Gregg Sheppard’s National Hockey League career took him from small town Saskatchewan to the big cities of Boston and Pittsburgh. It wasn’t a direct route, however.
“I grew up in a family of six other siblings so we didn’t have a whole lot of money,” Sheppard said. “When I was 13 or 14, I started working on a farm and also pumping gas.”
Usually you’ll hear about NHL players and how they started skating when they were just a few years old. Sheppard got started later than most.
“I started to skate when I was seven or eight years old. I was introduced to it by my cousin Pat Smith who said, ‘you should come and try and skate,’” he explained. “There was a youth club in Battleford called the Battleford Community Youth Club. At the time they paid for, and sponsored, a lot of equipment for kids that couldn’t afford it.”
Before beginning his junior career away from home, Sheppard played for the local midget team.
“The BCYC ran the minor hockey here and at the time they had the 14-29 midget league they called it, because of Highways 14 and 29, and there were teams in Unity, Wilkie, Cut Knife, Battleford and North Battleford,” he said. “When I was 16, I played for the Beaver Bruins, which was U17 players, but we played in the senior league against men. You had to keep your head up,” he laughed.
Sheppard then began his junior career in Estevan with the Bruins, playing three seasons. Being in Estevan helped him land in the Boston Bruins organization.
“There was a few of us in the age group that were just at the cutoff because the NHL started doing the draft,” he said. “The two farm teams for Boston were Estevan and Niagara Falls, and we ended up playing Niagara Falls for the Memorial Cup that year.”
The Memorial Cup format was different than it is today, as back then it was a seven game series between the winners from the West and East. Estevan beat the Fort William Hurricanes and Penticton Broncos before heading to Niagara Falls.
“We played five games in their building and we won one,” Sheppard explained. “We asked to play in a neutral site after the second game, so we went to Montreal to play. At that time it was absolutely crazy, we had to get police escorts to get from the arena to our hotel and back again. We beat them in Montreal and they wanted to go back to their building.”
The Bruins lost to the Black Hawks in six games.
After his final year in Estevan, Sheppard’s professional career began in Oklahoma City.
“Basically it was all the players who came out of junior and didn’t make the NHL,” he explained. “Most of the young guys who didn’t make the NHL would play in that league for three or four years and then go to the American League or Western League. The make up of the Central Professional League was about six or eight teams. We travelled by bus a lot.”
As you might imagine, minor league travel isn’t very glamorous.
“[Bus trips] were long and drawn out,” he laughed. “Out of the three years I played there I think we flew twice, and that was because you would play in Nebraska one night and in Fort Worth, Texas, the next.”
Minor league pay compared to NHL pay is peanuts.
“My first year in Oklahoma I think I got a $5,000 signing bonus and a $5,000 salary. That’s one reason why I worked year-round,” Sheppard laughed.
Five thousand dollars in 1970 is equal to about $34,000 today.
During his third year in Oklahoma, the NHL held an expansion draft for the newest two teams, the New York Islanders and Atlanta Flames.
“Nobody drafted me and I thought, ‘Well, if I don’t make [the NHL] in my fourth year I’ll probably just go home and start a different career,” he chuckled. “They started the Boston Braves who played in the AHL the year before, and at training camp the Bruins convinced me to go to the Braves and play, and promised me that if anything happened injury-wise I would get called up.”
After just eight games in the AHL, and five goals and five assists, there were indeed openings.
“Fortunately for me there were some injuries and there were some guys who went to the World Hockey League, so there were some openings.”
It wouldn’t be the first time Sheppard had suited up for the Bruins, however.
“The year before I was with the Bruins and we won the Stanley Cup in 1972,” he said. “But I only played in the playoffs, so my name isn’t on the Cup. Harry Sinden was kind enough to offer me the opportunity to buy a ring, but the cost was between $1,600-1,800 and I didn’t have that kind of money.”
Sheppard’s first NHL game was a playoff game against St. Louis in 1972 and featured a prominent memory.
“Phil Esposito and I had a two-on-one and I passed to him,” he said. “I didn’t get an assist because he didn’t score.”
The Bruins teams from the early 1970s were loaded with all-time NHL greats, something that took a little getting used to for Sheppard.
“You’re a little bit in awe when you walk into the room with guys like Bobby Orr and Esposito,” he said. “Previous to that you see these guys on TV and all the sudden you’re there so you say, ‘Well, I have a job to do.’”
Sheppard’s first NHL regular season game came against his favourite team growing up, the Toronto Maple Leafs. After returning to Boston for their next game against the Islanders, Sheppard didn’t take long to endear himself to the Bruins faithful.
“I was fortunate enough to have a pretty good game. I scored three times,” he said. “I think we won the game 9-6 or something.”
Every Canadian hockey fan knows Don Cherry from his segment on CBC’s Hockey Night In Canada, but not a lot know what he was like while behind the bench as the Bruins coach.
“That image you see on TV was created after his years of coaching,” he said. “He wasn’t a technical coach, he was more of a motivator. He expected you to come to work every day and play your best. He expected us to win games and demanded it. There’s no excuse for not winning.”
Before Cherry took over, the Bruins were coached by Bep Guidolin, who Sheppard says wasn’t exactly a “players coach.”
“It was more acceptable when Montreal beat us,” he said. “Toughest pill to swallow was when Philadelphia beat us in six games [in 1974.] To put the blame where it is, the responsibility of the players, but also the responsibility of our coach. In my personal opinion, he’s a zero. In that series they had a Stanley Cup luncheon, so after our practice he told us we didn’t have to go if we didn’t want to. Then he goes to the banquet and says ‘I couldn’t get my players to come.’ He was fighting with Johnny Bucyk and Esposito, he was a really poorly organized coach. Don’t get me wrong, the Flyers had a really tough team.”
Sheppard would lose three Stanley Cup finals during his career as a Bruin, in 1974, 77 and 78.
When asked about any strong memories he had during his time in Boston, Sheppard shared a story about Orr’s fitness.
“We were on a road trip and we played in Minnesota, and the next day at practice Cherry told us there were some university students who were doing a study on athletes,” he explained. “They set up a bunch of drills and tests for us to do, and as the students are doing all their notes, they started watching Bobby Orr and they couldn’t believe that one guy was so far ahead of everyone else.”
An injury in 1978 cut Sheppard’s regular season short.
“Dennis Potvin hit me,” he said. “I used to get at him all the time and Don Cherry warned me ‘he’s going to get you,’ and I turned around to take a pass and when I looked up, Potvin was right there and he hit me low and flipped me into the air, tearing my knee. That was the first major injury I ever had, and while I didn’t need an operation I still sat out seven weeks or so.”
At Bruins training camp in 1978, Sheppard was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Though he didn’t hop on a plane and head there immediately.
“I was in the option year of my contract and I had played six years in the NHL, so I wanted (the Bruins) to sign me to an actual contract,” he said. “There was five or six of us on Boston that weren’t signed yet, and I got back to my farm [in Unity] and read other guys have been signed and I thought ‘well, why haven’t I been signed?’ We got skated and some of us went out golfing after, and when I got back to the house my wife met me at the door and said, ‘I think we got traded, Pittsburgh is calling.’ I thought I deserved at least the courtesy of a phone call. I saw Sinden on the golf course a few days later and he apologized and said, ‘I’m sorry I didn’t call you,’ and it was really a load of garbage. He blamed it on Pittsburgh wanting to break the trade. So I said ‘Well, I was traded three days ago. I do have a telephone.’ He just walked away.”
Hockey is a mainstay in Pittsburgh now, but in the early 80s the NFL and MLB dominated the sports scene in the Steel City.
“Bruins hockey was so big in the New England area and then going to Pittsburgh, hockey was way down the list,” he said. “You weren’t recognized as much, you could go anywhere and nobody would bother you. My first year I went to a Steelers exhibition game and they were losing, I think 10-7 after the first quarter, and there were 50,000 people booing.”
While the Penguins never made it past the first round of the playoffs during Sheppard’s four seasons, he says playing there was still a great experience.
“We had some great years and some great players,” he said. “Norris trophy [best defenceman] winner in Randy Carlyle. We had a super power play and good penalty killing. Then they started trading veteran players away and you’re barely making the playoffs.”
Carlyle played a major role in the end of Sheppard’s NHL career.
“I hit him in practice behind the net, my stick got caught in the boards and when he fell he landed on my knee,” he explained. “That was sometime in late February, so I rested it right until playoffs and I tried to come out for a skate the morning of the first playoff game and my knee ballooned up again. I had an operation done, rehabbed in the summer and come fall the doctor told me they had to operate again and he told me ‘you probably won’t be able to compete at the same level as before.’ At 33 years old and out of the league, not by choice, it was really disappointing. A pretty tough pill to swallow, I would have liked to quit on my own terms. Since then I’ve had two operations on my right knee and three on my left.”
While rehabbing his knee, Sheppard took a real estate course at the university in Pittsburgh, and got his license.
“I had an opportunity to go to Boston with a car dealer, or the opportunity to come back here and I decided to come back here in 1983. I generally just deal with friends or referrals now, I’m right on the verge of retiring. Probably next year will be my last year,” he admitted.
Sheppard worked with the Battlefords North Stars for a number of years before recently deciding to call his hockey-coaching career quits.
“I talked to the current coach, Kevin, and told him it might be time to find someone younger who wanted to be here all the time,” he said. “I wanted to take more winter vacations so we just parted ways that way.”
Though he’ll be completely retired next year, Sheppard doesn’t plan on leaving the area.
“Oh, no, this is my hometown,” he said. “I like hunting and fishing too much, this is a pretty good spot for that.”