Saturday, August 09, 2008
We Want Ray! We Want Ray!
The village of Stirling, Ontario, is one of those small Canadian communities with a big heart.
It also boasts three National Hockey League players: Rob Ray, Matt Cooke, Eric Manlow, and an NHL executive-Mark Dobson, the Director of Player Personnel for the Atlanta Thrashers.
Most hockey pundits would agree that it was Ray who put Stirling on the hockey map.
In order to better understand the trials and tribulations that Ray faced on and off the ice, you need to get a copy of his book: Razor’s Edge-Rob Ray’s Tough Life on the Ice.
A sports writer for the Buffalo Evening News, Budd Bailey, was there when Ray was first drafted by the Sabres in 1988. For years he accumulated a stack of notes with more than enough material to put together a snapshot of Robbie’s life. He wrote about the Sabres for years, and followed the fourteen years that Ray played.
Ray’s good friend Matthew Barnaby wrote the forward for the book. He mentions two important aspects of Ray’s character in the forward. “Rob is a very guarded person. Until you get to know him, you don’t really appreciate him.” (There are more than a few enforcers in the NHL who did get to know Ray well on the ice, and never appreciated him!)
The second aspect to Ray’s character that Barnaby mentions pertains to his community spirit; “Rob is very good at letting good people into his life. Once that happens, though, Rob will do anything for anyone.”
In a previous life, I taught school-primarily in Belleville. I often invited local sports celebrities into my classroom to talk to the students. It was truly a highlight for the kids. Mike Schad from the Philadelphia Eagles, Rick Meagher from the Blues, Darren McCarty from the Red Wings, and Rob Ray came to speak to the students.
Each in his own way was entertaining. But Ray, with a smile and a smirk used to drive me to distraction. The kids knew that Robbie was an enforcer in the NHL. So they would zero in on that area in their questions: “What is your best technique for dropping an opponent?” they would ask. Robbie would reply: “Do you want me to show you?”
With that, some smart-mouthed kid would stroll to the front of the room begging for trouble. In a wink, Robbie had the kid neatly tucked away in a headlock. At the back of the room, I wrung my hands, wiped the sweat from my brow, and prayed I wouldn’t hear from the kid’s lawyer. (Never did!) The girls were more interested in his Dodge Stealth. Such is life.
In a conversation with Budd Bailey, I learned why Ray became so popular in Buffalo. “He was the blue collar worker in a blue collar town. He always gave one hundred percent when he was on the ice. For many athletes, there is a disconnection from the fans, primarily because of the money the athletes receive. Not with Ray. He stayed a fan favourite until the day he was traded to the Senators.”
Robbie attended several book signings in the Buffalo area when the book was first released. Bailey was always amazed at Ray’s interaction with his fans. People lined up at 3:30pm for a six o’clock signing. There were 4000 books sold in the first three weeks, gaining a spot on the New York Times Best seller list!
Rob Ray played exactly nine hundred games in the NHL, all but eleven with the Sabres. His point totals? Forty-one goals, fifty assists. Penalty minutes? Three thousand, two hundred and seven, with another hundred and sixty-nine in the playoffs.
To say that Robbie is fairly busy in his retirement from the NHL would be a gross understatement. He maintains his link with the league and the players as a colour commentator with the Sabres. He is involved with the NHL Alumni, a fine organization that supports former players who failed to make a good transition to civilian life after the game. He has a construction business, and an Auto Repair Shop. And a wife Juliean, and a daughter Jordan. Busy? “Always”, he told me.
He recently was chosen as one of two Sabres to endorse a Signature Wine Series from California. Pat LaFontaine was also chosen to represent Buffalo. The sale from the Rob Ray wines goes directly to the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo. Other retired players chosen to represent their teams? Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay from the Wings, Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita from the Hawks, Mike Richter and Rod Gilbert from the Rangers, Bobby Clarke and Dave Schultz from the Flyers. Pretty good company for Stirling’s “Razor”.
Ray was always involved with the Children’s Hospital in Buffalo, and with the help of a couple of teammates, he would quietly deliver Christmas packages to forty or fifty needy families in Buffalo.
In 1999, he was awarded the King Clancy Memorial Trophy for leadership and humanitarian contributions to the community-a fitting tribute.
The West Wings Book Store on the Main Street in Stirling has a good supply of “Rayzor’s Edge”. Some time during the celebrations next week in Stirling, Robbie will be on hand to sign those books. With a smile, and a right hook. Keep your guard up!