By Mike Mastovich
For The Tribune-Democrat
JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – Ian Herbers made a huge impression on Dave Oliver during their initial practice together with the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers.
“I just remember getting on the ice for the first time with him at training camp. I thought, ‘Oh my God, this guy is huge.’ You don’t see guys in U.S. college that big,” the 6-foot Oliver said of Herbers, who stood 6-4 and weighed 225 pounds during that 1994-95 Oilers preseason. “His reach was so crazy long it was hard to get around him. He was a tough player. He was gritty and played hard. Those are some of the attributes that he’s helping pass on to some of the young kids that come down here.”
The two are on the same team again, or at least in the same developmental pipeline. Oliver is general manager of the Lake Erie Monsters, a first-year AHL team based in Cleveland.
Herbers is wrapping up his first regular season as head coach of the ECHL’s Johnstown Chiefs.
The Chiefs and Monsters are affiliates of the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche.
“It’s been a good relationship,” said Oliver, who attended Chiefs’ home games Saturday and Sunday. “Fortunately Ian and I played together and have a bit of a background. I wish I could have, over the season, helped him out a little bit more, but we obviously ran into serious injury trouble. The Avalanche ran into serious injury trouble as well.
“It’s really cut down our numbers. We wanted to try and help out as much as we could coming into the playoff race for Johnstown. But Friday night we had seven guys out of the lineup with injuries and three up in Colorado. It’s tough going for us just like it is down here.”
After four seasons at the University of Michigan, Oliver broke into the NHL in 1994-95 and played 44 games for the Oilers as a rookie. The previous season Herbers spent 22 games as a defenseman with Edmonton and had a spot in the 1994 training camp.
A right wing, Oliver eventually played 233 NHL games, and Herbers, 65.
As might be expected, Oliver sees a lot of Herbers’ playing style and philosophies in the current Chiefs’ players.
“You always have guys that have the skill. It’s always the skilled guys that get the opportunity (to advance),” Oliver said. “Not everybody can be a skill player, so they have to learn from guys like Ian. You’ve got to learn how to be gritty. You’ve got to learn how to battle and win those one-on-one battles. Not everybody can be a goal-scorer.”
But the Monsters have had a significant role in Johnstown’s clinching a playoff berth. Lake Erie provided prospects for various lengths of time, including some mainstays in the Johnstown lineup.Among those are: Rob Drummond, J.D. Corbin, Brandon Straub, Codey Burki, Kenny Roche, Ray Macias, Vladimir Denisov, Mitch Love and former NHL goaltender Jason Bacashihua.
“Just look at those guys and what they’ve done (at the AHL level),” Oliver said. “They came down here and Ian worked with them.”
Oliver pointed to Corbin, Straub and Drummond as three examples of the Chiefs’ serving their developmental role.
“I had some expectations of J.D. Corbin. He was a little bit away when we first sent him down here,” Oliver said. “He was down here for (six weeks) and all of a sudden he’s an American League Hockey player, a warrior.”
Corbin opened the year with 16 games in Johnstown, scoring a goal and nine points. In 42 AHL games, he has three goals and nine points. Drummond had 50 games, 14 goals and 41 points in Johnstown. In 19 contests with the Monsters, he has two AHL goals.
“I really wished we would have had a longer look at Robbie Drummond,” Oliver said. “I think he’s an AHL player. He just needed a little bit of time. There’s a big upside for him.”
Straub played 53 games for the Chiefs until a recent call-up. He’s appeared in eight games with the Monsters.
“Brandon Straub has come up and played well. Far and away he’s probably the most improved player from training camp on,” Oliver said. “Obviously, with Ian being a former NHL defenseman it’s had a positive impact on Brandon Straub.”
At least some of those players might be headed back to Johnstown for the Kelly Cup playoffs.
The foundation is set for the affiliation to continue beyond this season.
“That’s something we sit down in the summertime and, hopefully, hammer something out and see where we go,” Oliver said.