One for the Ages: Jim Schoenfeld’s 1979-80 NHL Season

When rugged defenseman Jim Schoenfeld broke into the NHL with the Buffalo Sabres during the 1972-73 season, you would have been hard-pressed to find a tougher hockey player. A 20-year-old, fiery redhead who was larger than most of his contemporaries at 6-foot-2 and over 200 pounds. With a mane of sweat-laden hair that touched upon his broad shoulders, Schoenfeld sometimes looked more like a lion than a hockey player.

The Sabres drafted Schoenfeld with the fifth overall pick of the 1972 NHL Amateur Draft. For a little more than nine straight seasons, he was the embodiment of toughness for Buffalo. Schoenfeld’s rookie campaign was only the Sabres third season in their existence. While they may have had players like Reggie Fleming, Doug Barrie, and Tracy Pratt who were willing to drop the gloves, Buffalo just did not have any sort of intimidation factor. They were not tough enough. General Manager Punch Imlach sought to change that shortcoming for the long haul of the Sabres by selecting Schoenfeld.

Let’s face it – the Buffalo Sabres were one of the most talented teams in the NHL throughout the 1970s. Their famed “French Connection” line of Rick Martin, Rene Robert, and Hockey Hall of Famer Gilbert Perreault goes down as one of the greatest lines in hockey history. The trio of Francophones were accompanied by the likes of Don Luce, Craig Ramsay, Gerry Meehan, Larry Mickey, Jim Lorentz, and 50-goal scorer Danny Gare. While not all of those players necessarily needed protection – particularly Gare – no team would want to lose their offensive firepower to penalty or injury. Schoenfeld’s ferocity was a major deterrent for anyone contemplating messing with Perreault, Martin or Robert.

Jim Schoenfeld #16 of the Buffalo Sabres
BOSTON, MA – 1970’s: Jim Schoenfeld #6 of the Buffalo Sabres is closely defended by John Wensink #8 of the Boston Bruins. (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

But Schoenfeld was much more than a physical force. He was a downright solid defenseman who utilized sound positioning and smarts to keep shooters at bay, in addition to his punishing body-checks. Schoenfeld could also add a little bit of offense too from the point.

When you compile the whole package of who Jim Schoenfeld was as a player, the entire league quickly took note. So much so that as the Sabres’ number-6 completed his eighth season in the NHL, he would be named a Second Team All-Star and would finish third in voting for the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman. Such accolades are what make Schoenfeld’s 1979-80 season one for the ages.

Getting Schoenfeld to Buffalo

Born Sept. 4, 1952, Schoenfeld hailed from Galt, Ontario, Canada. In an interesting junior hockey career, he ended up playing for three different teams in the Ontario Hockey Association (OHA) – the London Knights, Hamilton Red Wings, and the Niagara Falls Flyers. Schoenfeld’s final junior season was 1971-72, in which he played for Niagara Falls. That season saw him compile a superb six goals and 46 assists for 52 points in only 40 games. On top of that, he compiled a staggering 215 penalty minutes in those same 40 contests.

The Sabres could not have found a better rugged, talented blueliner to take when the 1972 Draft was held on Jun. 8 just before summer began. In addition to bringing in a player who could dissuade any opposing player just with his steady glare, the Sabres needed Schoenfeld to help keep the puck out of the back of their net. The 1971-72 Sabres gave up the third most goals in the league (289), and were only outdone by the Vancouver Canucks (297) and the Los Angeles Kings (305).

Buffalo goaltenders like Dave Dryden and the acrobatic Roger Crozier continually faced a barrage of shots through the team’s first two seasons. Imlach was masterful in assembling his defense corps for 1972-73 so that not only were his team’s shots-against and goals-against improved upon, but that opposing shooters would have a heck of a time even getting to open ice to get shots away. For starters, Imlach retained Pratt, Mike Robitaille, and Paul Terbenche from the season prior. He also made sure to keep 35-year-old, six-time Stanley Cup champion Larry Hillman who he had acquired from Los Angeles in December 1971.

Turning the Buffalo Defense Around

What proved to be even more key in turning his defense around was when Imlach acquired 42-year-old NHL strongman Tim Horton in the 1972 intra-league draft. A physically imposing defender and a legend of a man, Horton was himself a four-time Stanley Cup champion with Imlach’s Toronto Maple Leafs during the 1960s. More than anything else though, he provided near father-figure tutelage to the rookie Schoenfeld and another rookie defender – Larry Carriere – who was Buffalo’s second-round selection after they took Schoenfeld.

Tim Horton, Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman, 1949 to 1969 (courtesy Wikimedia)

The seven defensemen – Schoenfeld, Carriere, Horton, Hillman, Terbenche, Robitaille and Pratt – backstopped the Sabres to allowing the third-least amount of goals (219) in the 1972-73 season. Only the Montreal Canadiens (184) and New York Rangers (208) had stingier defenses. Furthermore, the Sabres would make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

Schoenfeld would play in 66 of the Sabres 78 games that same season. He would compile four goals and 15 assists for 19 points. Schoenfeld’s 178 penalty minutes were the eighth most in the league. More importantly, he would finish fourth in voting for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s Rookie of the Year.

Highs and Lows for Schoenfeld and the Sabres

The next two seasons for Schoenfeld and the Buffalo Sabres were comprised of both the lowest of lows and the highest of highs in hockey. In retrospect, both variances provided tremendous growth for the hulking defender, and eventually would culminate into what would be his ones for the ages season. We learn from our highs and lows, no matter how high or how low they might take us.

Despite the great success of the Sabres in their third season, utter tragedy would strike during 1973-74. Shortly after turning 44 years old, the veteran Horton would be killed in a horrific car accident on Feb. 21, 1974 only hours after the Sabres and Maple Leafs had played a game in Toronto. While all of the Sabres and the hockey community at large were devastated by the loss of Horton, Schoenfeld was impacted in particular. More often than not, he and Horton were defense partners during their two seasons together with Buffalo. More than twice his age, Horton was idolized by Schoenfeld.

The lows could not be any lower.

Certainly of no comparison to Horton’s death, the 1973-74 season would furthermore be a poor one for the Sabres and their young defender. Undergoing neck surgery, Schoenfeld would only suit up for 28 games. Additionally, he would spend a few games in the minors with Buffalo’s AHL affiliate the Cincinnati Swords. These would be the only minor league games of Schoenfeld’s entire professional career. With a subpar record of 32-34-12, Buffalo would end up missing the playoffs.

Schony Is Named Team Captain

Jim Schoenfeld's 'Schony
(David Schofield/January Records/Jerry Meyers Enterprises)

Schoenfeld would be named the Sabres team captain in Sept. 1974. Just 22 years old when he was bestowed with the “C”, he became the youngest captain in NHL history at the time. Under Schoenfeld’s leadership, Buffalo rebounded from both tragedy and disappointment in their fifth season.

The 1974-75 edition of the Sabres was one of the most dominant hockey teams of the entire decade. Robert became the first Sabre to record a 100-point season (40 goals, 60 assists). The Sabres became the first team in NHL history to skate six players who scored 30 or more goals in one season – Robert (40), Martin (52), Perreault (39), Gare (31), Luce (33), and Rick Dudley (31). With a record of 49-16-15, the Sabres totaled 113 points in the regular season.

Behind Schoenfeld’s leadership and the firepower of the “French Connection”, the Sabres would make it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. Though many favored Buffalo to win the Cup, they would lose in six games to the Philadelphia Flyers and the stellar goaltending of the great Bernie Parent.

Schoenfeld played 68 games during the 1974-75 season, scoring a goal and 19 assists for 20 points. This would be the first of seven straight seasons in which he generated at least 20 points. Additionally, his 184 penalty minutes that season would be the highest total of his NHL career. When the playoffs came around, Schoenfeld played in all 17 Sabres postseason games. There he would score another goal and four assists, plus 38 more penalty minutes.

Schony’s 1979-80 Season

Schoenfeld fought the toughest hombres of the NHL in the 1970s. Andre “Moose” Dupont, Bob “Houndog” Kelly, Dave “The Hammer” Schultz, and Dave “Tiger” Williams were all fought by the formidable redhead at least once in his career. During his rookie season, Schoenfeld infamously slammed “Big Bad Bruin” Wayne Cashman straight through the Zamboni doors at Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium and then fought him on the concrete once they had landed on the other side.

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Oddly enough though, Schoenfeld did not have a single fighting major during the 1979-80 season.

By this point too, Schoenfeld had relinquished the captaincy to Gare, who assumed the role beginning with the 1977-78 season. Still just as tough and talented, Schoenfeld’s primary focus seemed to be bringing a Stanley Cup to Buffalo. Playing in 77 of the Sabres’ 80-game schedule, he set career highs in games played, goals (nine), assists (27) and points (36) in one season. Schoenfeld’s 72 penalty minutes were relatively modest by his standards, though it makes sense with no fighting infractions to include in the total.

Only Montreal’s Larry Robinson and Toronto’s Borje Salming would receive more Norris Trophy votes than Schoenfeld did at the conclusion of the 1979-80 season. Though the award for Best Defenseman would be given to Robinson, Buffalo’s defender would still have a moment in the sun. Schoenfeld and Salming would be named the defensemen for the NHL’s Second All-Star Team. He would be joined by Buffalo teammates Gare (right wing) and Don Edwards (goaltender) on the same All-Star squad, along with Edmonton’s Wayne Gretzky (center) in his first NHL season.

We take a look now at some of the finer moments from Schoenfeld’s 1979-80 NHL season:

Oct. 12, 1979:

Schoenfeld scored the Sabres’ very first goal of the 1979-80 campaign. With the Washington Capitals playing in Buffalo, “Schony” beat Wayne Stephenson less than two minutes into the game. Gare and John Van Boxmeer would earn the assists on the goal, as Buffalo would go on to win the game 6-3. Ironically, the first Buffalonian to play in NHL history – defenseman Peter Scamurra – scored Washington’s first goal in their loss at The Aud.

Oct. 13, 1979:

Facing the New York Islanders on Long Island, Schoenfeld and the Sabres earned a 5-2 victory at Nassau Coliseum. Both Perreault and Gare would score two goals each, with Schoenfeld and Lindy Ruff earning the assists on Perreault’s second tally. Schoenfeld would add the icing onto the cake when he scored Buffalo’s fifth goal of the game at 11:36 of the third period – a power play tally against Glenn “Chico” Resch. Even though the Sabres had Dudley and the Islanders had Jean Potvin each in the penalty box for coincidental high-sticking infractions, the Sabres were already on the power play when the Isles Garry Howatt was called for elbowing at 10:20.

Oct. 24, 1979:

The Sabres took it to the Pittsburgh Penguins 7-3 at The Aud. Schoenfeld set up the first, third, and seventh goals of the game for Buffalo – assisting on goals from Derek Smith, Ruff, and Perreault respectively. The three assists were the most he would generate in a single game all season long.

Oct. 28, 1979:

Schoenfeld would have his second game of the season in which he scored a goal and assisted on another. He would be a factor in half of Buffalo’s goals as the Sabres defeated the visiting Colorado Rockies 4-2. Schoenfeld scored on the power play for the game’s first goal at 14:14 of the opening period. With the Rockies’ Trevor Johansen in the box for interference, Schoenfeld beat goaltender Bill Oleschuk, with assists from Ruff and Van Boxmeer. He would then earn the primary assist on Martin’s fifth goal of the season.

Nov. 18, 1979:

The Sabres won an absolute wild one over Wayne Gretzky and the visiting Edmonton Oilers. In a 9-7 victory by Buffalo, eight different Sabres scored a goal while five different Oilers tallied, including “The Great One”. Former Sabres goalie Dave Dryden split the duties with Eddie Mio. Schoenfeld would pick up two assists in the game as he set up goals from Seiling and Smith. He was also one of just four Sabres to finish the game as a plus-two in a game that was all out scoring. Gretzky finished the game with a goal and three assists.

Dec. 5, 1979:

As Buffalo defeated the Atlanta Flames 6-1, Schoenfeld put together a plus-4 for plus/minus on the night. Atlanta’s Bob MacMillan would open the scoring at 7:37 of the first period, but it would be all Buffalo after that. As the Sabres scored six goals in a row, Schoenfeld set up the first one from Martin. By the time the 1979-80 season would end, the Buffalo blueliner would have three games total in which he finished as a plus-4.

Dec. 10, 1979:

This time the Sabres whitewashed the Detroit Red Wings 4-0. Detroit mustered only 14 shots on goal as Sabres goalie Don Edwards turned them all aside. Schoenfeld and Seiling set up Martin for the first goal of the game. Schoenfeld himself would go on to score Buffalo’s third goal – beating Hall of Fame goaltender Rogatien Vachon early in the second period, with helpers from Ramsay and Luce.

Feb. 7, 1980:

Buffalo steamrolled the Pittsburgh Penguins 9-0, as goalie Greg Millen gave up all nine goals. Pittsburgh defender Randy Carlyle would finish the game as a brutal minus-6. On Buffalo’s side of things, Schoenfeld would finish the game as a plus-3. While Gare would score a hat-trick in the game, Schoenfeld would record his only point on the evening when he helped set up Ramsay’s 15th on the season.

Feb. 16, 1980:

Facing the Red Wings once more, Buffalo would earn a tight 4-3 victory in Detroit. Schoenfeld would pick up helpers on goals from Martin and Gare to earn his 23rd and 24th assists on the season. Goaltenders Bob Sauve (Buffalo) and Rogatien Vachon (Detroit) faced 31 and 28 shots respectively.

Mar. 9, 1980:

The Sabres would storm to another 9-goal output on the score sheet. This time they defeated the St. Louis Blues 9-4. While Schoenfeld did not pick up any points during the victory, he played as part of a unit with Perreault, Martin, Seiling, and Van Boxmeer where all five players finished the game as a plus-4. Perreault and Martin were unbelievable during this game. As Blues goalie Ed Staniowski surrendered all nine goals, Perreault would record five assists while Martin scored four goals and an assist.

Mar. 27, 1980:

The high-flying Sabres would reach double digits during this contest. This time they defeated the Red Wings by the overwhelming score of 10-1. Eight different Sabres scored during this game – Perreault, Gare, Luce, Van Boxmeer, McKegney, Bill Hajt, Bob Mongrain, and “Miracle on Ice” gold medalist Rob McClanahan. Schoenfeld would earn the primary assist on McKegney’s goal, which was Buffalo’s second score of the game at 8:47 of the first. Additionally, this would be the third time during the season that Schoenfeld finished the game as a plus-4.

Apr. 6, 1980:

On the final game of the 1979-80 regular season, the Sabres defeated the Maple Leafs 7-3. Schoenfeld’s goal was his ninth of the season and the fourth of the game for Buffalo. The goal was unassisted. The Sabres scored all seven of their goals before the Leafs scored a single one of theirs. Thus, Schoenfeld’s unassisted tally ended up being the game-winning goal as well.

What the 1979-80 Sabres Should Have Accomplished

The 1979-80 Buffalo Sabres arguably should have won the Stanley Cup. Many of the players who comprised this particular squad consider it the finest team Buffalo has ever assembled. Schoenfeld’s accomplishments that season speak for the themselves. It was the best he ever played in his 13 NHL seasons, but Buffalo as a whole brought so much more to the table.

The legendary Scotty Bowman was the Sabres’s head coach, and he delivered a record of 47-17-16 for 110 points – the second-most in the league behind the Flyers’ 116. The regular season performance captured the Prince of Wales Trophy for Buffalo, for the best record in the Wales Conference. Perreault’s 106 points (40 goals, 66 assists) were the fourth highest total in the league. Gare’s 56 goals were tied with Hartford’s Blaine Stoughton and Los Angeles’ Charlie Simmer to be the most in the NHL that season.

The solid play did not stop there. Goaltenders Edwards and Sauve shared the Vezina Trophy, which at the time was awarded to the goaltenders of the team with the best goaltending record. Martin scored 45 goals, while Seiling, Smith, Ramsay and McKegney each scored at least 20. Buffalo’s second-line of Smith, McKegney and Gare was arguably a better line that season than their top-line of Perreault, Martin and Seiling.

Unfortunately for Buffalo, they would lose in the semi-final to the eventual Stanley Cup winner, the New York Islanders. New York would clinch the series over Buffalo four games to two. The Sabres were unable to battle back after losing the first three games of the series.

Moving on From Buffalo and Then a Brief Return

Schoenfeld would play one more full season in Buffalo after his All-Star season. He would have near identical numbers during 1980-81 – eight goals, 25 assists, 33 points and 110 penalty minutes in 71 games. Buffalo would win the Adams Division with their 99 points from a 39-20-21 record. This time however, Schoenfeld and the Sabres would be dispelled in the second-round of the playoffs by their divisional rival the Minnesota North Stars – a team that finished with 12 less points in the regular season standings. The North Stars defeated Buffalo in five games, and would eventually make it to the Stanley Cup Final where they too would lose to the Islanders.

In addition to being the Sabres head coach, Bowman was also the team’s General Manager. A masterful orchestrator – and likely dissatisfied by his team’s inability to make a successful stab at a Stanley Cup – Bowman shocked the Buffalo community on Dec. 2, 1981. In a move that many still find difficult to justify even all these years later, Schoenfeld, Gare, and Smith were sent to the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for Dale McCourt, Mike Foligno and Brent Peterson. Many felt that the departures of Schoenfeld and Gare removed the heart from the Sabres roster. The trade itself left the lionesque defender openly in tears at the news.

Schoenfeld would finish out the 1981-82 season with the Red Wings and would remain in Detroit for one full season after that. The Red Wings finished at the very bottom of the Norris Division in both seasons. Schoenfeld played 96 games in total with the Red Wings, scoring six goals, 19 assists, 25 points, 87 penalty minutes. Not being retained by the Red Wings for the 1983-84 NHL season, he would sign with the Boston Bruins as a free agent on Aug. 19, 1983. Utilized more as a depth defender, Schoenfeld’s time would the Bruins would amount to a mere 39 games.

As fate would have it, the stalwart defender would end up making a return to Buffalo. Ironically endeavoring to add further toughness and experience to his blue line, Bowman signed Schoenfeld as a free agent on Dec. 6, 1984. Additionally, he had the season prior claimed another returning behemoth on defense in Jerry “King Kong” Korab. Both Schoenfeld and Korab were utilized to accentuate the defense in front of phenom goaltender Tom Barrasso.

In his final NHL season, Schoenfeld played 34 games for Buffalo in 1984-85 and recorded three assists. He played in all five playoff games for Buffalo that season too, as the Sabres would fall at the hands of the Stastny brothers and the Quebec Nordiques in the opening round. Schoenfeld retired as an active player shortly thereafter.

A Call to Coaching and a Look Back at 1979-80

After retiring from the game, Schoenfeld turned to NHL coaching and front office work – he has remained there ever since. In an interesting twist of fate, his first NHL coaching gig was with the Sabres during the 1985-86 season. However, it would not last for long after being given the reigns by Bowman before the start of the season. After bringing the team to an average-looking record of 19-19-5, Schoenfeld was relieved of his duties on Jan. 17, 1986, and Bowman stepped behind the bench once more.

Schoenfeld would eventually find coaching successes in the NHL. Arguably his most successful and most memorable run came with the 1987-88 New Jersey Devils who clinched a playoff spot on the final day of the regular season. With a roster of youngsters and upstarts, Schoenfeld guided the Devils all the way to the semi-final where there narrowly missed a shot at the Stanley Cup. Boston would need a full seven games to get by New Jersey. Schoenfeld’s former goaltender Bob Sauve was one of his players on that particular Devils team.

In addition to New Jersey, Schoenfeld would also have coaching positions with the Washington Capitals and Phoenix (Arizona) Coyotes. Not having been a head coach since the 1998-99 season, his overall coaching record is a winning one. Schoenfeld holds a record of 256-246-78 in the 580 games he coached between the four teams.

At the time of this article, Schoenfeld is the Senior Vice President and the Assistant General Manager of the New York Rangers. He has been with the organization since the 2003-04 season, and initially held the position of General Manager of the Rangers AHL affiliate, the Hartford Wolf Pack. Schoenfeld was promoted to his current role on July 1, 2015.

Jim Schoenfeld has experienced a bit of everything during his hockey career. From the time he was a player up through his current place in management, he has found success at all levels. His involvement in NHL hockey is fast approaching 50 years. No individual can last that long at a profession – nor would they be able to hold such prestigious positions – unless he maintained the necessary work ethic and possessed the God-given talent. Schoenfeld certainly has both.

There is no question that in Schoenfeld’s responsibilities to hockey today, he still calls upon his experiences as a fresh-faced rookie with a lion’s mane… as a coach leading an unexpected run from an underdog team… as a player battling with and against Hockey Hall of Famers… and certainly as a young defender standing alongside his hero in Tim Horton… to help him make the necessary decisions that he makes today. We are also certain that Jim Schoenfeld’s 1979-80 season – his one for the ages – continues to serve him well too.