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Part Three: The 1997 Oilers/Stars Series with Drew Bannister

We continue our look back at the 1997 Edmonton Oilers vs Dallas Stars first round playoff series today with Oilers defenceman Drew Bannister. He was acquired at the trade deadline, but only played one game prior to the playoffs. He was one of the very young blueliners the Oilers used this series to upset the Stars.

Bannister joined me on my TSN 1260 radio show to discuss his trade to Edmonton, the series and finished with his thoughts on coaching. He is the head coach for the St. Louis Blues American Hockey League affiliate in San Antonio.

Enjoy.

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Jason Gregor: You were traded at the deadline to the Oilers. What was your initial reaction to the trade?

Drew Bannister: I was traded on the plane as we were on the way, we were actually travelling to Edmonton to play them a few days later. I found out from the media. The media in front of me turned around as the deadline had passed and kind of gave me a glare. So, I kind of knew that something was up at that point. But yeah, that’s how I was traded, how I first found out. Later on in the trip, I think it was Terry Crisp who called me up to the front and kind of gave me the heads up that I had just been traded to the Edmonton Oilers. It caught me off guard.

Gregor: Crazy. You only played one regular season game with the Oilers before the 12 in the postseason. Were you injured when the trade occurred?

Bannister: Yes, I was injured at the time. Probably a week or two before that I had a shoulder injury. I was rehabbing. I had just started to come back and to skate at that time, and I was starting to travel with the team. I was kind of in the middle of my rehab when I was traded.

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Gregor: Obviously they liked you and were hoping you’d get back playing soon. You get traded and now you’re watching your new team scratch and claw their way into the playoffs.  You didn’t know the Oilers that well, of course just joining them, and you only played one game. What surprised you, or maybe impressed you, the most about the group once you got into the playoffs?

Bannister: I think it was the attitude that we had. We just had no fear going into the playoffs against Dallas. A lot of the pressure was on them with the season they had. They were picked to win the Stanley Cup that year and like you said, the team that I had joined was scratching and clawing and trying to get themselves in.

We got ourselves in during the last few games of the season, but we were playing really good hockey.

A couple of things that really stood out to me in that series, especially early on were the injuries we had. When I think back obviously the Bryan Marchment injury, the hit that he took right at the penalty box and the concussion that he obviously had at that time. The other, Kevin Lowe and I can’t remember if Kevin even played a game at the beginning of that series. I think maybe just game seven due to a broken foot.

We had myself and Greg De Vries, Dan McGillis, Brian Muir, there were four of us that had absolutely no playoff experience going in. We were a really young back end. The play of Luke Richardson and Boris Miranov and the outstanding performance of Curtis Joseph in that series really stood out as well.

Gregor: It was such a physical series. Obviously Joseph was unreal but the commitment level necessary where guys who maybe aren’t overly physical, suddenly everybody is finishing their checks. Neither team had any playoff success recently and there wasn’t a real rivalry, but it happened fast. How come?

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Bannister: It was, and I think we built, especially the young core that we had, we built confidence that we could be physical on them and they didn’t like that. They were a veteran team, they were supposed to walk through us and we felt that the way that we skated, the way that we could play, the element of skill that we had in our lineup with the Dougie Weights, the Andrei Kovalenkos and others, we could do some damage.

But like you said, I think it was a core commitment to the way that we wanted to play physically on a nightly basis to try to wear down their forward core, their D core, to be able to get to their goaltending. And really that was a big part of our success of our team to be able to commit to that and to be able to do it on a shift to shift basis and have everybody do it. It wasn’t just the so called physical players we had in our group it was our skilled players who were doing it too.

Gregor: You lose game one and then shut them out 4-0 in game two. There had not been a playoff game in Edmonton in five years. What was the flight like home after the shut out in game two?

Bannister: We were a confident team. Game one didn’t go how we wanted, but we had played okay. They had momentum going into the playoffs, we weren’t sure where we stood, but that game two, things changed very quickly and we seemed to take some confidence after the first period where we built momentum. And our leaders, our emotions leaders, guys like Kelly Buchberger, they kind of took over the dressing room. They took over the emotions of our group and the confidence that we had.

I think about the plane ride but it was very quiet, eerily quiet, but a confident group knowing that we were going back to probably an arena that was, it was going to be loud and it was going to be a lot of fun to play in. I think that we were extremely excited to be in that position. But we were very confident in the fact that we were able to go into Dallas and bounce back from a game one and really kind of take it to them in game two. For a young group to be able to do that, I think that we were feeling pretty good about ourselves on the plan ride back.

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GAME THREE…

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Gregor: So, you come back to Edmonton, it’s a mad house in Edmonton. But you’re down 3-0 with five minutes to go in the third period. It’s not looking great. But then you score three goals in a buck 56. It started with just a harmless looking shot from Doug Weight, and he didn’t even celebrate because it’s three to one, with four minutes left. Explain how your emotions changed in the short span of 1:56.

Bannister: Like how you mentioned, how the first goal went in and we really hadn’t had any momentum or any opportunities. The chances, the quality chances weren’t there until Dougie’s goal but even then, it wasn’t a great opportunity. But the tides turned really quick and all of a sudden that second one goes in and then the third one goes in. And then the momentum, the change and the atmosphere in the rink and how everything changed, and they were stunned.

It was a crazy, again another crazy game and obviously there were many more to come, but that one was a strange one. They dominated the first 55 minutes changed the momentum a little bit for themselves after game two, but then for us to take over and that short span of time and how the momentum switched back to us and how, you could see a lot of the energy drained out of their bench and we were flying.

Gregor: What was said during intermission? Did Ronnie Lowe have to come in and calm guys down, or did he want the emotion to be heightened at that point?

Bannister: I don’t know if you know Lowtide too much, but he’s not really a calm guy. He’s a pretty emotional guy (laughs).

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I think he just kind of read our room, and we are who we are and I think for our group to have success we had to be able to play with emotion, as long as it was controlled. I think for us we needed a high emotional level when we were physical and we were in team’s faces. We had everyone involved and we were in the fight. And at that time, we got ourselves back into the fight and we didn’t want to lose that emotional edge that we had over them.

So, with Ronnie, he was really good to make sure that we kept our heads on straight, but I don’t remember a time where he ever really wanted us to not have that emotional edge over them. I don’t remember Ronnie telling us to calm down. I don’t remember the conversation that much, I’m not sure, and the over time winner, was that Kelly’s?

Gregor: Yeah.

Bannister: That was early, I believe if it was early in that second overtime or was it the first over time?

Gregor: His was nine minutes in. You guys had so many overtime games, Ryan Smyth scored in double OT later in the series.

Bannister: Right, that might have been the game three against Colorado (in round two). Because game three against Colorado went into overtime too, where Kelly scored too.

OVERTIME NERVES…

Gregor: You won three games in overtime against Dallas: game three, game five and game seven. And game five was the 1-0 game. Smyth scored 22 seconds into double overtime. You mentioned earlier so many of you blueliners had no playoff experience and sometimes no experience can be a good thing because you don’t understand the heightened emotion of the game.

Were you so invested in the game that nerves were never really involved once the game started?

Bannister: I think that we were so invested in the game and so invested in your teammates and doing the proper things and then again when you have somebody playing as well behind you like Curtis did, for a young defenceman that gives you confidence too.

If we made mistakes, Curtis was able to back us up. But it also gave us the ability to not feel afraid to make mistakes and to get the puck up and be able to transition it to our forwards as quickly as we can instead of just trying to make the simple easy play, put it off of the glass or rim it. I think that is just one big factor besides all of the big saves he made, he made the defence core, especially the young core, feel pretty comfortable out there that he had our back.

And then you look at the way that Luke Richardson and Boris Mironov played. They logged massive minutes. I’m sure on a regular night Luke was over 30 minutes for sure. The way that he played in that series he was a little bit forgotten because Curtis was so good for us and the Todd Marchant OT goal, but Luke Richardson was so good in that series, he was outstanding.

Gregor: Great point. We sometimes overlook the defensive stalwarts. Prior to this series had you never played in a game seven? Did you with Sault Ste. Marie in the OHL?

Bannister: The teams I was on in the Soo, we were pretty good. I guess the one that I would have played would have been in my last year, conference final, up against Detroit and lost in seven games. But up until then my first three years we swept through every series, right up until the Memorial Cup in all three years. Didn’t do too well in Quebec City, lost in the finals with eleven seconds left. In my third year we actually won the rights to host the Memorial Cup and we won in Sault Ste. Marie.

Gregor: So you’d played in big games before, but now it’s game seven in the NHL playoffs. Were you able to nap the day of the game?

Bannister: Probably not. Jason, I had never been a big napper. I’d lay down but never really nap. I’m sure that I laid down that day, but like a lot of the guys I had a million things going through your mind and replaying things during the game that positively you wanted to see happen. But certainly the morning skate, getting yourself ready, getting yourself prepared, the meetings and then getting yourself ready for that game and then knowing the hostile crowd that we were going into and obviously the momentum that they had going into that game. There were so many momentum changes from game to game in that series, as there is in a lot of playoff series.

For us, we were in a place where no one would have probably thought that we would be, and we had a great opportunity in front of us and for us to go on and in one game be able to win a series and upset a team that was picked to win the Stanley Cup that year. We were pretty excited about that opportunity in front of us.

Gregor: Who were you rooming with?

Bannister: I was with Todd Marchant.

Gregor: Wow! Okay. Was there any talk between you two about one of you scoring a big goal that game?

Bannister: (Laughs) I don’t think so. There wasn’t much talk about any goals at that point but yeah, that’s a pretty memorable moment for me. Obviously for Todd as well. I crossed paths with Todd working with Anaheim and my Junior connection in the Soo when I was coaching, and I had some Anaheim players there. So obviously we’ve had conversations in the past about that goal he scored. It was amazing.

Gregor: April 29th, it is game seven and you are in overtime. Where were you when Joseph robbed Joe Nieuwendyk? Were you on the ice or were you on the bench?

Bannister: I feel I was on the ice. I was probably right net front (laughs). I was manning the post.

Gregor: I don’t know if when you’re live in the game if you knew the magnitude of how good that save was or did you have to watch the video to get a true sense of just how big it was?

Bannister: I had to watch the video because the play happened so quickly. It was one of those plays where the puck goes on net, you turn to block it out and then the puck goes through your feet and the play happened quick with Nieuwendyk and then Curtis making the save.

I kind of got spun around in the moment of when it happened and then you see the, obviously you kind of see Curtis make the save late, but not really what the magnitude and how much net Nieuwendyk had to really put it in. But it was obviously an outstanding save, and I think if you ask Joe he would probably want to bear down on that one more or try to put it under the bar. But it just was an outstanding save by Curtis and really big momentum shift for us.

It didn’t really surprise you he would still have had that in him to make those saves, but certainly it was quite the save at that time of the game.

Gregor: You hadn’t been with the Oilers very long so I don’t know if you knew about Marchant’s struggles on breakaways or not at that point. What went through your mind when Grant Ledyard stumbled? Did you think that Marchant was going to score?

Bannister: Ah… you know, you hope he was going to score (laughs). I doubt anyone was making any bets on the bench for him to score (laughs). You’ve seen the replays, the amount of speed that he had going up the ice. Dougie Weight hit him with that pass in full flight, but the amount of speed that he had and then really the amount of time, but the amount of speed that he had coming in on Andy Moog, it was hard for Andy probably just to judge his depth in the net.

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There was probably more space than he thought. I mean, Todd made a great play, he got rid of the puck quick and didn’t let the goalie square up to him. He obviously had a ton of momentum coming up to the net and it probably caught Andy off that he was able to get open that quickly and then have the amount of speed coming on him. That was obviously an exciting moment for everyone to see that puck go in the net.

Gregor: In your entire NHL career, was that the happiest few seconds of your NHL career?

Bannister: That was a pretty special moment to be a part of that game and that group. There was no question. The way that we played and how committed we were and to see that puck go into the net. That was pretty, pretty exciting time. It truly was special.

Gregor: You talked about Ronnie being a very emotional guy. The players loved playing for him. How come?

Bannister: Well, I played for Teddy Nolan in the Soo and they were very similar in the way that they interacted with their players. Very respectful, but just somebody that you wanted to play for, play hard for. The way they carried themselves around the room and how they demanded this certain expectations from each individual and held everyone accountable to that is very, very, very similar feeling to what Teddy Nolan and how he coached in the Soo to me. I guess I was drawn to some of Ronnie’s energy. And a lot of energy. Both he and Teddy had a lot of energy when they coached, and I think that it showed in the way that their players played for them.

MANY COACHING AND IN MANAGEMENT

Gregor: It is interesting when I look at that Oilers roster at how many guys have been in hockey. If you’re from a championship team you get lots and lots of extra opportunities. You guys weren’t a championship team, yet many from that team are in coaching, player development and management. Why do you think that is?

Bannister: I think a lot of it is we had great leadership and it starts with your management, your coaches and our captains on our team. Kelly Buchberger was an assistant coach in the NHL and now a head coach in the WHL. Dougie Weight was a head coach there on the Island. Brian Marchment works I believe for San Jose right now. Todd Marchant is in Anaheim. Kevin Lowe at the time obviously worked for you guys, I crossed paths with him when I was in Owen Sound and Sault Ste Marie.

Winning helps, but it goes to the people that you work for at that time too and I think the leaders that you had. I think that that’s a big part of it. I go back to my Soo teams too. I look at the teams that Teddy Nolan had there and I coach Teddy’s son now. I have Jordan Nolan on my team now. Adam Foote was on that team, I know he’s out coaching in the WHL. Bob Boughner is in San Jose. Denny Lambert was coaching in Junior. There are a few other guys, Rick Kowalsky, he’s an assistant coach in New Jersey, and he was a head coach in the American Hockey League for a long time.

I think that it really starts with the leadership in your coaches and the staff and management and I think that it trickles down to the captains who lead you out on the ice. I think that we had a healthy, a real healthy group of very good leaderships and unselfish people and smart people.

Gregor: This is your second year in the St.Louis Blues organization. You’re coaching in the San Antonio, what’s your philosophy on coaching and compare maybe how different it was to have coaches then to how you have to coach the players today?

Bannister. I think as a coach you’re constantly evolving. My first three years in Owen Sound as an assistant coach and late in my hockey career I started to educate myself on hockey. I knew I wanted to get into hockey. I wanted to stay around the room. I wanted to stay around the players. So, I started to volunteer with Minor Hockey in Sudbury when my seasons would finish. I was a part of the U17 program. I started to get my coaching certificates, my levels one and two, and my HP1 and two. My last two years I played, I was player coach over in the UK at Braehead Scotland which helped me a lot.

And then my first two years I had Dale DeGray and Greg Ireland who I worked under and they were great mentors and gave me a great opportunity. I worked again with the U17 program and Team Canada my last year in Owen Sound as an assistant there. I took over Team Ontario that went to the Canada Winter Games. I was the head coach for them and then I had the opportunity to go to the Soo. I worked under Kyle Raftis, who is still the GM there. And Joe Cirella who played many years in the NHL, I worked with him.

I had really great mentors, great people to work with and it was evolving for me. What we did in Owen Sound wasn’t necessarily what we did in the Soo nor how we played and how we drafted. And now it’s similar to here and working with St Louis. I’ve had to change some of the ways, beliefs that I’ve had as a coach early on in my career. Like a player, you have your failures and the quicker you are to learn from it, the easier it is to move forward but it’s different.

Coaching Junior Hockey you’re working with teenagers and obviously as teenagers, they have different issues than the adults at this level do. But you have to have the empathy for the players and understand where they’re coming from with people. With kids in the Soo there was the education factor, the stresses of keeping up with their education and playing hockey. A lot of those kids in the AHL come out of Junior and they don’t have billets anymore, they have to be able to make their own food and wash their own clothes and do their own banking and pay their own rent, so that’s added stress.

As a head coach, you have to have empathy for these kids and these adults and be there for them. I learned a lot about that being a player and the good and the bad about it too, because I’ve had some coaches who didn’t show a lot of empathy and I had some coaches that did show a lot of empathy and those are the coaches that players want to go to bat for and go to war for. I pride myself on having an open door policy, like everybody says. I’m more of an open room guy, I tend not to hide too much in the coaches’ room. I like to be in the gym with the players and working out with them and in the dressing room while they’re changing, sitting down with the guys and talking to them.

I think you need to build relationships with your player. That has helped me out a lot, especially early on in my coaching career. As a head coach, I’m only five years into it right now. It was a big adjustment my first year going into the Soo. But I was able to learn quickly and there was an adjustment going from the Soo to here. We had our ups and downs last year, but we straightened things out and we’ve had a much better year, but again it’s still a development league, much like Junior. Although we want to win games, we want to make sure that we’re developing people and developing these players too.

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