Season by season by season, three of them in total, Soo Greyhounds climbed the Ontario Hockey League ladder under head coach Drew Bannister.
Higher, higher and higher, the Greyhounds went with Bannister at the helm, going from seventh place in the Western Conference to second to first. In fact, not only did the Greyhounds place first in the Western Conference in 2017-2018 but they finished atop the OHL’s overall standings.
From a regular season record of 33-27-8 in 2015-2016 to 48-16-4 in 2016-2017 to 55-7-6 in 2017-2018, the Greyhounds enjoyed progression and success with Bannister behind the bench. To be sure, a three-year regular season record of 136-50-18 serves as a strong showing of Bannister’s ability as a coach.
In the playoffs, the Bannister-coached Greyhounds made it into the second round in the spring of both of 2016 and 2017 and all the way to the league finals in 2018, only to lose to the OHL champion Hamilton Bulldogs this time around.
Now, after three seasons as coach of the OHL team that he starred for as a defenseman during the Greyhounds OHL and Memorial Cup championship years of 1991, 1992 and 1993, Bannister is set to begin his professional coaching career.
Bannister is headed south to become head coach of the San Antonio Rampage of the American Hockey League. San Antonio is about to enter its first season as the top farm club of the St. Louis Blues of the National Hockey League.
The timing is right for Bannister to move on from the Greyhounds and the OHL and take a step closer to coaching in the NHL.
Save for winning the OHL championship as the top-ranked team this past season, Bannister did just about all he could as coach of the Greyhounds. Really, his leaving the OHL for the AHL is good for him and for the Greyhounds.
As outstanding a job as Bannister did with the Greyhounds, the fact that they were upset by Hamilton in the OHL finals this spring did not sit well with many of the Soo’s more ardent fans. Thus, instead of coming back for a fourth season with the Greyhounds and having to hear about how the Soo should have defeated Hamilton, Bannister gets to leave town with a very good win-loss record and the opportunity to get closer to his goal of coaching in the NHL.
At 44 years of age, Bannister has a lot of coaching ahead of him. And it says a lot about his coaching skills that St. Louis wasn’t the only NHL organization that talked to Bannister about coming to work for it.
While some in Houndtown were critical of Bannister and his laid-back approach that did not include being a rah-rah guy, his even-keeled way of coaching and dealing with fans and the media served the Greyhound organization well.
A coach does not have to be loved or liked to be successful as long as there is respect and players give what they have.
Not that Bannister is perfect or close to it. But he is a rising coach in the eyes of many at the pro level and that counts for a lot.
Without getting gushy or overly-emotional — that just isn’t his style — Bannister reflected on his three seasons in the Soo as coach of the Greyhounds in a matter-of-fact, respectful manner.
“The Soo Greyhounds are a great organization, and along with the media and fans, make this such a great place to play and coach junior hockey. I will be forever grateful for my time in Sault Ste. Marie,” he stated.
So, off goes a coach who steadily improved himself and his team over a three year period.
Bannister may have lacked the fire and ability to inspire of previous Greyhound coaches such as Terry Crisp and Ted Nolan. But like coaches Craig Hartsburg and Sheldon Keefe before him, Bannister brought a winning attitude and league-wide respect to Houndtown.
Now, just shy of winning the OHL championship, the Greyhounds can begin another OHL chapter with a new head coach. As Bannister is headed to the pro ranks, so too are many of the Greyhounds graduated players.
The new coach will inherit a number of skilled, younger players that should at least keep the Greyhounds in Western Conference contention as the next season of OHL play begins in, oh, about three months time.