Feb 7, 2007, 4:33 PM EST
(CP) - The Youngstown SteelHounds are Jeff Christian's 16th pro hockey team, and the nickname of the Central Hockey League team is appropriate given the 36-year-old forward's background.
Christian dived into sports as a boy in the steel city of Hamilton - backyard rinks in the winter and playground baseball in the summer - where his dad, Gord Christian, played tight end for the Tiger-Cats before going to work at Dofasco. There were six boys and a girl to raise.
"The miles they put on just to make sure we all got to our games," Christian recalls, his mind stretching back to the days his parents took turns transporting the brood. "It was a great way to be brought up in a big family, a real close family."
Christian is proof that the most interesting pro hockey players don't all skate in the NHL.
He's set up a charitable foundation for kids in the Ohio city where he now plays hockey.
Christian played in the OHL for the London Knights (1987-1989) and the Owen Sound Platers (1989-90), and former teammates Tim Taylor and Kirk Maltby are still skating in the NHL.
He's worn the pro uniforms of the Utica Devils, New Jersey Devils, Hamilton Canucks, Cincinnati Cyclones, Albany River Rats, Cleveland Lumberjacks, Pittsburgh Penguins, Phoenix Coyotes, Las Vegas Thunder, Houston Aeros, Krefeld Penguins, Dusseldorf Stars, Hannover Scorpions, Sheffield Steelers, Cleveland Barons and the SteelHounds.
He had back surgery on a herniated disc nearly 10 years ago but, otherwise, he's avoided season-crippling injuries.
"There have been a couple of broken fingers along the way but, overall, I've been pretty lucky," he says.
He has saved a sweater from every team he's been part of.
"I'm a bit of a pack rat like my mom and dad," he says.
His mother Diane is a teacher.
Christian currently leads the Central with 79 points in 39 games. He does it all. He has a remarkable plus-minus rating of plus-35. The six-foot-two left-winger is the loop's player of the week. He was player of the month for January. They might as well name him player of the year.
"One thing you learn over the years is you make the best of where you are," he says.
"He's a leader on and off the ice," says his coach, former NHLer Kevin Kaminski. "He loves to score goals.
"He's played at every level and he knows what it takes to get the job done. There's not too many guys who can knock him off the puck and he can make the little plays in tight, too. When he gets an opportunity to bury it, he makes sure it's in the back of the net."
Christian, who also serves as an assistant to Kaminski, had brief NHL flings himself.
He got into 18 NHL games including 15 with Mario Lemieux and the Penguins. He scored his only two big-league goals in 1996-97, and he has vivid memories of both.
The first: "We were playing New Jersey. Alex Hicks went down the left wing. I busted down the right side. I'm a left shot and when he passed the puck I wristed it in one motion through the five hole on Mike Dunham. I celebrated like we'd won the Stanley Cup."
Devils GM Lou Lamoriello congratulated him afterwards. Lamoriello had drafted him 23rd overall in 1988.
"He moulded me into the pro that I became," says Christian.
The second: "It was kind of similar. I was on a 2-on-1 with Dave Roche. We were playing the Leafs in Pittsburgh. I faked pass to Roche and scored five-hole on Marcel Cousineau."
Those are the ones that are never forgotten.
Spending five years in Europe was a kick. His daughter Ryan, who is five now, was born in Germany when he played in Krefeld.
Returning to North America after a year in England, he scored 55 goals in 64 Central games for the SteelHounds last season. The Barons called him up for three AHL games. He's nicely settled now in Youngstown, where his wife Dorie is a lawyer with a city legal firm.
"It's only four hours to Hamilton and Dorie's mom is in Columbus," he says.
He has a real estate licence but he's not thinking about quitting hockey.