25th Anniversary Special – Top 25 Rebels in franchise history; No. 17 Jesse Wallin
Jesse Wallin remembers it as a life-shaping moment.
“I look back and it was March 8th of 1993 and the day of the (Western Hockey League) bantam draft,” he said recently.
“I’ll never forget Carter Sears phoning me. I was outside playing street hockey with my brothers and got called into the house by my mom.
Carter Sears was on the phone and I had no idea at the time the impact that day would make on my life.
“It really formulated the direction that everything would go. I could have been drafted by a team in the U.S., who knows?”
Sears, the Red Deer Rebels head scout at the time, selected Wallin in the first round of the bantam draft — ninth overall — and so began a journey that would bring the North Battleford, Sask., defenceman to Red Deer, a city he still calls home.
Wallin joined the Rebels in 1994 and played four seasons with the club before embarking on a pro hockey career followed by a seven-year stint as first an assistant/associate and then head coach of the Rebels, to where he is today as a full-time scout for the St.Louis Blues.
“I came to Red Deer and was really embraced by the community,” he said. “This is my home. I met my wife here, it’s where I always came back to when I was playing professional hockey.
“It became my home. It’s really where I developed not only as a hockey player, but also as a person. You grow up so much in those four years.
I feel like I came here as a wide-eyed 16-year-old and I left as a 19-year-old, much more mature young man.
“So it was a huge four years in my development as a player and a person.”
Wallin was on board when the Rebels won their first-ever playoff series, a six-game conquest of the Swift Current Broncos in the spring of 1996.
“That will always be a huge memory. It was my second year in the league and the first time I really experienced the electricity in the building (Centrium) with the fans behind our team,” he reminisced.
“I just remember the last five minutes of that (sixth) game and everyone in the building was standing, including us on the bench. I remember standing beside Lance Ward on the bench and we were just in awe. Jimmy Hammett was the assistant coach that year and he was barking at us to get on the ice. But we were in awe, taking it all in.
“That was a special memory. For an expansion team . . . that was a big step for the organization.”
The team’s ’97 playoff run also ranks right up there with the former Rebels rearguard. Red Deer ousted Regina and Swift Current to advance to the Eastern Conference final, where they fell to Lethbridge in five games.
“We had such a good team and such a good group of guys. As much as it’s a highlight, it’s one of the toughest memories as well because I really felt that we had a team that could win,” he said.
The Hurricanes went on to sweep the Seattle Thunderbirds in the WHL championship series and eventually lost to the host Hull Olympiques in the Memorial Cup final.
“It was widely believed that whoever won that series between ourselves and Lethbridge was going to win the league,” said Wallin. “I felt like that should have been us. Until the trade deadline we were probably the favourites.”
But then the ‘Canes acquired Chris Phillips and Shane Willis from the Prince Albert Raiders, two players who were key in Lethbridge defeating the Rebels, who had made a splash of their own by trading for Montreal Canadiens prize prospect Terry Ryan.
“That (Lethbridge-Prince Albert trade) was probably the biggest difference,” said Wallin. “They made a big impact with that team but I still felt we were good enough to beat them. It just didn’t go our way.”
Wallin, who was the Rebels captain during his final two WHL seasons, developed into an elite major junior defenceman and was selected by the Detroit Red Wings as the final pick of the first round — 26th overall — of the 1996 NHL entry draft.
He also suited up for Canada in both the 1997 and ’98 world junior championships and winning gold in Switzerland in ’97 is a memory that will never fade.
“That was, no question, one of the highlights of my career overall,” he said. “It was just an incredible experience to be a part of that.
“It was a real exciting time for the world juniors, they were really hitting the big stage and Canada had won four times in a row. We were going for the ‘drive for five’ and we didn’t have a real big-name team.”
However, as he pointed out, the intangibles were plentiful.
“There were certainly more talented (Canadian) teams that went before us, but we really had a special group of guys who bonded together and then really became a team in a short amount of time,” he said.
“We had guys who were willing to accept what roles they were given, whether it was a guy who played 35 shifts or five shifts in a game, he made sure that he was prepared, that he was doing what he was asked to do.
“It was a real eye-opener for me and a real good lesson of what it takes to win and the importance of guys buying in and becoming a team and accepting roles. That’s exactly what we we did and it was an incredible feeling to win that gold, for sure.”
His second trip to the WJC, staged in Finland, was basically a complete reversal of fortunes for the Canadian entry, which was captained by Wallin.
“It was kind of the opposite of the previous years,” he said. “I think we had a more talented group. It wasn’t that we had a bad group of guys, there were some good guys on that team, guys who went on to have good NHL careers.
“But for whatever reason, things just never seemed to gel. We never got off on the right foot and we weren’t able to recover. We had a lot of discipline issues within the team with guys being late for meetings, late for the bus, things like that, and that crept into our game as well.
“A big part of it is we had a real lack of experience in that group. There were only two returning guys in myself and Cory Sarich and of course I got hurt in the third game.”
The Canadians finished a disappointing eighth and Wallin went on to finish his fourth and final season with the Rebels and then embarked on a professional career in the fall.
He played his first full pro season with Adirondack of the American Hockey League and spent the next two campaigns with the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks — an AHL affiliate of both Anaheim and Detroit — with the exception of two games with the Red Wings.
In order to play with the Wings in the 2001-02 season, Wallin first had to clear NHL waivers.
Therefore . . .
“I went into camp expecting to get traded because they were built to win and had a lot of older guys,” he said.
“But I had a real good training camp and they decided to hang onto me. I ended up having surgery on a sports hernia early in the season and I didn’t play until the end of January once I came back. The season was halfway through at that point and I was in and out of the lineup.”
The Red Wings went on to win the Stanley Cup in the spring and Wallin was the beneficiary of a championship ring and an unforgettable experience.
“It was great to be a part of that winning, but also just being around the calibre of players. I think there were 11 future Hall of Famers on that team and to be a part of that group and watching those guys approach the game every day was just an awesome experience,” he said.
Wallin came to camp the following season with a new coach — Dave Lewis, who replaced Scott Bowman — at the helm. With fellow defenceman Jiri Fischer slated to miss eight weeks with an injury, Wallin got to play regularly with the Wings.
“I was playing with Chris Chelios and playing 25 minutes a night. I finally felt like I’d made it. It had been a long run to get there, a tough team to crack into.”
And then . . .
“I was playing well, I had en eight-week stretch where I was in the lineup playing 20 to 25 minutes a night, and I got hurt again. I got checked from behind, pulled ligaments in my arm and missed about six weeks, and just never got back into the lineup with regularity after that.”
Wallin appeared in 32 games with the Red Wings in 2002-03 and the following season signed as a free agent with the Calgary Flames. In his first game with the Flames’ AHL affiliate — the Lowell Lock Monsters — he suffered a career-ending concussion.
“I had some tough breaks, some tough timing,” said Wallin, whose NHL career consisted of 49 games. “Detroit wasn’t a fun place to break into, it probably wasn’t ideal for a young guy trying to make his way into the league
“But at this point in my life I appreciate the experience and what I was a part of and was exposed to.”
Following his time as the Rebels head coach, Wallin, who also won a gold medal as an assistant coach with Canada’s under-18 team in 2008 and won bronze as the head coach in 2012, got into the oilfield business in 2013. While he enjoyed the position, he felt something was missing.
“It was a good job with a great company, but I just found that it wasn’t filling that competitive void for me,” he said.
“This (hockey) is what I know and what I love. I found in the oil patch you can learn and find your way, no question, but it’s also a network. It’s a small world, just like the hockey world.
“This is my network. When I go to the draft, when I go to the rink, I see guys I played with or coached or coached me. That’s my network, that’s the world I want to be in.”
Wallin was the recipient of the Doug Wickenheiser Memorial Trophy in 1997 and ’98 as the WHL’s humanitarian of the year, particularly for his efforts of raising the profile of mental health.
He and his wife Jenn have two children — Bella, 13, and Sawyer, 11 — and have been prominent spokespeople for the Canadian Mental Health Association.