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November 22, 2015

Jeff Sharples

Today I want to profile a Detroit Red Wing of the past, but no legend by any stretch. In fact, I bet most of you have long forgotten about the one Detroit Red Wing player I followed more than any in the late 1980s.

While most hockey fans were in awe of Steve Yzerman back then, I was in awe of Jeff Sharples. Sharples, you see, shares the same home town as I. Beautiful Terrace, British Columbia, famous for it's world class sport fishing.

Sharples was already a legend in the city of 15,000 people. Being a junior hockey star, he was popular at the local hockey school, and leant his name to local causes. Somewhere in my storage closet I have his poster supporting local libraries.

In these parts, Sharples name is as synonymous with the 1983 Terrace midget reps as it with any NHL team. The 1983 team captured the national midget championship - then called the Air Canada Cup, now known as the Telus cup. That team featured Sharples on defense, Wade Flaherty in net and Dale Kushner up front, all who went on to play in the NHL.

I was just starting grade 7 when Sharples broke into the league and impressed as a rookie defenseman in 1987-88. He made the jump directly from junior to the Detroit Red Wings who had drafted him 29th overall in 1985.

Detroit's coach at the time was Jacques Demers who, especially at this time, preferred to use veteran players, especially on the blue line. But Sharples came in and had himself a heck of a training camp and made the team. He played in 56 games scoring 10 goals and 35 points while accumulating 42 PIMs.

The one game in particular that I remember was the first time Detroit played on Hockey Night in Canada that season. Of course, there was no satellite TV channels carrying every game back then, so I had to patiently wait for the first time the Red Wings played the Toronto Maple Leafs to watch Sharples play.

I don't remember the exact game, or many of the details. But I will always remember legendary play by play commentator Bob Cole applauding the young rookie, saying he has a bright future in the league. I also will remember Sharples shrugging off a thunderous body check from Leafs' banger Wendel Clark.

"Sharps" suffered through a horrendous sophomore jinx the following year. He played in only 46 games, scoring 4 goals and 13 points. Sharples confidence was shot and he was not improving any by sitting in NHL press boxes. Had he played a couple of years apprenticing in the minor leagues before joining the Wings his stay would probably have been longer than it was.

"Sharps" was the "throw-in" in the big swap between Edmonton and Detroit early in the 1989-90 campaign. The Red Wings also gave young stars Adam Graves, Petr Klima and Joe Murphy for hometown boy Jimmy Carson and tough guy Kevin McClelland.

There was hope in Edmonton that Sharples could develop into a power play quarterback for the Oilers within time. However by the trading deadline Glen Sather felt his team was a strong contender for the Cup but was lacking an offensive d-man. When the opportunity came for the Oilers to swap young Sharples for veteran offensive blueliner Reijo Ruotsalainen, "Slats" didn't hesitate to move Sharples to New Jersey.

Sharples played one strong season in the Devil's minor league system, scoring 16 goals and 45 points with Utica of the AHL in 1990-91. However his contract expired in the summer of 1991. The tight fisted Devils offered him a contract that would actually see Sharples make less money at the minor league level. Sharples, obviously not too confident about his chances of returning to the NHL, decided to retire than to toil in the minors.

Stories around Terrace blame Sharples father for his contract problems and his bouncing around and out of the league. His father was a very successful logging contractor and pilot, and, as story has it, took control of his son's contract negotiations. He played hard ball with the likes of Glen Sather and Lou Lamoriello, never a good idea. Local legend has it Sharples was blackballed from that moment on.

Sharples moved to Vancouver where he and his uncle got into the pizza business. He bought a couple of "Little Caesar's" pizza outlets. Needless to say his contacts with Detroit Red Wings owner - and Little Caesars owner - Mike Illitch paid off.

Sharples retirement was short-lived. Butch Goring was coaching the Capital District Islanders in 1992 and gave Sharples a call asking him to finish the season with the team which was decimated by injuries. Sharples, who was missing the game by this point, jumped at the opportunity. He played really well in 31 games.

Sharples would go onto sign several minor league contracts at the IHL level (Kansas City, Las Vegas & Utah) where he developed into one of the league's best two way defenseman. Despite his excellent play, the NHL never came calling again for Sharples.

Sharples appeared in 105 NHL games, scoring 14 goals and 49 points. He was also +18 and took 70 penalty minutes

Sharps retired at the turn of the century and moved back to Nevada where he began working in another passionate business of his - aviation. He had first acquired his pilot's license while playing junior hockey back in the mid-1980s, although he spent his youth flying in and out of logging camps with his father.Based in Las Vegas, he was flying vacationers on Grand Canyon tours before he caught on with Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air.

Though he now works out of Seattle, he continues to reside in Las Vegas, hockey is not completely gone from his life. He has put in time as a part time coach with the ECHL Las Vegas Wranglers, and will play in NHL alumni games based in the Vegas area.

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