A gradual ascend for Drew Bannister leads to the Rampage
by Randy Pascal
The Sudbury region has carved out quite a nice, little niche in the realm of historical hockey coaching ranks, producing a pretty impressive list – all
Toe Blake, Al Arbour and, more recently, Randy Carlyle, have all called the nickel city home for lengthy stretches of their youth.
And while no one is suggesting that Drew Bannister is in that conversation, quite yet, the Lo-Ellen Park Secondary School graduate clearly
moved a step closer to at least gaining an entry level role, slipping a foot in the pro hockey door this summer.
Following a very successful three year run at the helm of the OHL champion Sault Ste Marie Greyhounds, Bannister was hired, in June, to guide the
San Antonio Rampage of the American Hockey League.
Though the franchise has bounced around, historically, in terms of its NHL affiliation, a five-year deal signed earlier this summer with the St Louis
Blues bodes well, both for the Rampage, as well as the long-term aspirations for coach Bannister.
Lacing up the skates for the final team in 2011-2012 with the Braehead Clan in Scotland, the former NHL defenceman with 164 games to his credit
has very quickly established himself in the coaching ranks. From 2012-2015, Bannister was an assistant coach with the Owen Sound Attack, then
tackling the main role in the Sault and amassing a jaw-dropping record of 136-50-18 over the course of the past three years.
Not that the 44 year-old sees his rise as particularly meteoric.
“I think it was a gradual ascend for myself, and it started in Owen Sound and it just continued through the Sault,” said Bannister. “I was very lucky in
Owen Sound to work under Dale Degray (GM) and Greg Ireland (head coach). They gave me a lot of opportunity to grow, a lot of leeway in how we
wanted to play the game.”
“But they also allowed me to work with the Hockey Canada U17 and U18 programs.” Having played his junior hockey career in Sault Ste Marie
(1990-1994), Bannister's hiring as head coach in July of 2015 provided something of a homecoming, albeit accompanied by some pretty large shoes to fill.
“It's a place I knew very well,” said Bannister. “There was a comfort zone there, but there were some nerves, handling my first (head coaching) position
with a team that had done so well under Sheldon Keefe. I have to give a lot of credit to our staff, Joe Cirella and Ryan Ward. I was
lucky to have those two guys here, lucky for what they brought to the rink on a daily basis.”
Throw in the guiding mentorship of Kyle Raftis, general manager of the Hounds following the departure of Kyle Dubas, and it's clear that a
foundation for success was now in place. “Things like this don't happen if you don't have good people around you,” noted Bannister.
Well known for his ability to communicate, the local hockey man would enjoy a relatively seamless transition in moving from what is typically viewed as
a more “player-friendly” role as an assistant coach to being the man who ultimately has the coaching “buck” stop at his feet with the Greyhounds.
“There is a little bit of a happy medium that you have to have,” said Bannister. “As a head coach, you have to be aware of players, their body language,
and make yourself available in the dressing room to guys, not just in the coaches' room. Certainly, the assistant coaches do hear a little bit more than I
do, players might be a little more open with them, and that's OK. That's why we have coaches in those positions.”
“There are a lot of things that goes on in the life of these teenagers that sometimes don't have a lot to do with hockey, and sometimes, they don't feel
comfortable enough with coaches to talk about these issues.” In addition to being among the more cutting-edge OHL franchises in the area of analytics,
Sault Ste Marie also has benefited from a partnership with a sports psychologist in recent years.
This much is certain - Drew Bannister is not about to sit still, resting on his laurels.
“I think you are continually evolving as a coach, and I think you have to,” said Bannister. “There's too many smart people out there and too many good
coaches for you to remain stagnant and just believe in what you had the previous year.”
“In the Sault, we were constantly uncomfortable, in a good way,” he added. “I think that pushes you, as a coach, to step outside your comfort zone.” In
the end, the payoff was huge, for Bannister, his assistants (Ward followed him to San Antonio, Cirella was hired by Stockton Heat – AHL) and their players
(Barrett Hayden and Rasmus Sandin were both selected in the first round of the 2018 NHL Entry Draft).
“When you have success as an organization, NHL teams take notice,” said Bannister. “St Louis wasn't the only team I spoke to. I wasn't going to leave
the Sault unless I was 100% sure about the opportunity I was getting and that it was going to be the perfect fit for me.”
But with only three years experience as a head coach, there was clearly a period of self-assessment, in spite of the impressive track record. “You are
constantly evaluating yourself and that's certainly something I had to do, near the end of the year, knowing that maybe an opportunity would come,” said
“You reach out to people that you trust and you have conversations about the opportunities that are kind of in front of you.” With the decision made,
Bannister looks forward. Many have suggested that the environment of a typical junior dressing room, filled with a group of primarily teenage prospects, is
drastically different than that of an AHL team, where men are earning a living playing the game of hockey.
Bannister offers a slightly different perspective. “These players I will be working with are no different, in a sense, than the players we worked with
in juniors,” he suggested. “They're older, but they have a goal in mind, and it's to play in the NHL. For myself and our staff, it's our job to make sure
we give each and every one of those players the opportunity to reach their potential to play in the NHL.”
And if that is accomplished, coaches often follow suit – a handful, even, from Sudbury.