(Photo By Dave Sandford/Getty Images)
We don't spend a lot of time talking about intangibles (for good reason), but I think if you were to talk about Jeff Christian and not mention "toughness," you'd be doing a grave disservice. Take a look at his career, and you'd see a player who has travelled far and wide for the opportunity to play; in the process, he accumulated around 1,250 games played and nearly 1,250 points. Most importantly, you'd see a player who's produced everywhere, but only received an 18 game cup o' tea in the NHL.
It was promising at first...
Taken in the 2nd round of the 1988 Draft by the Devils as a 6'2" (1.88m), 200+ lbs. (90.7+ kg) left winger out of the OHL, Christian was a rugged player with questionable acceleration but a skill for creating offense. The problem was that the early 1990s Devils teams were well-stocked with similar players on the wings, and so his signing by Pittsburgh in August 1994 was a real opportunity to prove himself, coming off a 34-goal, point-per-game performance in AHL the previous year. Unfortunately, that didn't happen for two years; when he finally did get his chance in 1996-97, he scored 4 points in limited time across 11 games, fought Matthew Barnaby, and was sent back down. He would get one more game with the Phoenix Coyotes in the 1997-98 season, and that would be it. Though not really.
Instead, Christian built a prolific career in the minor leagues, using his combination of grit and offense to amass the aforementioned 1,250 points as well as more than 2,000 penalty minutes. In his prime, from 1993 to 2002, he was producing the NHL equivalent (using Gabe's equivalencies) of 35-40 point seasons in the AHL and IHL. In the first half of the 2000s, Christian jumped to the Deutsche Eishockey League, where his production was sustained before starting to dip by 2004. Moving to the Central Hockey League, he fit well into the tougher fighting style and revived his career, putting up 469 points in 312 games. This year, at age 40 and now an assistant coach for the Mississippi RiverKings, he has 9 points in 12 games.
There's something to be said for producing this long and with Christian's style of play, and that something is that Jeff Christian is a tough hockey player. But that's only a part of the story. Earlier this year, Christian's family was hit by the news that his 8-year old daughter, Ryan, had malignant cancer. As a CHL player, his insurance would only cover his family two weeks into the summer. Thanks to a massive rallying of hockey community resources from the many friends and competitors Jeff has had over his career, and help from St. Jude's Hospital, it appears that Ryan has beaten her cancer. But in between the diagnosis and today, there have been countless times of struggle that only a family that has fought cancer can really know. The Christian family even moved to St. Jude's-provided housing to help with Ryan's treatment.
A player and person like Jeff Christian makes me wonder at the strength of the human spirit, but also at some of the twists and turns of NHL history as well. Christian was an able, talented, rugged winger, an ideal 3rd or 4th liner, but instead of being given an opportunity to prove himself (or adjust, as he's shown he can do), there were other players chosen to play over him in Pittsburgh and Phoenix. In Pittsburgh in 1994-95, Jim McKenzie was the player given the 4th line opportunity, which he used to post 3 points in 39 games (and 63 PIM). The next year, David Roche was given those minutes and 71 games of playing time, despite making a jump from the OHL to the NHL. He posted 14 points and 130 PIM that year. The year after that? David Roche again, to the tune of 10 points and 155 PIM in 61 games. When Christian moved to Phoenix, it was McKenzie again who got the 4th line minutes on the left side, with 7 points and 146 PIM in 64 games. To be fair, you can't just hold GM's Craig Patrick and Bobby Smith to task for this; there were at least 10 to 15 other teams that could have rostered him over a pure goon winger. All those years, all that time, when there was a possibility that a guy who could be rugged and score points was sitting right there. Who knows what could have happened?
As is, Jeff Christian has had an impressive career, and regardless of what path he's taken, and in some cases has had to take, I just wanted to devote some time to appreciate a truly remarkable individual.
In respect to the Christian family, I want to encourage you to visit the Ryan Christian Love Fund page at Facebook.
Also, don't forget about Movember, as many NHLers are giving up being clean-shaven to don cookie-dusters to fight cancer.