Chad Nehring was so close to a regular season taste of the National Hockey League.
The Springside native and former Junior A Yorkton Terrier had his best pro season in 2015-16 with Hartford when he led the team in regular season scoring with 22-goals and 26-assists for 48-points.
Nehring, then in the Ottawa Senators’ system, got into a couple of pre-season games with the Sens, indicating a regular season shot would be forthcoming.
Nehring said playing with the Sens against Toronto, his long-time favourite team, even in a pre-season game was amazing. He was jawing with Nazem Kadri of the Leafs when, according to Nehring, Kadri looked over and “he was like who are you.”
Nehring’s second game was in Winnipeg.
“The family brought a 15-passenger van,” said Nehring.
Nehring said he knew he was close to the big step.
“When I look back on my career, that was kind of my NHL dream,” he said.
Then he got hit in the minors. Nehring’s shoulder was separated. He had whiplash and a concussion. He was out for weeks.
When he returned, to Binghampton for the 2016-17 season, he was hurt again and his season was limited to 50-games with five goals and only 18 points.
The NHL call never came.
“It was one of those years I probably would have got a sniff,” he told Yorkton This Week.
But the injury-plagued season left Nehring weighing his options regarding his career.
Since playing in Yorkton (his Junior career with the local Terriers wrapped up in the spring of 2007), Nehring has been a traveling man. He spent four years at Lake Superior State University, then turned pro with the East Coast Hockey League’s Idaho Steelheads, spending two years in Boise. Stops with the Arizona Sundogs (CHL), Greenville Road Warriors (ESHL), Hartford Wolf Pack of the American Hockey League, and the Binghamton Senators (also AHL) followed.
Nehring said there were AHL teams interested in his services for the 2017-18 season, but agent Derek McCann was talking to Nehring, noting “Nehring is a very German name,” recalled the former Terrier.
After some investigation and a talk to his father, it was indeed the case where Nehring’s grandfather had immigrated to Canada from Germany decades ago. It was a connection which opened a new door in terms of hockey.
Nehring’s ancestry allowed him to apply for, and receive, a German passport, a near golden ticket in terms of playing hockey in the European country.
The pro league in Germany has a limit in terms of import players (nine) explained Nehring. If a player has a German passport he plays as a German, outside the quota which is scheduled to shrink to seven players.
So, last fall, Nehring, now 31, was on the move again, this time heading across the Atlantic Ocean to play in Germany with the Fischtown Penguins. The Penguins are based in Bremerhaven and play in the Deutsche Eishockey Liga, the premier hockey league in Germany. The city is important as a seaport and has a population of about 115,000.
The decision was one Nehring said ultimately intrigued him the most.
“I was 30-years-old. This was way too hard to pass up,” he said.
Nehring said the passport makes him eligible for the German national team to play in the World Championships or even in the next Olympics.
“I could fit into that mix,” he said with a grin, adding of course he will have to put together some good seasons with the Penguins.
Nehring’s first season was not his best, with injuries taking their toll, limiting his season to only 36 of the team’s 52 regular season games, scoring seven-goals, and adding 20-assists.
But, when healthy, Nehring was on the team’s top line alongside Jan Urbas from Slovenia and Ontario’s Kris Newberry. Newberry, also in his first season in Germany, has been a pro since 2003, including 76 National Hockey League games. Urbas has played on Slovenia’s national team.
“I’m pegged as a skill player,” said Nehring, thanks to the team-leading season in Hartford, adding he still sees himself more as a face-off man, and checker.
Overall, the experience was a great one, said Nehring.
“I loved it. I played really well,” he said, at least when he played.
The German League is not quite the quality of the Kontinental Hockey League based in Russia and the pro league in Switzerland, suggested Nehring, but he said it rivals the top leagues in Sweden and Finland.
“We’d have nice games against AHL (American Hockey League) teams, at least the top (German) teams,” he said.
Nehring said the Penguins are not a big money team in the 16-team league, but they made the playoffs, losing to eventual champion Munich, with Nehring out of the line-up.
The injury and quick playoff exit, did get Nehring back to his off season home in Las Vegas in time to follow the playoff run of the first year Golden Knights, many of the games up to the Stanley Cup final from seats in the stands.
“I went to every Vegas playoff game,” he said with a smile, adding it was a big thrill to watch the Washington Capitals and, in particular, favourite player Alexander Ovechkin win the Stanley Cup.
Nehring said the atmosphere around the Golden Knights was great, especially once the team started rolling in the regular season.
“It was out of control,” he said. “The buzz right away was amazing.”
Nehring is headed back to Germany this week to attend training camp.
“I still have the dream,” he said, adding the dream is just a bit different now. “It’s about a career now.”
Now he simply wants “to play at the highest level” for as long as his body allows – hopefully another five-to-seven years.
And Germany is a good league with good fans.
“The fans are so good, but you’ve got to get it done. You’ve got to win,” said Nehring, adding that is what players want, too.