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Part Four: 1997 Oilers/Stars Series with Richard Matvichuk

We continue our look back at the 1997 @Edmonton Oilers vs @Dallas Stars first round playoff series today with Stars defenceman Richard Matvichuk. He grew up in Fort Saskatchewan and playing against his hometown team was a thrill. Matvichuk was a rugged, stay-at-home D-man who played against the Oilers’ top players. He and Ryan Smyth had some epic battles over the years.

Matvichuk joined me and Jason Strudwick on our TSN 1260 radio show to discuss the series, Smyth, Hitchcock and how the 1997 series actually helped the Stars become a champion.

Enjoy.

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Jason Gregor: That was your first experience playing against your home town team in the playoffs. What stood out?

Matvichuk: Well that was an interesting series. Being from Edmonton it was kind of a weird time for me, but the passion that the Oilers fans had… where we were staying, we weren’t able to have our afternoon naps, or our own time, or get to bed at the certain times knowing that there were fans outside with air horns for 24 hours a day. It was crazy! And when we were there — I give them credit, it was fantastic — it got to the point where my family, I had to get them a private suite knowing that if they wore the Matvichuk jersey sitting in the stands it wasn’t going to go well for them.

Jason Strudwick: You don’t want to lose energy off of the ice, you want to save energy for the on the ice. So how did you manage that as a player and as a team?

Matvichuk: It was really, it was crazy knowing that with Bob Gainey, and Doug Armstrong and Ken Hitchcock, they really, they pride themselves on protecting their players and the organization was fantastic. They tried to, I guess keep us in quarantine as much as they could, but again, give the Edmonton fans credit. They found out wherever we were. Whether it was dinners or a team lunch or it was breakfast the next morning, they always knew where we were. It was one of those things that it was the beginning of our so-called dream team that lead up to 1999. It was a great year, it really was.

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Gregor: Those are some of the behind the scenes stories that people forget. You’re looking for any opportunity, and it’s funny because there really wasn’t home ice advantage. Each team only won once at home. The road teams had more success.

Matvichuk: Well you know we talked about a little bit of a disadvantage. I just left lunch with one of Struddy’s ex-teammates, Ryan Hollweg, the Bubble Gum gang — we’ll get to that later — but you’re right, there was no home ice advantage. We played Edmonton five out of six or six out of seven years — it was survival of the fittest. It wasn’t who was the best team, it was who was going to have enough players to play at the end of game seven.

Strudwick: And that’s what we’ve learned from different guys we’ve spoke to. Kelly Buchberger spoke about the physicality of that series. Did you remember it that way Richard?

Matvichuk: With Kelly and Jason Smith on the point, and us with [Derian] Hatcher, it just went on and on. And again, both teams were very similar. It was a stick swinging and battle royale, is what I remember. And actually, talking to teammates and us doing our 20-year reunion, those Edmonton series were the hardest to win. I don’t know if it was more from the rivalry or if I felt it more because I was from the area, but it was crazy hockey. And then talking to hockey fans, there was no better series to watch that people actually got engaged in that series. Five out of six or six out of seven or whatever it was, every year we knew it was going to be a battle.

Strudwick: Let’s get serious: why were you and your partner, Hatcher, never put in jail for what you did to people on the ice, both in that series and the rest of the time? I played against you guys enough that I was both impressed and jealous of what you did to other people.

Matvichuk: I think that Brett Hull said it the best after game five against Buffalo when we won the cup in ’99. Brett Hull got on the podium and said that Matvichuk and Hatcher should win the Norris Trophy and the Conn Smythe trophy every year.

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‘Brett what are you talking about?’

He says, ‘They shut down the opposition’s top line and ours.’ (Laughs). So there was something there.

Gregor: They showed a replay of game seven on TV this past weekend. The Oilers were a young team, and you a more veteran squad, but I must say you guys weren’t really disciplined in that series (laughs). It was penalties galore, sticks swinging, it was kind of funny. Did you learn from that later on, how to temper your emotions and not let them get the most of you? Was that series as undisciplined as it looked on the highlight reel?

Matvichuk: My body still hurts I think from those days. It was crazy and speaking with guys like Dougie Weight, and I’ve got to know Kelly a little bit more away from the game with him coaching in Tri City, they agreed. It was ruthless. These two teams literally hated each other. It was like I said, a battle royale. Whoever’s side was best at the end, it wasn’t about skill or who did what, it was just who survived. You talk to Mike Modano, you talk to Billy Guerin, and you look at where these guys are now, every one of us looks back now and says those series were crazy. If we played like that now, we’d never get out of the penalty box, or even get on the ice.

Strudwick: Talk a little bit about the coaches. Hitchcock on one bench, Ronnie Low on another. Do you remember anything between these two guys or just how they interacted with their team?

Matvichuk: Well I remember Ronnie Low, he came out in the media and said if Matvichuk, Hatcher and [Craig] Ludwig, along with [Guy] Carbonneau, Dave Reid and Pat Verbeek were going to keep going low, then they would start shooting at their head to hurt them. Basically meaning they (Oilers) weren’t getting anything through and it was funny because a little underlying story: the following years in the playoffs Eddie Belfour knew that we’ve got the bottom half of the net, you have the top half, it was just one of those deals. You know Ron Lowe came out and he said it. He knew what we were doing.

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CUJO IN THE HEAD OF STARS?

Gregor: Let’s get back to the series. You won game one and the Oilers shut you out 4-0 in game two. Ken Hitchcock said he felt you guys let a goalie win the series. He didn’t discount what the players did, but Curtis Joseph was unreal in that series. I know you weren’t an offensive guy, but when you look at it, did you sense Joseph got into the heads of the offensive guys a bit?

Matvichuk: Well he was one of those goalies that could win you hockey games. We had that as well. You knew exactly who Curtis Joseph was, what his presence was, and with his past and who he was. Kind of like when you’re chasing a Mike Modano or you’re chasing a Brett Hull or you have to deal with a Ryan Smyth everyday. These guys kind of grow who they are and yeah, it sat there. There was no doubt about it. I’m sure Hitch what he told you yesterday was it was all our players fault and we lost and Hitch would have won, but that’s just the way that he goes. (Laughs).

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Strudwick: That’s pretty much exactly what he said. What a guy.

Matvichuk: No doubt, no doubt. Don’t get me wrong, I love Hitch. He was probably the best guy I’ve ever met hockey wise and he was the ultimate motivator.

Strudwick: You have coached and are supporting hockey in different ways. How much do you hear yourself saying or thinking things that Hitch might not have said quite as nicely to you as you’re saying to your players or other coaches?

Matvichuk: I think that kids have changed a bit. Nowadays we call them Gen Z. For me there are different words but it’s strategic. Back in the day when we played it was about getting a kick in the butt that got you going where now it’s almost a tap on the back. And again, these players, everybody is different. The game has changed, obviously, the more that these parents and kids respect you and learn to trust you, the better that they’re going to play. It doesn’t matter who they are or what they’re making, they have to be able to trust you. On the flip side, the old days of giving a kid a smack in the back of the head, those days are gone.

Gregor: You mentioned Ryan Smyth. You and he had many battles on the boards and in front of the net. Neither of you backed down and it didn’t matter what guys did to him, he never seemed to give an inch. What do you remember about battling him in the playoffs?

Matvichuk: Yeah, he was like the energizer bunny. There were two guys that come to mind when I look back on my career who were like that. It was Ryan Smyth and Peter Forsberg with Colorado. These were two guys that I went to war with every time we played, but I had the upmost respect for them. I wasn’t trying to hurt them, wasn’t doing something stupid, we just played the game improperly. And then you look back to Derian Hatcher and Kelly Buchberger where these two fought every game, but they still had the upmost respect for each other. I think that is the difference from when we played and what it is now.

Gregor: Who did you despise the most in the ’97 series? Was there a player you really wanted to crush?

Matvichuk: Well the whole team! It was crazy. The way that it started and the way that it ended, it never stopped. It was from the drop of the puck on. There was a hatred between the two teams, both cities. I still remember a year or so later being in the Coliseum, Northlands Coliseum, when they started booing Eddie Belfour during the national anthem. It was crazy.

Strudwick: Did Craig Ludwig stuff or was he padding his uh, his knee pads?

Matvichuk: So, true story: he used to put the 50-pound plate we used to work out with from the bench press and he would lay them on his shin pads to make them wider. There is all truth to that and that’s why those things are in the hall of fame now.

Strudwick: It’s unbelievable. I remember they were almost as wide as goalie pads, not that I got a lot of shots off, but any time I took a look I would just see these big green socks and I was like, ‘What is going on with this guy and he can actually skate around alright?’ It didn’t seem to limit his skating too badly.

Matvichuk: Well the scary thing is he had good quickness. If we had a race from the goal line to the blue line, he was top three, top five on our team. He was quick. The old man can skate. But he just had that element and his reputation. It’s funny talking to players like Brett Hull and guys who played against Luds, you knew that those shin pads were going to be an issue. It almost got to, people got frightened of Curtis Joseph in a way, and people got frightened of Craig Ludwig knowing that he was going to be there all of the time.

GAME THREE MOMENTUM…

Gregor: Game three, you are leading 3-0 late in the third period. Some fans have left the building. And then somehow the Oilers score three goals in 1:56 against a really good defensive team. It made little sense; it was kind of one of those crazy momentum swings that is hard to describe. What do you recall about those two minutes?

Matvichuk: Well unfortunately on the first one was, I remember getting locked up and they went in and scored. So that’s not a good memory for me. Again, these two teams were so potent against each other that as we saw in that whole series, anything could change at any time. The momentum swings were just crazy. It was just one of those series where you couldn’t let up. We always showed up very well against each other and the rivalry was there right from the get go. So, any momentum swing, every team took advantage of it. That was a tough two minutes.

Strudwick: So when you feel a momentum swing, whether it’s coming for you or going against you. What’s a way that you would manage to try to slow it down or speed it up?

Matvichuk: It was funny, going back to when we won the cup in ’99, we always look back to that ’97 series knowing you can never get too high and never get too low. I think that is an old saying from a hockey coach, but it’s the truth. Things went up and down in that whole series. With the Oilers being the eighth seed and us being the one seed and all of the pressure was on us, and we didn’t deal with it very well. Give Edmonton credit for the way that they competed and what they did and the changes that they did, the Xs and Os, the systems things they did.

But that 1997 series really made us a better group and it made us understand, and appreciate what you had to do to change and what you had to do to sacrifice to do the right things. Again, you look at that ’97 group and it led to all those guys coming together and then all of the sudden that next year in ’98 we had a fantastic season and in ’99 we put it all together and won. But you ask Bob Gainey and you ask Ken Hitchcock, it goes back to the learning experience that we had in 1997. That helped us.

Gregor: Learning how to win comes from losing sometimes. Back to the series. You lose a heartbreaker in game three, then come back and win game four. Game five was low scoring with no goals in the first four periods and then the Oilers won 22 seconds into double overtime. You mentioned earlier how you didn’t handle the pressure well as a team. When you say that you didn’t handle pressure well, were guys pressing too much, what defines how you didn’t handle the pressure well?

Matvichuk: You always try to do too much. We’re all proud of who we are and what we are and we’re trying to do too much at the offensive blue line where it causes a turnover and it ends up in the back of your net. Where you’re not getting the puck out to your winger. It was all of the little details that coaches have strived on for you for 15, 20, 30, years how you have to do the little things to be at the level of the highest compete, to be able to win Stanley Cups. You see what coaches were preaching to us as kids, makes sense. It was getting pucks out, doing the right things. The battle in front. I would love to bring up the discipline in that series, but there was none. It was a battle royal. (Laughs).

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Strudwick: It’s funny because as a player you kind of know where that line gets drawn and I remember watching that series and I watched it again as we were preparing for this and it was pretty vicious. You must have known the line was pushed pretty far from where there would have been reasonable hockey, even for that time?

Matvichuk: You pointed to it earlier that I was probably one of the cleanest players to ever play the game (laughs), so I had no problem. It was geared for me, but you did see things in that series you usually wouldn’t. And guys who didn’t play that way were willing to do anything.

Strudwick: A guy that I loved, and I didn’t enjoy playing Dallas when I played, but he was great to watch and that was Sergei Zubov. I learned a lot watching him in games, but you got to see him every night for a few years. What was it like watching him?

Matvichuk: It’s not fair. That’s the simple rule is this guy, he would gain momentum and never take a stride. It was unbelievable. We watched him and we traded for him and we thought how good can this guy be? He’s the most underrated player, between him and Jere Lehtinen, that I’ve ever seen. The difference between Zubi was that he could do everything at full speed, and nothing ever bothered him. I remember the day, we were playing St. Louis and I was in front of the net as his defensive partner and he deked about three or four Blues in the corner and passed it to me in front of the net and I shot it right back at him. He went right back to the bench, looked at our assistant coach Rick Wilson and said ‘I don’t ever want to play with him again.’

Strudwick: Well at least you got it on his tape, what was he complaining about?

Matvichuk: Well exactly…but he said, ‘Why didn’t you just skate the puck out?’ I’m like ‘Zubi, I don’t want the puck; you go with it.’

Gregor: I haven’t seen a defenceman who was better than Zubov on the power play, walking the blueline. He just made it look so effortless at times. And then you had Mike Modano and the rest of your PP. It was scary. You had to evolve as a player, but your greatest players have to become your leaders and eventually evolve. What did you see in how Mike grew and evolved as a leader?

Matvichuk: You know, once we brought in Nieuwendyk, he really matured. Once Ken Hitchcock really got a grasp on who Mike was and taught him the defensive side of the game, along with Bob Gainey, he really evolved into who he was.

You look back in Juniors, Mike was a goal scorer. Mike was everything you could ever ask of a high end talent guy. He needed to work on certain things and the good thing about the leadership that we had with Bob Gainey and Ken Hitchcock was that they installed that into him. It just made him a better player when Brett Hull came in in 1999, Modano instilled the same things to him.

They all say it was Hitch and Gainey, but Mike had a big piece of that and he learned it from that series.

That year, that was really when Mike Modano became who he was. He not only could score goals, but he could play a 200-foot game and we were probably one of the few teams in the league knowing our best line on the ice was also our best checking line.

GAME SEVEN…

Gregor: Yeah, Jere Lehtinen was pretty good in that regard as well. Now to game seven. You were in the penalty box with Kelly Buchberger when Joseph robbed Nieuwendyk and then moments later Todd Marchant scored. What went through your mind when the save was made?

Matvichuk: Well me and Bucky were talking about where we were going for beers, so that’s how we ended up in the penalty box together. (Laughs). It was amazing. It was one of those where we talked earlier of the momentum changes, that was just a perfect example of who Curtis Joseph was and he was never out of the play. His compete level, where instead of just getting it across the goal line, you have to bury it in the back of the net or else Cujo was going to be there to save the day.

Gregor: You’re a young kid from Fort Saskatchewan. The goal is to the play in the NHL and then the dream is the win the Stanley Cup. I think that those are two different things. And you won in 1999 with a lot of the same players from 1996-1999. Describe that moment and the next few days.

Matvichuk: Well we’re still on the air right, so I probably can’t get into too much detail (laughs), but it was amazing. Like you said we all grow up hoping to play in the NHL and then you want to hoist the Stanley Cup and you go into that game where you actually have a chance. We were beat up with Brett’s knee and Mike’s arm. We were on our last straw; we only had so much left. To go in and win it, it was a relief. You look up and you see what we just did and then you see your mom and your dad in the stands and you’re like, ‘Wow are we really doing this?’

To spend time with them and then going through the summer having the opportunity to bring the Stanley Cup home you really find the love of the game again from what the city has done for me, my coaches, my peers, my sister.

You’re really dumbfounded by going how much it really takes to get where you are. I think some people look past that at times and it’s very important communication on what life is nowadays and we all know where we are now. We look at out wife and our family and our kids especially when we’re going through what we’re going through and you realise these are really special times that we’ll never get back.

Gregor: How long did the party in Dallas? Was it a week?

Matvichuk: (Laughs) It was more than that, I can promise you that. I think there was a point where the Stars offered us full transportation and then a month, maybe six weeks in there was a point where they said ok boys that’s probably enough. You should probably go home now for a while.

Gregor: You basically had your own drivers partying with the Stanley Cup?

Matvichuk: Yeah, those poor guys. I actually feel bad for them looking back now. The parties that we had at Vinny Pauls’ house, the big Old Café and the list just goes on and on. The great thing about our group was we never had one guy who wasn’t completely invested or bought in that, ‘Hey I’m tired’ or ‘I’m not going to do this.’ We did everything as a team.

Gregor: Before we let you go how would you rate Struddy and his singing with the Bubblegum Gang?

Matvichuk: I saw the video and sitting with Ryan Hollweg and Struds probably just shouldn’t sing anymore. Maybe just go and play the drums or something.

Strudwick: To be fair, I was a bit hungover and I didn’t warm up the organ properly. I can send you a better version if you want.

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