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Oliver proves he can play -- given the chance

by Staff Writer / Dallas Stars

February 2, 2004

By J. Douglas Foster

Glenn James
The reaction is inevitable.

Right wing David Oliver scores a goal for the Stars, usually an important one, and writers throughout the press box go scrambling for a media guide, mumbling to themselves, "Where did this guy come from?"

The answer? Everywhere.

Well, almost.

Oliver's path to becoming the most surprising Star in Dallas' lineup has taken him from college phenom to bright NHL prospect to long-term minor leaguer to German League goal scorer.

He's the Magellan of the NHL.

But by the looks of the last month, the journey may finally have ended in Dallas.

"I'm not taking anything for granted," Oliver said. "Every day I've been here has been great. I can honestly say I'm the happiest guy in the world to be here where I am.

"Honestly, I thought I had played my last (NHL) game three years ago in Ottawa. Things were going well there and I still got sent down. There's really nothing you can do about it."

Listening to Oliver speak, one gets the impression that he truly means that. Sure, every minor leaguer who is called up to the NHL team says he takes nothing for granted and calls it the best time of his life.

But with Oliver, it just seems more believable. Understand his journey, and you'll know why.

His five goals and eight points since being recalled Jan. 3 will surprise only those who don't know what he did as an amateur and NHL rookie.

During his final season at the University of Michigan, Oliver was named the Central Collegiate Hockey Association Player of the Year, winning the scoring title along the way with 28 goals and 40 assists in 41 games. He was also named a Hobey Baker Award finalist as the National Player of the Year, and almost immediately after being drafted found himself in the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers.

Oliver played on the same line with current Star Jason Arnott during his lockout-shortened rookie season, and finished the 44-game schedule with 30 points -- scoring 16 goals while dishing out 14 assists. He was third in scoring among NHL rookies, only trailing a couple of no names like Peter Forsberg and Paul Kariya that season while also finishing fourth in voting for the Calder Trophy.

He certainly impressed Arnott.

"You could tell the he had a lot of skill," Arnott said. "He's just one of those natural goal scorers who knows how to put the puck in the net."

He continued to do so the following season, when he actually improved on those rookie numbers by scoring 20 goals and registering 39 points during 80 games played. Through two seasons, he had as much promise as any young player in the game. With 36 goals, he was certain he had found his permanent spot in the NHL.

Not quite.

The following season, he was placed on waivers by Edmonton and claimed by the Rangers. After finishing that season with three goals in 31 games between the two teams, he found himself without a contract in the summer of 1997.

And there weren't any callers.

"That's why I don't take things for granted," Oliver said. "After the first two years I had I thought surely I was in the league to stay. But I came to camp (in Edmonton) and I had basically lost my job over the summer.

"I guess it can happen to anyone."

It sure happened to Oliver. But as bad as it seemed at the time, the following year proved almost fateful.

His old college linemate, Brian Wiseman, convinced him to come play as his teammate with the Houston Aeros of the IHL. Wiseman and Oliver both had productive seasons -- with Oliver scoring a team-leading 38 goals in 78 games. The following season was even better as he helped lead the Aeros to a Turner Cup championship, scoring 10 goals and adding six assists during Houston's playoff run.

More importantly, he developed a relationship with then Houston head coach Dave Tippett at the time, a relationship that would prove to be his key back to the NHL.

Tippett saw something he liked in Oliver back then. It hasn't changed to this day.

"He's got good skill and good work ethic. He's just a good person," Tippett said. "He's got a lot more skill than people give him credit for. Just ask any goalie about him and the way he snaps it during shooting drills."

Stars goaltender Marty Turco knows. He knew long before Oliver arrived in Dallas, based on the stories and legends he heard of Oliver when he played at Michigan.

"He was it at Michigan," Turco said. "I only knew him then from pictures and highlight reels, but he helped create a tradition there that we all fought to keep going.

"He's always been a great player. I'm just surprised he hasn't been around (the NHL) longer and that nobody has really given him a chance."

That's where crossing paths with Tippett changed his life. Because Tippett, Oliver knew even back then, would give him a chance.

In fact, he told Oliver so when he left Houston and went to be an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Kings.

"He told me if he ever got a coaching job, that he believed I belonged in the NHL," Oliver said. "Then he took this job, and I figured there was no chance getting on this roster.

"I thought, 'Great for him,'" Oliver joked, "but I'll just stay in Germany."

That's where he had been after very short stints with Ottawa (twice) and Phoenix and a 51-game stretch with Grand Rapids in the IHL. He signed with Munchen of the German league for the 2001-02 season, thinking his dreams of being an NHL player may finally be finished.

But it turns out a year in Europe was exactly what he needed. He stopped worrying about who was or was not giving him a chance. He stopped wondering why Edmonton would let him go after such a productive first two seasons.

He just played hockey, and rediscovered his love for the game.

"I was tired of getting five or six games and then just getting sent down again," he said. "At some point you start thinking about what might be best down the road (like leaving hockey).

"But probably the best thing I ever did was going to Europe. It put the fun back in the game and it made me realize what I really wanted to do more than anything. It also made me believe I could make it back."

Fortunately, he had someone else who believed in him as well -- Tippett. Once he signed as the Stars' new head coach, Oliver got a free agent contract with Dallas and the chance to come play for a spot in camp. He didn't make the team a year ago, but he did make it up for the last six games of the regular season, and, in fact, played six playoff games with the Stars.

Most importantly, he got to be on the ice as the Stars eliminated Edmonton in the first round.

Poetic justice, they call it.

"The biggest highlight of my career," Oliver said.

Until now.

He's been back in Dallas exactly a month this season, and has been a huge boost to the Stars' offense since his arrival. He scored the game-winning goal in Vancouver on Jan. 19, taking a vicious slash to the chest in the process. After missing one game, he scored another power-play goal in St. Louis on Jan. 24 in a 3-2 Dallas victory.

He scored again in the next game, completing a perfect tip to eliminate a Detroit lead, and again two nights later against Ottawa for four goals in five games. He would add one more Saturday against Phoenix, making it five goals in his last seven games played.

That's some hot streak, one he credits to his comfort level because of the faith his coach has in him.

"To believe in yourself is one thing," he said. "Having someone else believe in you is what you have to have to get a chance. It takes someone else to believe in your ability."

Whatever the reason, Oliver is making the most of his chance. He's done all the looking back, and he knows deep in his heart that he can play this game at the world's highest level.

He's overcome adversity and defined perseverance; at the same time proving six games a season doesn't always define one's potential.

"It's not just me," Oliver said. "There are hundreds of guys who come and go for two or three games in this league who deserve a shot. They just have to be given a chance."

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