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Part Five: 1997 Oilers/Stars Series with Doug Weight

Doug Weight was the Oilers’ best player for much of his eight seasons in Edmonton. From 1993/1994 to 2000/2001 Weight was the leading offensive catalyst by a large margin. He scored 155 goals and 569 points in 575 games. Ryan Smyth was second in scoring with 133 goals and 260 points in 433 games. Weight scored a career-best 104 points in 1996, but the Oilers still struggled. In 1997, Smyth’s second NHL season, he scored 39 goals, while Weight produced 82 points. Andrei Kovalenko had 32 goals. Mariusz Czerkawski had 26 goals and Jason Arnott produced 57 points. The Oilers finally had some offensive depth. And they had Curtis Joseph in goal.

They were still an underdog heading into their first-round playoff matchup against the Dallas Stars, but they got incredible goaltending from Joseph, Kelly Buchberger and Todd Marchant stepped up offensively and the entire team played extremely physical, as they upset the Stars in seven games.

Weight joined Jason Strudwick and me to discuss the 1997 series and 23 years later it was clear through Weight’s words how much that series meant to him. He shared some great memories.

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Jason Gregor: Outside of Kelly Buchberger, Kevin Lowe and Bryan Marchment, you didn’t have a lot of guys with a ton of playoff experience. You were always a vocal guy. What did you say, if anything, before that series began?

Doug Weight: I was relatively inexperienced as far as playoff hockey so I kind of relied on as you mentioned, the aforementioned Kevin Lowe and Kelly. I think I knew that what I felt just from being in New York in the playoffs my first couple of seasons was the sense that it is a different season and it is a different type of hockey. I think you need to leave your comfort zone, which in our league I think you would agree, is kind of frowned upon in the regular season — if you’ve got a guy that puts pucks deep and he’s a third line player or a fourth line player or a guy that’s supposed to score.

I think that the playoffs are a special time that you can sometimes step up in different areas that maybe you’re not used to. I tried to be extra, way more physical in the playoffs. That was just one piece of advice that I learned in New York and I tried to pass along early.

Jason Strudwick: Leading up to the playoffs, and in that series, did Ron Low tell you who your matchup was going to be and did that evolve during the series?

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Weight: I’m trying to recall because we were switching some lines, but he pretty much told me that because of what coach Hitchcock had been saying that he was just going to let me play against [Mike] Modano and just do the best that I can do. He said, ‘We need you to score, we need you to be offensive.’

I had known Mike since I was young. He lived about 20 minutes from me in Michigan. I grew up watching him and he was a year and a half older and played a year up but you know for me, I needed to take away his time, not really time and space because that is overused but, I needed to get into his path. He loves to get the jersey flying and to wind it up. I just tried to get in front of him. I can’t skate on his flank and I don’t think you’re ever going to stop him, but that was going to be our match up.

Ron was going to try to live with it in those first two games and see where it went and then maybe do a little reverse of okay, maybe we’re going to keep it on and see what Ken (Hitchcock) does. And it’s funny you said that because in most series I went into I didn’t really talk about match ups, whether it was with St. Louis or Edmonton, or even in Carolina in my playoff career, but that was a memory I had, so it was a good question.

Gregor: The Stars really handed it to you guys in the regular season. Kelly Buchberger said it wasn’t even really close but playoffs are a totally different beast.

You lost game one. It was a close game but then in game two you shut them out 4-0. You guys scored three goals in the first game and then four in the second, after only scoring six in the regular season. How important was that for the offensive confidence of your group to say ‘Hey, we can actually score on this team?’

Weight: Well obviously game two is huge to go home with the split, but I would say game one was more important. I think it was one of our better games in the whole season, the entire season. As you said, they were a stingy defensive team where some of the games it was just… and you never admitted it at the time but you almost felt like, ‘Jesus, I don’t even want to go back out.’ It’s like they’re just bottling you up and you’re trying to get to the red line just to get in there. They were ingenious at what they did and that’s how they eventually ended up winning down the road. But with that first game I think it was the first time we had some belief. We came out of that game and we had some really grade A opportunities and I think that Curtis played well, but I think that Andy Moog played well also. It was a game that fit our mold a little bit more.

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I mentioned it earlier, we came out and whether it’s our fourth line guys or our first line guys, we were mean, we were physical, it was our first three strides. What they did was they trapped you up and they slowed you down. They had bigger, older, stronger D, but they were strong, and they were simple. And if you could get on those guys and punish them as much as you could, and create a couple of turnovers here and there, it’s tough. It is tough going back for those pucks, ask Jason (Strudwick). Over and over knowing that these guys have speed and you can’t hold up.

We did a good job of expecting traps and using our speed and being physical on our forecheck.

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SERGEI ZUBOV…INCREDIBLE

Strudwick: Dougie you talk about the Stars D and in some ways kind of similar to you with your Oilers, I mean with Luke Richardson and Boris Mironov, all of these guys were bullheaded. Other than Mironov, who could move the puck, the others weren’t playmakers. But both groups other than Sergei Zubov for Dallas were kind of similar. So, did it come down to the forwards and which one of the forward groups could break down one of those two Ds?

Weight: Uh, yeah, I would say so. You mentioned Zubov, that’s a big difference because we didn’t have a Zubov. And talk about a guy… I know some people were questioning that he was in the Hall of Fame, but probably the most underrated player that I ever played against and I played briefly with him in New York, but he is extremely brilliant. Sergei would fight me on this, but it’s been so long since he’s retired that I can be honest about stories.

I’ve never seen a guy who looks like he’s got two spoons on his chest and he’s having a cigarette and chew and a beer in the shower after a game and he played 34 minutes and I’m like, ‘How the heck did this guy do it?’ But he is a wonderful person who took his job very seriously, but he’s just an amazing brute of an athlete.

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You guys have the stats there, what was the salary difference? It must have been close to a 40 million dollar difference prior to the salary cap. So certainly you go in there with a lot of respect for Dallas and I give credit to the history of the Oilers and Ronnie Low and those guys. I’m saying that not because of the tradition, but you’re not going to win playoff series because they have five Stanley Cups or whatever the heck it is. But the point was they just, what they did going into that playoff series, I mean God, we were… I just, I couldn’t believe how different it was and how ramped up it was, how physical our team was.

To this day I’ve never been on teams that amped it up and played, not completely different, but I mean a hell of a lot different in the playoffs even to the point in ’06 where I played them in Carolina, and Edmonton fans are probably going to turn off the radio now thinking about 06, but my point was they were a different team in the playoffs. It’s something that involves the fans and the building.

Maybe the teams post [Wayne] Gretzky and [Mark Messier] Mess in the ‘80s realized we’re never going to be as good as them, so we better bring it. I don’t know, but it was just an amazing feeling to be in those playoffs and those first two games at home, three and four. Wow, what a place. I couldn’t believe the atmosphere in that building. I had heard about it, but until I lived it, oh my goodness.

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Gregor: Doug, for many Oiler fans the only solace they had from 2006 was that you were on the winning team. A lot of them told me, ‘Okay at least Doug Weight won,’ because you were a fan favourite in Edmonton for a long time.

Weight: It didn’t sound like it when I was on the ice, I can tell you that much (laughs).

Gregor: Nor should it in the moment, right? 

Weight: That’s what it’s all about, rooting for your team.

GAME THREE…AWFUL THEN EUPHORIC

Gregor: The emotion in the building for game three. Ron Low mentioned he thought the players were maybe overwhelmed a little bit because the first 55 minutes your team wasn’t very good at all. Then you scored what looked like at the time kind of a ho hum goal, you didn’t even celebrate. Take me through the next minute and 56 seconds from the time you score to the time Mike Grier ties the game and what went through your mind?

Weight: Well first of all I’m still pissed because I couldn’t celebrate. I mean I love celebrating goals, but I think that we had like 11 shots on net and I was just excited to have a faceoff in their zone and I caught their centre sleeping a little bit. I think that I poked it through the legs, and I did the little peewee move and got lucky, you know surprised the goalie, but what a yawn fest. We came out the first two shifts and hit everything that moved, and I mean after that, they put on a clinic of how they play the game and we couldn’t do anything. You just wanted to get something. We couldn’t even finish a hit because we couldn’t get the pucks. They were amazing but I digress. You asked about the last two minutes.

I can’t describe it, but I mean three to one it’s like okay, we’ve got some time here, we’ve got time to pull the goalie, we come back and you’re almost looking at the coach and you’re like, ‘Do we even have a chance?’ That was our 12th shot.

I forget who, it might have been Mats Lindgren might have been Jimmy Dowd, I think, who got the second one.

Gregor: [Andrei] Kovalenko did, on a power play.

Weight: Oh Kovi! Yes, yes okay. I was thinking of a different game, different series, different year but when Griersie, oh my God the elation on the bench and for a young team I think that’s when we needed Kevin and Kelly and Ronnie and what they had been through. Because we went into overtime and it was like we won the cup. The building was absolutely half empty and probably louder than probably every building in the world because everyone had left because they were not excited about the entertainment they were witnessing for the first 55 minutes.

I know it’s one of the greatest games I’ve ever been a part of and probably the worst game that I’ve ever been a part of because it was just so boring. Those last two minutes though. I don’t watch much hockey of myself, I watch ten games a night so I’m going crazy right now, believe me, but I don’t watch a lot of the replays, but I will watch those five minutes anytime I see it on the TV or you get a DVD you can pop in. That to me when Kelly scores in OT and that building. Oh my God. And the city for the rest of that series is something that really, I’ll never forget.

Gregor: Doug you mentioned pure elation on the bench when you tied the game, then go into the dressing room though. Kelly Buchberger said he’d never been in a room that fired up, and Ron Low was one of the more emotional guys. He just let you guys relish in it, didn’t he?

Weight: Yeah, usually he would, because we were a young team, come in and calm us down. Like I said, it was like we had already won and it was the series clinching. Here we are game three and we’ve got to go out and get things done in OT against a team that has really manhandled us for 95% of the game. So, I think that they (coaches) were feeling probably pretty disappointed but really no, he just came in and gave us the, ‘we’re going to win this’ Ron Low speech

He was a guy who wore his emotions on his sleeve and he was an emotional coach, wanted a system that was really simple and hard. That was probably how he wanted us to play, but he was an old school motivator. He just said we were going to win it and who was going to go out and get it. He came in and fired us up for about 15 seconds and turned as red as a tomato and we went out and Bucky took care of business. A nice little cross drop from Mats Lindgren and put it home.

Strudwick: It’s quite a moment. You see that happening and every shot is a chance to be a winner in overtime but were you thinking this was your night, after the great comeback or was it like a 50/50 toss because they dominated early. You can tell the truth now Weighter, this isn’t going out to overtime now.

Weight: The exact opposite of when we scored the first goal to make it three to one, when there was no chance any of us thought we were winning because we kind of got a bounce and we just were awful and we were being toyed with by a team that had proven that they were better than us that night. And when we came back, I’ll be honest, I don’t know if the other guys would, I think that they would all agree because I feel like it was, ‘we’re winning this game.’ Too much happened in the last 30 minutes of life that we’re going to let this slip away. And it was just, I felt like we were going to win, I really did.

GAME FIVE…WEIGHT LOST 13 POUNDS

Gregor: Then game four is a tight one but you lose it. Now it’s a best of three. You go back to Dallas for game five. You talk about not much happening in game three, well there wasn’t much offense in game five. No score after 80 minutes and Andy Moog said the building might have been the hottest he’d ever played in. I watched that game again recently and wow there were some hellacious hits. That seemed to be the hardest and most physical game. What do you remember from game five?

Weight: I think you’re exactly right. And I credit you for seeing that, not just, there was some big hits, but that was one… I left that game and obviously a young age, but I was in the ice bath and going, ‘Oh my God it hurts.’ I think I weighed 197 pounds starting the game and at the end of the game I was 184. I had Ronnie Low write that down for me because I lost 13 pounds in the game. I think I played the most that I’ve ever played in a game. I think that I played 29 minutes of the first 60, which was a record for me as a forward, by a lot probably. I’m not signing my praises, I just don’t know what the match ups were or what happened but I just ended up playing and I think that it’s that game and I don’t want to speak out of turn because I know you can look that up, but I thought that it was that game.

It was hard fought. It was physical. I remember that game, I saw Guy Carbonneau’s line, every time I was on the ice he and Bobby Bassen and I believe Dave Reid and they were just in my way and it was physical and we had a little hate on. Those are games you just love. I realize that it’s not going to be an offensive game, so we were just out. I remember thinking Bobby Bassen was going down next, we were trying to kill each other every shift. It’s a neat experience in the playoffs that you have the respect, you literally are, sometimes you’re cross checking guys and Struddy will understand this one because I had a couple from him, but you’re trying to break ribs but you’re not trying to maim anyone, but you want to hurt them. It’s a unique part of the year and that game to me was like wow. I left there going, ‘They’re some big boys and we held our own.’

Strudwick: This series was obviously a very physical one, but it seems as we go through the series it seems like each game kind of took on a life of its own. There wasn’t a lot of scoring in this game. As a leader discuss the focus about just making good puck decisions and maybe not going forward when there’s not a clear cut chance to turn something that’s nothing into something special?

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Weight: It’s a real good question Jason, because this isn’t a series as you look back that you would think that an inexperienced team would win or a team that’s so much further below in points. And the reason I say this is that if the series takes on this, every game is this, it’s going to be a 2-1 game every night.. People probably thought that going into it at first because it’s Dallas. Every game, you’re right in that analogy. Every game was different. Curtis Joseph stealing the show, we give up 60 shots in game three. We just talked about it, we had 12 shots going in and I think that we had 15 shots when we won four three in overtime. And that team dominated us.

But the first two games, there was a lot of grade A chances for both teams, freewheeling hockey a little bit. Teams maybe being undisciplined with the puck and taking a couple of penalties. It wasn’t a series where you watch every game, and like I said that game five was like a playoff gladiator type of game where like you said, physical, hot as hell, like every shift was life or death and grinding it out. It’s like five minutes into that game we knew it was going to be zero-zero and whoever gets the first break is going to win. It was just a crazy, crazy series in that way and more to come in game six.

Gregor: You came home now with a chance to clinch it and it was a madhouse again in Edmonton. Any explanation why it was really such a road dominant series right? You guys won three games in Dallas, they won two in Edmonton. Any idea why the home team struggled more than the road team?

Weight: Because they are built to be a good road team. Hitch had been a great coach, he has his way of coaching but it’s not always the most popular right? You’ve got some great talented guys on that team. They dug in and played his system and it’s a great road system.

I remember full disclosure, just taking a draw next to the bench and four or five guys just laying into Coach Hitchcock, you know, just veterans. I think it was Joe Nieuwendyk and Brett Hull and Pat Verbeek. And they are sitting there telling him ‘Shut up,’ because he just harps on it, harps on it. This might sound like I’m berating coach Hitchcock — I’m not, I have the most respect for him. He does a great job and he does a great job with teams and everything that he’s accomplished but the point is that they did it.

My point was that the home team, especially being young, you get home and it’s not about showing off, but you want to put on a show, you want to run guys over, you want to get those fans into it because we had heard how loud they could be and how great it could be in the first couple of games, so you get a little excited. You get the kids with chocolate all over their face, they get a little sugar high, and you start making mistakes. And this calm veteran team picks you apart. I think that that was the main reason for it.

I think for us, on the road, I don’t know if the team had an issue, but we didn’t mind Reunion arena. We liked playing there. We felt like we could keep games close because they wanted to play their system. I don’t know, it felt like it was a comfort zone for us. Probably another bad explanation by me but I think that it was a little easier to address their dominance in our building than ours in theirs.

OT HEROICS…THE PASS

Gregor: You’ve been to overtime, you’ve been to double overtime, you’ve learned a lot in the series, but now it is game seven and everything is on the line.

Everybody remembers the Joseph save on Nieuwendyk, but there was one on Modano late in the second period and then [Andrei] Kovalenko scored on about 30 seconds later on a nice feed from Todd Marchant. That tied the game after 40 minutes. No scoring in the third and now you are heading to overtime. What was the message from Ron Low heading into overtime?

Weight: You know what, and I remember this clearly. It’s funny because you think it’s the ‘one shot until it’s done’ talk, but he was speaking like it was game three. He said we got to keep wearing them down. Keep finishing your checks, keep hitting them. They’re older, the pressure is on them and we wanted to keep it physical. And we’re sitting here in a 95 (35 C) degree building and thinking we’ve just got to get a goal.

You just want them to do the same thing — relentless forecheck, 20 second shifts instead of 30, and be physical on them, keep hitting them and that’s kind of what we did. I think that obviously Curtis (laughs) made a few great saves and Andy (Moog) he was probably a little bit less bothered down at the other, but he made some big saves as well.

We had some good flurries, we had some good rushes, but certainly I think they out chanced us quite a bit. And the grade A saves from Curtis, I mean that’s why he’s who he is and was our best player in that series, making those big saves. I think any hockey fan knows that it’s great to have a 0.942Sv%, but I would take a 0.925 goalie who comes up with these big saves when it counts. It changes games and certainly when that save was made, it was like ‘Ah boys, let’s go.’

And it was after that save and the faceoff that we went down and ended it. Who would have thought that the battle in that series and the way that game three went, we end up winning? And then when you lose game six, the whole hockey world, and I don’t care who you are, the series is over so Dallas is going on to play Colorado. Many were thinking they’re not going to beat them twice or three times in their building, there is no way.

But the games were all different. It’s one of the best series I think certainly not because I was a part of it, but the way that it all played out, it was awesome.

Gregor: You assisted on Marchant’s OT winner. He jokingly said, ‘I might have had 60 of those and that’s the only one I ever scored on.’ Talk about the goal and your reaction when he finally scored on a breakaway.

Weight: Yeah, I was going to the left boards because I know that he always shot blocker side, so I knew that if he missed it was going there. I was just going towards the boards and I knew he wasn’t going to score. I like to joke with him, but man he could fly. I think that fits right in with what you asked me, what Ron was talking about. Yeah, he’s probably faster than most people in the league anyway, but that team — and after a series win or loss against Dallas, we played them six straight darn years — they would come to us at the end of the year they won the cup or they lost the next round they would say that the toughest series was the one against the Oilers. They were physical, they were all over you, they were relentless. That’s what we did and I don’t care if it’s Grant Ledyard or Paul Coffey, when you’re beat up, and you’re ten years older, I mean we had jump and Todd ripped around them and made a great shot, high blocker.

I mean the shot is kind of underrated I think because he is going so fast you don’t really, it just looks like he shoots it into the side but I mean it’s piping in and it’s a beautiful shot and I’m sure Todd let you know about it.

Strudwick: Oh yeah, he went over it in depth for about ten minutes, so I feel like I actually took the shot. (Laughs).

Weight: (Laughs) No, you guys know as well as I do, but I’m not here to brag, but it’s all about the pass, come on, he was deep so he had to pick it up but it was perfect (laughs).

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