing coach. Sheppard scored 38 goals his first season, finishing second in the Calder Trophy voting for the NHL's top rookie. But two seasons later, after having scored just four goals in IS games, he was sent to the minors and then jettisoned by the Sabres in that $1 transaction with the Rangers. After a year in New York he was signed as a free agent by Murray without compensation. The guy sold for a buck was moved at an even better price: nothing.
Sheppard scored 68 goals his first two seasons with Detroit, but this season has been truly cathartic. Take Jan. 6 in San Jose when he was skating on a breakaway, only to trip over a face-off dot. "It looked like a sniper in the 30th row had shot me with a blow dart," he says. "I heard the voices, 'You can't skate, Ray.' " But the '94 Ray sprang up, trudged down the ice to resume his breakaway and befuddled the Shark goalie with a backhand Hip to complete a hat trick.
"It'll be hilarious if I win the goal title, and years from now people look in the record book and say, Who is this guy Sheppard?' " he says. "People from Buffalo all the way back to Pembroke will remember my name."
Ray Sheppard. The Lumber King.