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Part One: The 1997 Oilers/Stars Series with Kelly Buchberger

Over the next few weeks, I will have a series of interviews from players and coaches from both the 1997 Edmonton Oilers and Dallas Stars discussing their thrilling seven-game series. Between 1993-1996 the Oilers were one of the worst teams in the NHL winning 98 of their 298 games over a four year span. Only the expansion San Jose Sharks and Ottawa Senators were worse. It was a rough four-year stretch for the Oilers and their fans.

Making the 1997 playoffs was a welcome reprieve, but not many expected the 14th place Oilers (in the league) to knock off the Dallas Stars, who had the second most points with 104.

But that’s exactly what happened. It was a major upset, but it also reignited the lover affair Oilers fans had with their team. And for many Oilers fans, it was the first time they got emotionally attached to their team.

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The Oilers were a young energetic team, while the Stars were a veteran group with a much larger team salary. The Stars would lose this series in seven games, but they learned a lot from this series and went to the Conference Finals in 1998, won the Stanley Cup in 1999 and lost the Cup Final in 2000.

In this series, we talk with coaches and players from both teams. Each has a different story.

Today, we start with Kelly Buchberger. The hard-nosed checking winger had a huge playoffs in 1997. He tied Ryan Smyth for the team lead in goals and scored one of the most memorable goals in Oilers playoff history in game three.

Here is a conversation Jason Strudwick and I had with Kelly Buchberger on my TSN 1260 radio show.

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Gregor: Can you tell us what Ron Low’s message was at the start of the series?

Buchberger: I tell you what, I’m sure that everyone you talk to about Ronnie will say he was probably one of the best coaches they ever played for. He was more of a motivator than an Xs and Os guy and the guys loved to play for him and would go the extra mile for him. The message was that we wanted to play physical. I think that we were up to 80/90 hits a game throughout the lineup, and obviously we had some strong goaltending, but everybody was buying into what the coaching staff was selling. We played aggressive. We didn’t wait for them to come at us, we went at them and got some fortunate bounces which let us win the series.

Jason Strudwick: Was there a little bit from them, ‘Why are these guys hitting us so often?’ Did you sense they were thinking they should have beaten you easily?

Buchberger: I would say probably, maybe I don’t know, a little lack of respect because if you look at our lineup, we had a really young lineup and not a lot of experience. I think I played with Smitty [Ryan Smyth] and Arny [Jason Arnott] through that series and Toddy Marchant was a big part and obviously Dougie Weight. A lot of our guys would go on to have long careers, but we were young at that time and we were just playing hard and believing that we could win.

Gregor: You lost game one — they scored an empty netter to win five to three. Then you come back for game two and a lot happened in that game. Not only did you shut out the Stars 4-0, but there was also the Bryan Marchment situation where he crashed into the penalty box. It was pretty scary. What do you remember about that and how the group reacted?

Buchberger: Yeah, that was scary. But with Mush he always played on the edge, and unfortunately when that happened, everybody was a little leery of what was going to happen because we didn’t know if he was going to come back or not. But knowing Mush like we all do, he’s one of the toughest men out there. He played a huge part of that team with strong character and leadership.

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Strudwick: You talked about the line you were on with Smyth and Arnott, which was a lot of skilled players. I’m sure they were thrilled to play with you in that situation Bucky.

Buchberger: Well I brought the best skills out (laughs). They watched me practice and they just caught on (laughs).

Strudwick: Just try to keep up boys (laughs). What was the message to two guys who were just starting their careers in many ways at that time.

Buchberger: I think the biggest thing was that we, and that’s a lot of pre-star players, were playing a simple game. We played a really heavy forecheck game hard. And with Ronnie we played a two-on-two system. And you look at the way that St. Louis played last year and they were really strong on their forecheck. Craig Berube, the biggest thing he wanted was a strong forecheck and being hard with their D. They had success with it obviously and I think with us, that was the same thing against Dallas that we weren’t going to lay off at all. We were going to come at them two-on-two through the neutral zone and then a deep forecheck and obviously we took advantage of our scoring opportunities.

Gregor: You were one of the few veterans on the team and had played on winning teams before. After you won game two did you sense the belief change and all of the sudden the guys were like ‘Hey, we can really compete here’?

Buchberger: Yeah, I think we did. I think anytime you win you get more confident in your team and in yourself. I think as we started going the guys started believing more that we had a great chance to beat these guys even though they were a highly touted team. There was no question, from goaltending to their D core to the high-end forwards which they had, that we didn’t belong in the series with them. But as we all know, things change quick and the teams that have the will and the desire and compete at a higher level will always win.

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GAME THREE COMEBACK…

Gregor: I’m sure you’ve talked to a lot of fans over the years who told you they had left the building, and then turned around on Capilano Freeway to come back for overtime in game three. You were down three nothing on home ice with four minutes remaining. And then you score three goals in 1:56 against a pretty good defensive team. When Doug weight scored, there wasn’t even much of a celebration. And then all of a sudden [Andrei] Kovalenko scores on a power play and only 12 seconds later Mike Grier scored. The feeling on your bench must have been crazy.

What was said during the intermission before overtime?

Buchberger: Well I think Ronnie told me I wasn’t going back on the ice (laughs) so he must have had a brain cramp putting me back out there.

You can’t explain momentum, especially like that. That’s not going to happen a lot but when it did the energy throughout the dressing room and throughout the lineup was unreal and everybody was just firing on all cylinders. I think that calmed down the group after the third period and the way we were emotionally attached to the game. And then we took that into the overtime.

Strudwick: Did anyone say anything or did you just kind of let that energy run wild?

Buchberger: Well Ronnie was a true leader. He came in, and he’s emotional as there is. But he came in and he said, ‘Hey listen, the job is not done. We got where we are because you guys, the way you compete and play hard.’ He then said, ‘Listen, I want you guys to be aggressive at all times.’ And that’s exactly what we did. We were fortunate to win the game, there is no doubt about it, and it turned the series.

Gregor: You talked about just the energy at intermission. You scored three goals, people were going crazy. The guys were fired up, then you scored 9:15 into overtime. You’ve been on Stanley Cup winning teams, but explain your feeling when that goal goes in.

Buchberger: I think everyone wants to score in overtime in the playoffs. It’s such a rush for yourself and what you’ve accomplished with the team. And when that happened, I think there was a question that Mike Grier had gone through the crease, if I’m not mistaken at that time, but after the celebration and everything it was one of those moments that you’ll never forget.

Strudwick: Now were your eyes both opened, one closed, two closed, what did you do for that one Bucky?

Buchberger: I kept them between the ditches (laughs).

Strudwick: What a great moment. It was really good as I watched the replay I think Mats Lindgren came over and he a dropped pass and gave you quite a bit of space actually to release that wrist shot. He took a pretty hard hit for that. Did you buy him a beer for that after for that one?

Buchberger: I think I bought a few beers! (Laughs).

Gregor: Dallas won game four. So now it’s the best of three and you go back to Dallas for game five and it is scoreless through 20 minutes. Scoreless through 60. Scoreless through 80 minutes. It was really hot and muggy in the building. Was fatigue a factor in overtime?

Buchberger: I don’t think so. I honestly think that with our team, and like I said earlier, we were fairly young and we were always full of energy. You look at [Doug Weight] Dougie, Dougie was a young man, same with Arnott. Smitty was probably only 22 or 23 at that time. So we had some young skilled guys that had a lot of energy and Mike Grier was a big part of it — Mats Lindgren, Rem Murray. I think with all of those guys fatigue never seemed to be a factor

Gregor: The blueline was an unheralded group of defenceman after Boris Mironov and Luke Richardson. Guys like Dan McGillis, Greg Devries, Drew Bannister and Donald Dufresne. It’s kind of funny when you get, and not to be disrespectful, but a rag tag group of guys and everything just gelled together.

What made that group unique in the personalities you had?

Bucheberger: No question it was the coaching staff and how they brought the team together at the start of the season and throughout. We had some tough times through the season but you look at the young guys who played and they were just playing hockey. They had Drew Bannister come in and he just started playing unreal. Danny McGillis, I think that it was his first or second year, played extremely well. But with everybody that was there, everybody was buying what the coaching staff were saying and Kevin (Lowe) was a big part of that, bringing him back with the D core. His experience really helped. They weren’t flashy like you said, I think Boris Mironov was probably our most skilled D-man back then and Boris was underrated I think in a lot of people’s eyes.

Strudwick: I agree. He was a really sharp D-man.

Buchberger: We always kind of lost him in New York for some reason though. He just went AWOL (laughs).

Strudwick: He was my partner when I first went to Chicago, and Bucky you can probably believe this: we were on the plane ride home, we played like 10 games or so and he just comes and sits on the plane and says, ‘You’re actually a better player than I thought.’ And I’m like, Thanks, thanks that’s really nice.

And then he says, ‘Just so you know, I’m quitting tonight after we get home. They won’t give me the contract I want and I’m quitting.’ And I’m like oh my God. I felt bad for the team, but I felt bad for myself. I was playing with a good D-man and getting lots of minutes and sure enough he just quit, and he was traded to New York and they gave him the contract he wanted. But he was just such a character in that way.

Buchberger: You know what, for a player from Europe he had added a lot of character to our team. He was a big part, he fit right in with everybody, he has family down from Russia and he played hard. A lot of people don’t realize how physical Boris played and he had a lot of skill and there was no question he had some issues once in a while, but overall he made us a much better hockey team than if we didn’t have him.

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Strudwick: When you are going through a playoff series, specifically this one, you start playing against the same guys. You see them not just team versus team but player versus player. How intense did those battles become?

Buchberger: Well you get a hate on for them, there is no question about it. It didn’t matter, every time we played them it was a hard-fought game. There was no free passes from either team. I think if we probably look at the past, I don’t know exactly what the stats are, I’m sure they had the more wins throughout the regular season on us. But in the playoffs, in that one series, we just had one of those moments where we all jelled together for the two weeks and got the job done. It was great.

THE SAVE AND THE GOAL…

Gregor: Now let’s go to game seven. You’ve been in game sevens before, it’s the opening round but it’s what every player lives for. Moments before Todd Marchant scored on a breakaway, which he rarely did, Curtis Joseph made an unreal save. Where were you Kelly when [Curtis] Joseph robbed Joe Nieuwendyk?

Buchberger: I actually was in the penalty box. We ended up playing four-on-four. I had a coincidental roughing with, I’m not sure who exactly it was, and it might have been Darryl Sydor or Richard Matvichuk. (It was Matvichuk).

And I watched Cujo make an incredible save. And then Toddy, he went on the right-hand side and who blew his wheel there, Grant Ledyard? And then like you said, Toddy must have closed his eyes and wished for something because very seldom did he score on the breakaway (laughs). But he did then.

Gregor: You raced out of the penalty box and the guys exploded off the bench. I remember Ron Low coming on the ice and they show him and he’s walking up to Curtis Joseph and the camera is on him and he’s like ‘Nice bleeping save’. That was one of the greatest saves I’ve seen. And it was on a future Hall of Fame player…

Buchberger: I know it’s one of those saves he’ll never forget and neither will we. Unreal. Back to Ronnie, he came back to the bench after that win and he was just like one of the players. It was unbelievable what we just accomplished and that was the type of guy Ronnie was. When we played for him, we really loved it, and that’s why the emotion from him went on to us and right through the D and forwards and goalies.

Strudwick: Bucky I love the clip and I’ve seen it many times. All of the guys are going crazy, jumping over the boards like you just talked about, but if you look at Kevin Lowe, he just steps out of the bench and just skates over like he’s just going to pick up a drink at the bar. What is his reaction in there after the game, is he still fired up or what is he like?

Buchberger: Well I think probably six Stanley Cups one first series is probably not huge to him, but (laughs) but I think just for us, just to beat Dallas in that series was huge for all of us and with Kevin the experience that he had was huge in those areas. He was pretty banged up so I think that’s why he was moving slowly. He talked between periods with the guys and he was a big part of it.

Gregor: Then you did it again the next year. You knocked off a highly ranked Colorado team. How much did the victory in 1997 carry over to the next year? When you beat a really dominant team once, is the belief system easier to come?

Buchberger: I think so. Like you said we beat Colorado the following year and I think the guys just believed that they could get the job done. We talked about it earlier, we weren’t a highly skilled team, well aside from myself (laughs), but we worked extremely hard.

Strudwick: You know we watched you play right?

Buchberger: Hey you’ve seen me at summer hockey.

Gregor: Did you guys fly to Colorado right after the game in Dallas or did you go out and have fun as a team?

Buchberger: I can’t tell you, but I think that we were at the Gentleman’s Club (laughs).

Gregor: You’ve been on Stanley Cup winning teams and obviously winning the cup is totally different thing than winning a round but at the moment, it must have still been a thrill especially since most of your teammates had never even played in the playoffs before. Did you feel that same excitement?

Buchberger: 100%. You’re in it exactly like them. We were young and anytime you have success, you win and we battled and battled and it didn’t come easy for us to win that series but the emotions were high. Honestly I would say that we had really strong character on our team at all positions including Curtis in goal. Curtis was a huge leader for us and he brought so much, I think he was still young at that time. He was probably only 26, 27, but his leadership was huge because of his personality. He was so calm.

Gregor: Thanks for joining us and stay safe.

Buchberger: Thanks guys. It was a lot of fun. Thanks for having me on.

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