Undersized since his days in junior high, Derek Plante’s determination, and work ethic helped him carve out an outstanding professional career. As a late-round pick fresh out of high school, John Muckler took a chance on Plante, a move he certainly didn’t live to regret.
As a key contributor on a young, developing Sabres team, he helped pave the way for the organization’s deep playoff runs in the late 90’s. He also scored one of the most memorable series-clinching goals in team history during overtime in game seven of the 1997 Stanley Cup Quarterfinal against the Ottawa Senators.
I caught up with the current Chicago Blackhawks player development coach to chat about his time with the Sabres, how he felt winning it all against his former team, his transition into coaching, and much more.
Anthony Sciandra: In every interview in this series so far, we’ve asked about development, and you’re a guy who went right from college to the NHL. In 1993 you were the WCHA player of the year for Minnesota-Duluth, but even at that, jumping right to the NHL had to be quite a transition.
Derek Plante: “Oh, absolutely. For me it goes back a few years because I was kind of a late developer as a hockey player. I guess I was always fairly good, but I was always really, really small. Even in 10th grade I was still 5-foot-1, which was tiny. My high school coach actually called my dad, and said “hey, can we play this guy?””
“My dad was like, “yeah, he’s made it so far.””
“I played as a sophomore, then I grew another five inches that summer, got all the way to 5-foot-6 and then as a senior I was 5-foot-9. I had been hearing, you know, “you’ll never make it” and “you’re too small.””
“All that stuff was pretty rampant, but for whatever reason, the Sabres drafted me, which is kind of odd, thinking that I was so small and skinny. I mean, I went to college and I think I was at 155-160-pounds. I grew another inch there, and added 15-pounds there so… By the time I got to be a senior in college, I was feeling pretty good about things.”
“I spent a lot of time at Minnesota hockey camps. At that time, it’s kind of funny. You’d have to maybe do some research, but to see all the people who are coaching and playing who spent time there was… Kevin Constantine was there, Chuck Grillo ran the camp. Coaches from all over the place were all there at the same time, so it was just a hockey hotbed in Minnesota. That’s where I spent some pretty good years of really working on getting quicker and stronger.”
“So, when I got to Buffalo… It’s funny how that whole story starts, actually. I started with the Olympic team in 94’. I was supposed to be on the Olympic team, but I hurt my knee and I had to go back and get it scoped.”
“So, I had the surgery back in Duluth. We were actually in Finland when it happened, so I had to fly back to Duluth by myself, had the surgery, had it scoped. Then Buffalo, it was the first time I had really talked to them, they said, “yeah, why don’t you come out for the beginning of training camp. We just want to check your knee and make sure things are alright.””
“So, I went out to Buffalo with a little duffel bag with my skates and about three pairs of shorts. That was the end of August, and I actually couldn’t skate with the team because I didn’t have a contract. So, I skated with Larry Carriere who was the head scout at the time, and a couple other scouts. I think Don Luce and I skated around for a little bit.”
“It’s kind of funny at the time how different it was than it is now. They were like, “where did you play last year?? You’re pretty fast!””
“I had a pretty good year the year before in Duluth. I was up for the Hobey Baker and all that, which seems ridiculous now. You know, it was just a different time maybe, and we didn’t have the player development as much then. So, a couple days later, Mucks (John Muckler), asked if I wanted to sign a contract, and I’m like, “Yeah, sure! Why not?””
“So he said “I’ll talk to your agent and we’ll take care of it. Make sure you go get a suit and be on the plane tomorrow.””
“So that was that. They got it worked out in a day and I jumped on the plane with my one suit. We went out to California and Vancouver and uh… I guess that was the start of it.”
AS: During your time in Buffalo, you played for three different head coaches. Obviously, for nay player there’s a transition that takes place under someone new. How did you handle those transitions when they came about?
DP: “Well, I think Muckler was great. He was kind of a hard-ass, I guess you’d say? But at the same time, I grew up with a coach like that, so that was not odd to me. At the same time, he really seemed to have a soft-spot for me. He came across as really rough and gruff but, he liked guys that could skate, probably from his days in Edmonton. He gave me a chance. He gave me a real opportunity and I wasn’t sure if he would.”
“You know, there was a time there when Americans weren’t totally embraced as much and coming from college at the same time. Were we soft? Were we willing to compete and play that many games?”
“I wasn’t worried about it because I knew me, and I was just going to do the best I could, but Coach Muckler took a chance in that way, ad gave me a chance to play and I’ll always be thankful for that. He was great. He was hard on me when he needed to be but, he let me play.”
“Then we had Ted Nolan, who wasn’t so sure about me. He was more of a tough, gruff kind of player. Like, hard-nosed, get in your face kind of player. It took a little while for him to embrace me and my game. I think early-on, when he first got there, I was a healthy scratch quite a bit, and a fourth line guy until I kind of earned the respect of him, and then I played quite a bit. Then he played the crap out of me, and I did really well once we had that sort of respect for each other.”
“Then Lindy Ruff came and it was a little bit of a different time. He never really embraced the way I played I guess. I don’t know. The comments I got from him were that I was just too small to play for him so, that was a little frustrating when I was there. For the two years I was there (playing for Ruff), I was a fourth-liner. Every once in a while I’d be a third-liner when someone was hurt so… That was a tough way to go after having a pretty good season the year before he got there.”
“Different coaches have different styles and different thoughts. I get it a lot more now as I’ve been coaching. Some players, you see what they can do and you like it. Some guys, you just don’t see it and don’t really appreciate what they’re doing.”
AS: It’s crazy you mention Ruff saying that about your size. His approach changed pretty quickly in that regard, because in 2005-06, Daniel Briere and Chris Drury were his go-to guys and they were both smaller than you.
DP: “I know! Yeah, it was a little… In that way it was frustrating for me, because the year before, I had 27 goals and had a good year. We did well, and then the next year I couldn’t play anymore because I was too small.”
“(Laughs) You can see where the frustration in that comes, but that’s how it goes. That’s how coaches react. Eventually, I was traded out of there and it was a weird trade because I got traded to Dallas who, at the time, we ended up playing them in the Stanley Cup Finals.”
“I ended up on the right side of it, but it was a really weird situation because all of my real buddies who I had been there with for six years were on the other team. And the fans when we won it in Buffalo was just a really awkward kind of situation.”
“I mean, I was happy to be on the right side of it I guess, but also very awkward because all of my close friends were on the other team.”
AS: That was actually my next question. Obviously, like you mentioned, it was different for you under Ruff, and going from a team where you were a big contributor to get them to contender status in Buffalo, you must have felt like there was unfinished business. To be traded to the team that would eventually beat them in the Stanley Cup Finals, like you said, that’s got to be awkward.
DP: “Yeah, I mean… Part of that team with Buffalo, we kind of started at a young age. There was a lot of young guys when I came there. When I first got there, there were some older guys and they kind of transitioned. Through that, we kind of built it. Or, you felt like you built it, right?”
“We were younger guys, and one year we won the playoffs in the first round, and the next year we won two rounds, then the next year we’re in the third-round. And then they were in the Stanley Cup, and I wasn’t part of that part of it, but up until that part it was fun every year, to try and get a little bit better and kind of grow. We grew as a team, and going through those difficulties and challenges together was a lot of fun.”
AS: During your time in Buffalo, was there a particular linemate or set of linemates who you enjoyed playing with the most?
DP: “You know, the first year I was there I played with (Donald) Audette and (Brad) May, and that was a lot of fun. We were all young guys in kind of our first or second year. Yeah, that was a lot of fun.”
“Then I played a lot of time with (Matthew) Barnaby, was a good player. Always in the mix. Creating a lot of… I don’t know, chaos maybe? A shift disturber, you might say. We had a good time. That was fun playing with him.”
“Randy Burridge was another guy I played with that played really well. He was fun to play with. Yeah, they were all good. They all brought different things. You know, you learn a lot as a player and uh… yeah they were all good. Good hockey players and good friends.”
AS: Now we’ll go the other way. Did you have a most-hated player to go up against, or perhaps a most-hated team?
DP: “You know, I don’t know… Not really.”
“I guess… yeah, at the time, the Flyers. I always kind of didn’t like the Flyers. We always seemed to play them in the first round of the playoffs every year, so I kind of hated playing those guys. They had the big “Legion of Doom” team and the way they played, they were big and slow-skating. I was used to being fast and quick, so it was kind of the opposite type of hockey.”
“So yeah, that’d be the team I probably didn’t like.”
AS: What was your favorite memory from your time in Buffalo?
DP: “There’s a lot of great memories. A lot of it was just with the guys. Hanging out, and going through different experiences together. On the ice, obviously the one that comes to mind is scoring in Game-Seven. That was fun, just the way it all went down. The team was getting better at the time.”
“Yeah, I mean, you see the replays of the classic game, I think my rookie year, that went to four overtimes where Dave Hannan scored. (Laughs) It’s hard to forget that game. It seemed like all we did was go to the locker room and come back out, go to the locker room, come back out. It seemed like we played forever.”
“But all of those experiences… You get to travel around with the guys, seeing the different cities. I mean, playing in the NHL is just fantastic and fun. The challenge of it is probably what I miss the most. The competitiveness and uh… when it comes playoff time, playing in the playoffs, and the excitement, and the energy, and just how important it is… or how important it seems to be. It’s a sport and it seems important to us when we’re involved so, that’s probably what I miss the most.”
AS: After your NHL career, you spent some time in Europe. You also spent some time in the Japanese League, which I was not aware of. You played for the Nippon Paper Cranes and you tore it up in that league.
DP: “You know, Kleenex owns them.”
AS: Kleenex owns them? Like, the tissue brand?
DP: “(Laughs) Yeah, that’s why we were the Paper Cranes. We were owned by Kleenex. It was pretty neat. We lived kind of in a smaller city in Japan. It was really kind of a fishing village… I don’t want to say village. It was a city. It was probably about 100,000 people, or so.”
“Yeah, we lived in apartments, and we’d walk across to the rink, and the fans were great. It’s a little bit like the United States in that, Japan is very north-and-south. In the north, it’s all about winter sports, the skating, and the skiing, and all that stuff. So, hockey is very popular, and in the south, baseball is very popular… and soccer.”
“But yeah, it was a great experience. I mean, I had had some back issues. In 2003 I had my back fused, so I was just hoping to get to play. I played a couple years in the German League, and I was getting towards the end of it, I could see that coming. So, I’m like “when else will I go to Japan?””
“I called around to see how it was, and guys that had been there before really liked it. So, we went over and we lost in the championship my first year. So, we talked about going back again, and in the second year, we won it.”
“It was a blast because there was about five other guys on our team that had Japanese passes, but they were Canadian. So, they had been there for like, 10 years and they all knew the language and stuff, and they helped us around.”
“It was a lot of fun. It was a little bit like college schedule. Every weekend, and I think we played like 35 games. But yeah, we had a blast. I don’t know why else you’d go to Japan for that long, really. I appreciated the culture. People treated us really great.”
AS: So, after that, you went into coaching. You spent some time as the assistant coach for Minnesota-Duluth, and now, you’re actually in the player development side of hockey with the Chicago Blackhawks. Obviously you enjoy it as you’ve been doing it for a while. What has the transition from playing to coaching been like?
DP: “Well, it’s been good. My dad was a coach, and I’ve always been in hockey. I’m kind of a hockey nut. I just love being around the rink. I’m kind of known as a rink rat kind of guy.”
“For me, I had to go back to school to finish my degree. I spent a year just finishing my degree, and then, coach (Scott) Sandelin, who is the coach at Duluth, I was in his office every couple days saying, “hey, if you need any help, I’m here!””
“After that year, I got my degree, and Steve Rollick (UMD assistant coach at the time) left to take the, I think, Ohio State job,. So, it opened up, and I asked coach Sandelin, and he hired me, and off I was.”
“The first year was pretty great. Our team won the National Championship. I feel like I was just kind of along for the ride, but it was a lot of fun. It was a really good team and a good way to get your feet wet as a coach, I guess.”
“You know a lot about hockey, but there’s a lot of details about coaching that I learned a lot in that year for sure. I coached there for five years and learned a ton, and a had a lot of fun. Learning how to recruit, and all the coaching parts of the game, I learned a lot.”
“The one thing with the college game, especially at that time, between the recruiting and coaching, it became almost overwhelming for our family, just because there isn’t really any time off. If you’re not coaching during the season, you’re recruiting, and you’re going to camps. You wear a lot of hats.”
“We had three young boys at the time so, I was fortunate to have an opportunity to work with the Blackhawks in a player development role, and that’s been great. It’s allowed us a little bit more time as a family, and it allows me to stay involved with a great organization. They’ve been great to me, and it’s been a lot of fun to deal with some really great prospects, and some prospects that didn’t quite pan out. Either way, we try to help them get better.”