Dayton Reimer The Hockey Writers
Top 10 Mennonites in NHL History
Over 500 years ago, a group led by Menno Simons in Northern Germany created the Christian denomination of the Mennonites. They were persecuted for their pacifism and Protestant connections, which forced them to flee several European countries. Today, Mennonites live all over the world, though many are still in areas where their ancestors settled, and have developed a culture of their own. Many have similar surnames and can trace their lineages back several generations, and have a fondness for fried and preserved foods. Most of all, they have become known as hard-working, honest people who have a strong sense of community.
These traits (aside from the fried dough) have made Mennonites top-notch athletes. They generally aren’t the biggest stars, but they are highly respected by their teammates and are invaluable to their teams. In the NHL, several Mennonites have made their mark throughout history, from setting records to having their names engraved on the Stanley Cup. As hockey continues to grow internationally each year, let’s take a moment and look at the stars who seem to avoid the spotlight. These are the 10 best Mennonites in NHL history.
10. Ray Neufeld
A relatively unknown player today, Neufeld was a promising star in the 1980s. Born in the Mennonite community of Winkler, Manitoba, he played for the nearby Flin Flon Bombers in the Western Canadian Hockey League (WCHL – the precursor to the WHL) in 1976. His best season in the WCHL came in 1978-79 as a member of the Edmonton Oil Kings, when he scored an incredible 102 points despite missing part of the season with broken ribs. The Hockey News ranked him as 1979’s ninth best draft prospect, but he wasn’t drafted until the fourth round (81st overall) by the Hartford Whalers.
Neufeld joined the Whalers full-time in 1982-83 after bouncing between the AHL and NHL for three seasons. In his rookie season, he broke out with 28 goals and 59 points, finding chemistry with Ron Francis. The young forward was soon a fan favourite in Hartford, and he always gave back, regularly tossing pucks into the stands after pre-game skates and he was involved in several charities in the area. After he scored the Whalers’ 1000th goal, it looked like he would be with the franchise for good.
However, in 1985, after getting off to the hottest start of his career (15 points in 16 games), the Whalers traded him to the Winnipeg Jets for Dave Babych. The veteran defenseman was immensely popular in the Jets’ dressing room, making it a tough adjustment for Neufeld. Along with the pressure to perform, a slow start, and not wanting to leave Hartford, Neufeld struggled in his home province and never again got close to his career-high 69 points posted in 1983-84. He was traded to the Boston Bruins in 1988-89 and retired in 1990.
9. Eric Fehr
Also hailing from Winkler, Manitoba, Fehr starred with the Western Hockey League’s (WHL) Brandon Wheat Kings from 2000 to 2005, putting up 277 points in 279 games. His offensive acumen made him a first-round selection in 2003 by the Washington Capitals. In his last season of junior, he won the Bobby Clarke Trophy for most points (111) and the Four Broncos Trophy as the WHL’s player of the year. He joined the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Hersey Bears the following season, helping them win the Calder Cup, with eight goals and eleven points in the playoffs.
In the NHL, however, Fehr was relied on for his defensive game, becoming a top penalty killer with the Capitals. His best offensive season was in 2010, when he scored 21 goals and 39 points. In 2015, he signed a three-year deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins and was part of their 2016 Stanley Cup championship team, but injuries began to slow him down. He made brief appearances with the Toronto Maple Leafs, San Jose Sharks and Minnesota Wild before joining the National League in Switzerland for the 2019-20 season.
8. James Reimer
The Arborg, Manitoba native began his professional career with the Toronto Marlies in 2008-09 after four seasons with the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels. A fourth-round pick by the Maple Leafs in 2006, he quickly became one of the brightest goaltending prospects in the system, winning the ECHL’s Kelly Cup with the South Carolina Sting Rays in 2008-09, as well as taking home the league’s playoff MVP award.
With the Maple Leafs, Reimer continued to shine, earning NHL Rookie of the Month in March, 2011. Although the Leafs missed the playoffs, Reimer was selected to the IIHF World Championship roster that season, where he had a 0.920 save percentage over four games. His crowning achievement with the franchise was in 2012-13, when he helped Toronto reach the playoffs for the first time since 2004. However, it ended in heartbreak, after he allowed four unanswered goals to blow a 4-1 lead in Game 7 against the Boston Bruins after the Leafs had been up three games to one.
After the fateful loss, he struggled to regain his form with the Leafs and in 2015-16, he was traded to the Sharks. The change of scenery did him well, and he posted an impressive 1.62 goals-against average over eight games, which helped him earn a new contract with the Florida Panthers, splitting duties with Roberto Luongo. Now seen as a solid backup with the ability to start for long stretches, he joined the Carolina Hurricanes for the 2019-20 season to help out Petr Mrazek.
Author’s note: No, we aren’t related, as far as I know.
7. Dustin Penner
Public opinion is split on Penner. On one hand, he was a dominant power forward who won two Stanley Cups. On the other, he was difficult to coach and is remembered as the last player to be successfully signed to an offer sheet. Still, there is no denying his talent and impact. Penner grew up in Winkler with Eric Fehr, but while the latter was flying in the WHL, the former was struggling to stick with any team. Eventually, he made a small college team in North Dakota, which helped him get a scholarship to attend the University of Maine.
It was there that Penner’s fortunes changed. With Maine, he won the Hockey East championship over Boston College in 2004, which earned him a spot on the NCAA All-Star Team. It was enough to catch the attention of the Anaheim Ducks, and they offered the undrafted free agent a three-year deal in May, 2004, at 22 years old. In his first full season in 2006-07, he scored 45 points, earning him a handful of Calder Trophy votes as one of the league’s best rookies, and helped the Ducks win their first Stanley Cup that spring. That’s when the Edmonton Oilers came calling.
Related: Brian Burke Almost Fought Kevin Lowe
In one of the most controversial moves of the last 15 years, Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe signed Penner to a $21.25 million offer sheet, which Ducks GM Brian Burke was unable to match. Penner initially showed promise in Edmonton, but soon was clashing regularly with coach Craig MacTavish, who publicly criticized Penner’s fitness, and by 2011, he was traded to the Los Angeles Kings. He won another Cup with the Kings in 2012, but was hardly a factor, scoring 37 points over three seasons. Anaheim signed him again in 2013, but he joined the Capitals before season’s end and was reunited with Fehr before retiring in 2014.
6. Robyn Regehr
Regehr has the unique distinction of being the only Brazilian to play in the NHL. Born to Mennonite missionaries working in Recife, he spent his early childhood in Indonesia before coming to Canada at about the age of seven. His family settled in the small Mennonite town of Rosthern, Saskatchewan. Circumstance made him comparatively late to join organized hockey, but he was a quick learner and by 15 years old, he was a first-round selection by the WHL’s Kamloops Blazers. Three years later, he was a first-round selection by the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche.
However, Regehr never played for the Avalanche, as he was traded to the Calgary Flames for Theoren Fleury and Chris Dingman in 1998-99, not long after winning a silver medal with Team Canada at the World Junior Championships. That summer, Regehr suffered two broken legs in a car accident outside Saskatoon, which threatened to end his NHL career before it began. Yet four month later, he made his debut with the Flames, playing 57 games and scoring 12 points. That incredible accomplishment earned him a nomination for the Bill Masterton Trophy for his dedication to hockey, the youngest nominee in NHL history.
During his 15-year professional career, Regehr was one of the NHL’s best defensive defensemen, helping the Flames reach the Stanley Cup Final in 2004, the first time since 1989, and serving as an assistant captain for several years. He won a gold medal with Canada at the World Cup in 2004, then a silver medal at the World Championships in 2005. In 2011, he was traded to the Buffalo Sabres in a cap dump, then to the Los Angeles Kings in 2013, where he finally won a Stanley Cup in 2014. He retired the following season, playing 827 of his 1090 games with the Flames, ranked third in franchise history.
5. Dave Schultz
Mennonites are strict pacifists, so to see some become hockey enforcers seems ironic. Yet in the 1970s, there were few meaner players than Dave ‘The Hammer’ Schultz, who came from the Mennonite community of Waldheim, Saskatchewan. With the WCHL’s Swift Current Broncos, he scored 101 points in 92 games over two seasons, prompting the Philadelphia Flyers to draft him with a fifth-round pick in 1969. However, the ‘Broad Street Bullies’ had a rough-and-tumble style, so Schultz adapted, registering 356 penalty minutes (PIM) in just 67 games with the Salem Rebels in 1969-70, his first 300+ PIM season.
After two seasons in the AHL where he nearly hit 400 PIM each campaign, the Flyers brought Schultz aboard in 1972-73. As a rookie, he was the NHL’s most penalized player with 259 PIMs, and scored 21 points. The next season, he added nearly 100 more minutes, keeping his penalty minute title, along with scoring 20 goals as the Flyers crashed their way to their first Stanley Cup. Then, in 1974-75, he set an NHL record for most penalty minutes in a season with 472, and the Flyers repeated as Cup champions.
Related: Broad Street Bullies: More Than Goons, Fists & Enforcers
However, the career of an enforcer is generally a short one, and Schultz was no different. After being traded from the Flyers to the Kings, he struggled to establish himself as more than a declining fighter, retiring in 1980 after appearing briefly with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres. Two years later, he penned an open letter to his son about his regrets at his style of play, recalling, “My (childhood) idol was Dave Keon, who won the Lady Byng Trophy for good conduct, and I believed I could turn the other cheek,” (from ‘Dave Schultz: A Letter to My Son About Violence’, The New York Times – Feb 7 1982). Despite his conscience, he was one of the best at his job and made the Flyers one of the toughest teams in hockey history.
4. Willi Plett
Plett was born in Asuncion, Paraguay, after his parents fled from Germany during World War II and where they joined a thriving Mennonite community. A year after Plett was born, however, his family moved to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, where he started to play hockey at the age of 12. He was a natural athlete, who also played lacrosse in high school, and developed a style comparable to the modern power forward. After 14 points and 63 PIMs in 22 games with the St. Catherines Black Hawks, the Atlanta Flames drafted him 80th overall in 1975.
In 1975-76, Plett’s scoring punch and physicality helped the Central Hockey League’s Tulsa Oilers win the Adams Cup. Then, in 1976-77, he won the NHL’s Calder Trophy, scoring 56 points in 64 games while racking up 123 penalty minutes. He quickly became one of the franchise’s early stars, setting records for most penalty minutes (288 – 1981-82), longest point streak (nine games – 1976-77 and 1977-78), and most goals by a right winger (38 – 1981-82) in a single season. He was also instrumental in the Flames reaching the 1981 Stanley Cup semi-finals, their highest finish at the time.
However, Plett began to feud with Flames coach Al MacNeil, which led to MacNeil’s firing and Plett being traded to the Minnesota North Stars. He fought with North Stars coach Bill Mahoney as well, demanding more ice time, but the result was more positive; he set a career-high in PIMs in 1983-84 with 316. His style was not easy on his body, and after several knee and shoulder injuries, he was traded to the New York Rangers in 1987, hen was placed on waivers and claimed by the Boston Bruins. He retired in 1988 with the NHL record (since broken) of 488 career playoff penalty minutes, and is 16th in career PIMs.
3. Jeff Friesen
Although Friesen was never the biggest star, he was a proven winner. Growing up in Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan, he excelled with the WHL’s Regina Pats, earning Rookie of the Year honors in 1992-93 after scoring 45 goals and 83 points. The following season, he earned a spot on the Canadian World Junior U20 team as an 18-year-old, after scoring 118 points with the Pats, where he won a gold medal. His resume was enough for the San Jose Sharks to use their 11th overall selection on the talented sniper in 1994. He made his NHL debut in 1994-95, scoring 25 points in 48 games and was selected to the All-Rookie team.
Friesen won one more World Junior gold medal in 1995, then win a silver medal at the World Championship in 1996 and a gold medal in 1997, all before turning 21. Soon, he was one of the Shark’s top scorers, leading the team in points in 1997-98 and 1998-99. In the 2001 offseason, despite sitting third in all-time scoring with 350 points (although that has since dropped to seventh), he was traded with Steve Shields to the Anaheim Ducks for Teemu Selanne. His time on the West Coast was brief, though, as he was traded to the New Jersey Devils in 2002-03, where he won a Stanley Cup that season, contributing three game-winning goals in the semi-finals.
In 2004, Friesen won another silver medal at the World Championships, but when the NHL resumed in 2005-06, he struggled with injuries and was shuffled from the Capitals, back to Anaheim, then to the Flames. After spending 2007-08 in the AHL, he tried out for the Sharks but failed to make the team. He decided to go to Germany where he joined the Eisbaeren Berlin, with whom he won the German League’s championship in 2011 before retiring.
2. Garry Unger
Mennonites have long been defined by their work ethic, and Unger is one of the hardest working players in NHL history. Born in Calgary, Alberta, Unger made a name for himself playing for the London Nationals of the Ontario Hockey Association, scoring 73 points in 48 games in 1966-67. The Toronto Maple Leafs gave him his first shot at the NHL, playing him in 15 games in 1967-68, but they decided to trade him mid-season to the Detroit Red Wings in a massive eight-player blockbuster that included Frank Mahovlich, Norm Ullman and Paul Henderson.
In Toronto, Unger had managed just two points but with the Red Wings, he emerged as a star, scoring 15 points in 13 games. Accompanied by his care-free style and good looks, he quickly became a fan favourite and one of the team’s most reliable and talented players. However, he and the team clashed with their incredibly strict coach, Ned Harkness. When Harkness was inexplicably promoted to general manager in 1970-71, he traded away nearly half the team due to past grudges. Among the trades was Unger, who was sent to the expansion St. Louis Blues for veteran Red Berenson.
On a team without a bona fide star, Unger rose to the occasion, becoming the heart and soul of the Blues. From 1971 to 1979, he never scored less than 30 goals in a season and led the team in scoring in all but three of those campaigns. Despite only playing eight seasons, he still sits fourth in all-time points (575) and goals (292). Unger also never missed a game while in St. Louis. From February 24, 1968, with the Red Wings until December 23, 1979 with the Atlanta Flames, Unger played 914 consecutive games, nearly 300 games more than the previous record holder.
Unger finished his career in 1988 after appearing with the Los Angeles Kings, Edmonton Oilers and even a brief stint in Britain. Although his record was eventually broken by Doug Jarvis’ 964 consecutive games, he will always be remembered as the original Iron Man.
1. Jonathan Toews
It’s no surprise that Toews tops our list; not only is he the most talented Mennonite to play in the NHL, but he’s arguably one of the most successful Canadian hockey players in the modern era. Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Toews quickly demonstrated he had a talent not many others had, and at the 2003 WHL Bantam Draft, the Tri-City Americans drafted him first overall. However, he had other plans for his future, instead leaving for the esteemed hockey school Shattuck-Saint Mary’s in Minnesota, and later the University of North Dakota.
Although he took a less traditional Canadian path to reach the NHL, it never hindered Toews. He was selected to the Canadian U20 World Junior Team in 2005-06 and 2006-07 winning gold both years, and was selected third overall by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2006. In his second appearance at the World Juniors, he was one of the best in the tournament, scoring three shootout goals against the Americans to advance to the finals. He joined the Blackhawks the following year, scoring 54 points in his rookie season and was third in the Calder Trophy voting behind teammate Patrick Kane and Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom.
Related: Jonathan Toews Bio: Beyond the Glory
In 2008-09, his second season in the NHL, Toews was named the Blackhawks’ captain and selected to his first of six All-Star teams. In 2009-10, he won an Olympic gold medal and was named the tournament’s best forward, as well as winning his first Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. The 2012-13 season saw him win his second Stanley Cup, as well as the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward, despite scoring over a point per game (48 points in 47 games) over the lockout-shortened season. A year later, he’d help Team Canada win another gold medal as assistant captain, then the season after that, he won another Stanley Cup as well as the Mark Messier Leadership award.
Toews’ most recent acquisition to his trophy shelf was in 2016 when he won a gold medal with Canada at the World Cup, but at only 31 years old, he’s far from slowing down. In fact, in 2018-19, he posted his highest point total of his career with 81. There’s no telling what else Toews will accomplish in his hockey career, but it’s clear that he’s the greatest Mennonite in NHL history.
Did I miss any talented Mennonites? Who are some of your favourite players with whom you share a heritage? Post your thoughts in the comments below!
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