Throughout his career, defenseman Steve Bancroft has been a valuable commodity. His services have been needed and welcomed on the rosters of hockey teams from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Los Angeles, California.
Recently, Bancroft played in his 1,000th North American professional game, a game his current team, the Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights, won over the Iowa Stars, 3-2 in a shootout. After 1,000 games on this continent and another 33 games played in Germany last year, Bancroft has a wealth of experience he taps into each time he hits the ice.
Bancroft was originally drafted in the first round by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1989. His professional career began in 1990-91 with the Newmarket Saints, an AHL team he played just nine games with before being traded to the Boston Bruins. He finished his rookie year with another former AHL team, the Maine Mariners.
Needless to say, a trade that early in his pro career caught Bancroft off guard.
“I went through three years of junior and never got traded so it was kind of a big upheaval for me to go from Toronto, an organization I had been a part of for two years from when I got drafted, to a place where I knew absolutely nobody,” he remembered. “But that’s hockey, and it started my whirlwind tour.”
These days, Bancroft is cagey veteran, a guy who offers advice to the Knights’ many young players. It’s a role he clearly appreciates as he remembers the veterans in Maine who helped his transition to the pros.
“There was a guy on the team by the name of Lou Crawford. I knew him from back in Belleville where we lived, and we had skated a little bit together,” Bancroft said. “He’s kind of like I am today. He helped me along. He was one of the guys organizing the Thanksgiving parties, the after-the-game stuff. I think I ended up playing 53 games there, and I had a great time. My first year was a real learning experience.”
The next season, Bancroft would be traded again, this time to the Chicago Blackhawks. A year later, he was playing in his first National Hockey League game, a game he still remembers vividly.
“It was in the old Boston Garden. It was kind of nice to come back to Boston and play against the team that had traded me the previous year. I don’t think I played much. I might have had six or seven shifts.
“I remember Ray Bourque skating by me and doing a double-take because he was supposed to be my roommate the year before in training camp. He’d come to me every morning and say, ‘Kid, did they check curfew last night?’ because he wasn’t staying in the hotel anyways. He knew who I was, and it was kind of a special moment. I’m sure he doesn’t remember me now, but I’ll remember that.”
Bancroft’s first NHL stint lasted just one game, but it would not be his last. During the 2001-02 season, Bancroft was playing for the AHL’s Kentucky Thoroughblades when he got the call to the team’s NHL affiliate, the San Jose Sharks. He was caught a little off guard.
“We were on a four- or five-day road trip, and I didn’t have a suit with me. It was one of those track-suit road trips. Luckily, a good friend of mine, Scott Thornton, plays in San Jose, and he got me some clothes while I was there. His wife got me some underwear and socks. It was nice to get called up. I played with two good friends of mine, Thornton and Bryan Marchment.”
Bancroft’s stay in Kentucky was productive. He had a career year the previous season, scoring 23 goals and 73 points while playing in all 80 games. As he remembers it, the beginning of that season was less than auspicious.
“I didn’t even get off to a good start. I think I had three points after ten games so I guess something kind of clicked there and I was able to keep it going over the last 70 games of the year. It was kind of a dream season. After the season, I said the chances of that happening again aren’t very good. That’s why they call it a career year because you only get to do it once. I had a good year, but there were a lot guys around me who had good years too.”
Indeed, that Kentucky team finished first in the Southern Division with 42 wins and led the league in goals. The T-Blades had four players in the top ten in scoring including Bancroft who finished tenth and was the only defenseman in the top 10.
Team success was nothing new to Bancroft. In 1998-99, he joined the Providence Bruins early in the season and helped the franchise to its only Calder Cup Championship. At first, Bancroft didn’t want to play in Providence. The Bruins had won just two of their first six games that year and were coming off an 18-win season. A call from the Bruins’ head coach, Peter Laviolette, changed his mind.
“Laviolette called me, and I said I don’t want to come there. That’s not what I’m looking to do. I want to go somewhere where there’s a chance for a good team,” Bancroft said. “He said, ‘I think we’re going to surprise you.’ It turned out that we went on a stretch for the rest of the year where we only lost 12 or 14 games. It was very special.
“I think we had three guys who were first team all star and a couple of guys in the second. It just seemed that everybody was so close and after the games, everybody went to the same spot all the time. It just seems that the close teams are the ones that can jell together quickly and make a run at it. When ever I run across one of those guys, it’s always as if it was yesterday.”
Bancroft knows that, at this stage of his career, he’s got more hockey yesterdays than tomorrows ahead of him. He feels it every day he plays with and against players who were five and six years old when he began his career. When he decides to stop playing hockey, he’ll move on to a new career in real estate and more importantly, he’ll have more time for family.
Until that day, though, Bancroft finds satisfaction in the small things.
“I still find it rewarding to go out and have a good game and after the game, to leave the rink and know I had a good time playing the game. Everybody always says, ‘Don’t quit until you’re ready to quit because you’re retired for a long time.’ I’ve kind of looked at it that way. I’ve still got hockey left in me, and I’m still playing.”