By: Lorne Chan
There's a hockey hotbed in Northern Ontario called Sault Ste. Marie where legends are made.
Wayne Gretzky first wore the No. 99 playing junior hockey for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. Hall of Famers Paul Coffey and Ron Francis played in The Soo before they were holding the Stanley Cup together.
Through all that history, the Greyhounds spent the 2017-18 season achieving new heights. Under coach Drew Bannister, the Greyhounds won 23-straight games in the Ontario Hockey League and set a team record by going 55-7-3-3. A group of teenagers developed into a team, and now their coach is taking on a new challenge.
Bannister is coming to San Antonio.
He was named Rampage head coach on Tuesday as the franchise enters a five-year affiliation agreement with the St. Louis Blues.
Bannister, 44, was named the Canadian Hockey League's coach of the year for 2018, awarded to the top coach for all Canadian major junior leagues.
"In three years as coach at The Soo, I've been able to develop and make a lot of strides," Bannister said. "This opportunity to take that to the next level with the Rampage, to develop players for the NHL, is an exciting next step."
Bannister would know. He went into coaching after a 18-year pro career that included 164 NHL games with Tampa Bay, Edmonton, Anaheim and the New York Rangers.
He played his junior hockey in The Soo as well, helping the Greyhounds win the 1993 Memorial Cup. He also won the 2000 Calder Cup with the AHL's Hartford Wolf Pack.
He played internationally in Finland, Russia and Germany, and last played in the AHL in 2009-10 with the Binghamton Senators.
"I wasn't the most skilled guy, but I played in an era where the game was changing and played the European game," he said. "It made me a coach that wants the team to play responsibly but also have the ability to create. It's important to involve the players on a daily basis. To ask questions and challenge them. These are smart men, and you have to be ultra-prepared to prepare them for the NHL."
At Sault Ste. Marie, Bannister found the balance between player development and team success. Entering the 2018 NHL Draft, two Soo players, Barrett Hayton and Rasmus Sandin, are ranked among the top 11 North American prospects by NHL Central Scouting.
Bannister also joins a developmental rank himself by becoming an AHL head coach. Of the NHL's 31 head coaches, 23 of them were at the same position at the AHL level.
"We are very excited to have Drew join our organization," said St. Louis Blues President of Hockey Operations and General Manager Doug Armstrong. "He has proven himself over the past few seasons in the OHL and will be a perfect fit as we continue to develop our prospects through our affiliation with San Antonio."
It might not be easy to spot the similarities between The Soo and San Antonio, between a home for small-town hockey and the seventh-largest city in America. But Bannister sees a chance to turn South Texas heat into a hockey hotbed.
"When players take ownership, there's buy-in and that's how you create a successful culture and organization," Bannister said. "I know what it's like to be where the Rampage players are. They're one step from the NHL and they're eager to learn. For any coach, those are players you want to work with and want to see succeed."