A Lifetime of Hockey, Step By Step
with Don Klepp
Starting with the Vernon Lakers in 1988, David Oliver has had 32 exciting years as a player, coach, hockey operations manager, player development director, and general manager.
He didn't plan or even anticipate such a lengthy, rewarding career. "It was one step at a time," he says. "I tried to take advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves. When I was 16 playing Jr. B in Trail, I wasn't very big and I wasn't getting much attention. But then Laker owner Mel Lis asked me to try out for the Lakers, so my goal then became to make the Jr. A team. After that, when I started to play well in Vernon, my goal was to get a scholarship."
He did very well in Vernon, scoring 41 goals and adding 38 assists as a 17-year-old rookie. In his second year, when the Lakers became the first Vernon junior team to become national champions, he led the team with 99 points. He says, "I was very fortunate to be put on a line with Duane Dennis and we had instant chemistry. We wanted to be good every night; we wanted to score every night; we wanted to win every night."
The team's biggest win was the Centennial Cup final against the formidable New Westminster Royals, who had lost only three regular season games and who had then roared through the playoffs and the Centennial Cup. Going into the third period of the championship final, the Lakers trailed 5-2 and had to kill a five minute penalty. The Lakers pulled off an amazing win, 6-5 in overtime.
"Nothing compares to standing on the blue line of your first NHL game and the anthem is playing and your mom and dad are in the stands, in the corner under the Canadian flag. It's pretty hard to beat that."
David recalls the intensity of that comeback in front of a packed Vernon Civic Arena – "It was the craziest game I've ever lived through. Unbelievable. Murray Caton, who hadn't played much for months, went in goal and shut the door. Garth Geddes scored a shortie and I set up Duane Dennis for the fourth goal. Then Cam Sylven tied it late in the third and won it in OT. The town went nuts."
But that memorable moment takes second place in David's career to his first NHL game. "Nothing compares to standing on the blue line of your first NHL game and the anthem is playing and your mom and dad are in the stands, in the corner under the Canadian flag. It's pretty hard to beat that."
David's chance came with the Edmonton Oilers in the 1994-95 season, after four standout years with the Michigan Wolverines, where he scored 205 points in 152 NCAA games. "I'm glad I chose the college route. Michigan was the coolest place, a great place to play, great rink, great fans, great school." His senior year was the springboard to his NHL career, as he notched 68 points in 41 games and was an all-star and a Hobey Baker award finalist.
"Even though I was drafted by the Oilers, I thought college was as far as I would go. Then when I had a strong senior year, Brad Smith an Oilers scout, was the first team rep I'd met since I'd been drafted three years previously. He told me the Oilers wanted me to join the team after the college season, so now I had a new goal."
In the 1994-95 season shortened by the league's lockout, David had an auspicious start, registering 16 goals and 14 assists in 44 games. His sophomore season was also productive. But then he was claimed off waivers by the New York Rangers and as he puts it, "As a lot of players have learned, it's hard to stick in the NHL." He spent the rest of his career alternating between the NHL (Rangers, Ottawa, Phoenix, Dallas), the IHL (winning a championship with the Houston Aeros), the AHL, and Europe (Germany, England, and Sweden).
"My college education didn't prepare me for this new role, but I called people and asked lots of questions. You can't be afraid to ask questions if you want to be better at anything."
After his playing career, he jumped straight into hockey management, as the General Manager of the AHL's Lake Erie Monsters. "It was the right time, the right place, the right contact," he says. "Actually, I still wanted to keep playing but Francois Giguere, who had just become GM of the Colorado Avalanche, said 'I want you to be GM of my minor league team' and that was it! My college education didn't prepare me for this new role, but I called people and asked lots of questions. You can't be afraid to ask questions if you want to be better at anything."
Since then, David has had several leadership positions, coach, GM, director of hockey operations, and director of player development (including ten years with the Avalanche.) David's true passion, he says, "Is developing hockey players." It's no surprise then that David Quinn hired David as an assistant coach with the Rangers in 2018. "When David Quinn took over, he inherited a young, skilled team. He and I have worked together before in the Avalanche organization in player development so we're a good match along with the other coaches, Greg Brown and Lindy Ruff. We all want to get players to work hard and continually get better so we can start to contend for a championship."
The one consistent thing in David's career so far has been the enjoyment of competing with his teammates. "You know, there have been a lot of stops along the way and I wouldn't trade away any of them, starting with Vernon, which is a great organization and hockey town. I still keep in contact with a lot of players from all those teams. Whether it's junior, college or pro, many of those guys become life long friends."
When asked for advice he would give to young players aspiring to play junior hockey, he says "The one thing you can control is your conditioning. You can't control how many times the coach will send you on the ice, so be prepared to be ready when you get your chances. That includes the total package of physical and mental preparation. Be ready to give your best on every shift."