He isn’t “Buff”, but he has the stuff and Winnipeg Jets’ fans can’t get enough. He is Drew Stafford and the former first round draft pick of the Buffalo Sabres is coming off a two point night, leading the Winnipeg Jets to a win in a hard fought game over the Washington Capitals. Last night’s two tallies bring Stafford’s point total to 13 in 16 games to go along with a plus 3 rating. As far as Jets fans are concerned, he is one of the most consistent players on the Jets, chipping in offensively but taking care of his defensive zone assignments. A person can be born with natural skill or size but a consistent two way player is often molded rather than born. The question then hit me- who molded Drew Stafford?
It is the winter of 1986 and Winnipeg Jet Brad Berry is running out of the Evergreen Apartments located on Osborne to start his 1974 Oldsmobile Cutlass. Practice starts in an hour and Brad doesn’t want to be late arriving at the Winnipeg Arena. The tall defenseman from Bashaw, Alberta is in his first full season with the Jets after being drafted by them 29th overall in the 1983 NHL Entry Draft. “Being a western boy, I was so excited to hear my name being called by the Jets”, Berry recalls, “I knew the organization was committed and the city was behind the team”. After a few tries and a few choice words for his car, the Cutlass turns over and Berry makes his way to practice to soak up whatever he can from veterans like Randy Carlyle, Jim Kyte and Dave Ellett.
Brad Berry, a graduate from the University of North Dakota, would go on to play parts of five seasons with the Jets before going overseas and then making a comeback with the Dallas Stars’ organization. “I loved living in Winnipeg- the people, the players and the passion”, says Berry, “I not only got to practice with these guys but I ended up moving out of the Evergreen and living with Kyte then Ellett”. It’s evident in Berry’s voice that he has a soft spot for not only Winnipeg, but the veterans who helped mold him as a player and a person.
Berry would end up retiring in 1999 after racking up 32 points in 241 regular season games and dressing in another 13 contests during the playoffs. However, the hockey world had not seen the last of Brad as he returned to his Alma Mater in 2000 to serve as an assistant coach with the University of North Dakota. He would climb the coaching ranks, returning to Winnipeg to coach the Manitoba Moose alongside Scott Arniel and then onto the Columbus Blue Jackets with Arniel again. However, after much debate, he returned to the University of North Dakota in 2012 and that it is where he currently resides, acting as assistant coach.
At first glance, Brad Berry and his story seem like the classic hockey journey of the player who turns coach and fizzles out, telling old war stories to his players at the back of the bus. This is not that story and that is not Brad Berry. As an assistant coach one of his responsibilities was taking on much of the recruiting for the Fighting Sioux. This meant staying up to date on prospects, watching hockey and making visits to players. In the spring of 2003, Coach Berry made his way to Fairbault, MN (not in the Cutlass) and Shattuck- St. Mary’s to speak with a young player, whose offensive talent and drive to win was second to none. Enter Drew Stafford.
Before sitting down with the hulking winger from Wisconsin, Brad wanted to talk to his coach and find out if there was anything he needed to know. “Tom Ward runs the program at Shattuck so you know you’re not only getting talented players but good students”, Berry recalls, “When it came to Drew, Tom had nothing but praise for his offensive talent and the fact that Stafford hated to lose”. Coach Berry had heard enough and after meeting with Stafford- they both decided that Drew would attend the University of North Dakota in the fall and play for the Fighting Sioux.
Drew Stafford arrived in Grand Forks, ND in the fall of 2003 to begin his NCAA career. He would be battling for ice time with future pros like Brandon Bochenski, Zach Parise, Travis Zajac and Jonathan Toews. “We knew that Drew had all the offensive talent in the world but we wanted to really work on his play away from the puck”, says Berry, “So we gradually started making him kill penalties with Travis Zajac”. Brad takes a few moments as the cell phone connection begins to crackle before he proclaims, “They were magic”.
Stafford would go on to rack up 115 points over three seasons with the Fighting Sioux, while also serving as a reliable winger who could wear down opponents. He would play one season with the Rochester Americans of the AHL, being named to the All-Star team before being promoted to full time duty with the Buffalo Sabres in 2007. “His drive and mentality never left and he was determined to not only play but contribute at every level”, says Brad, “He wanted to show that he could be a full time guy.”
On February 11th, 2015 the Jets acquired Drew Stafford in a blockbuster trade with the Sabres. Winnipeg Jets’ fans were excited for a breath of fresh air and the potential that this trade brought their team. They weren’t the only ones. “I played in Winnipeg and I know what the city is like so when I heard Drew was traded there, I was excited for him and the city”, explains Berry, “The Jets not only acquired a great player but a great person”. Eyes from all over North America will be glued on #12 as the Jets continue their march to the playoffs. A word of advice to the people who may not know much about the city and its fans- if the Jets make the playoffs, it’ll be one party you won’t want to miss.
Former CJAHL hockey player turned coach, turned scout.