Having already spent a season in New Zealand playing for the Canterbury Red Devils, defenceman Robert Banks is adamant that coming to this part of the world with his partner Hana is one of the two best life experiences he has had. The other, being on a tier one North American junior hockey team which made the National finals for the first time.
Rob’s hockey journey is a great example of a player’s pathway toward a professional career in the vastly complex and extremely competitive network of clubs and leagues that constitute North American ice hockey. It is a story of high achievement, but also about life learning and making the most of the opportunities while seeing the positives in those experiences.
Rob is a native of Erie, Pennsylvania and his father was both a hockey player and coach. From the age of three Rob was out skating on the frozen pond across the street or at the local rink, before playing his first hockey game at age four.
His father would drive Rob down to Pittsburgh three nights a week for hockey – a trip that took two hours each way. Rob made the move to Pittsburgh for high school when he was thirteen and was picked up as a peewee for the Pittsburgh Hornets, a premiere team now closely affiliated with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and after one year he moved to the rival club, the Pittsburgh Predators.
From Pittsburgh he moved up to Boston where he was recruited by the Walpole Express, based twenty-minutes south of Boston, playing in the Eastern Junior Hockey League. However, he soon moved up to Thorold in Ontario to play in the GOLHL because they played “a wide open style of hockey with a lot of skating and free-flowing hockey.” Unfortunately a serious shoulder injury cut his season short there.
He next played hockey at Mercyhurst University where he had watched the team his father coached when he was growing up. The team played in the American College Hockey Association’s (ACHA) Division 1 and was seen as a stepping stone to a professional career. However, a serious concussion after 6 or 7 games meant six months out for recovery. “It was a real blow because at that point I was sure I was going to play competitive pro hockey,” said Banks.
In 2013 he gave pro hockey one last shot. Rob knew the coach of the Knoxville Ice Bears in the Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL) and after playing a couple of exhibition games with them he was invited to camp, but unfortunately he sustained a third major injury in 4-5 years.
At this point he decided to further his education at the university in Tennessee where his grandfather lived and where football and basketball were far more popular than hockey – the school played in the ACHA’s third division. Banks says “It was pretty much bottom of the ladder hockey but a lot of fun”. Games started late on Friday and Saturday nights at 10:30pm, where the arena would be packed with 700 to 800 loud and often inebriated fans.
From early on in his playing career, Rob had also been involved in coaching. His first experience came in Boston when Rob Boleta, the general manager of his junior team, had a few players help with his weekly hockey clinics. Following their afternoon training they would travel around the Boston area and down to Rhode Island to coach at different locations for a few hours. When he moved back to Erie from Boston during the summer, he worked at an ice rink where he started a clinic for 6-7 kids and saw them develop over six years with most of the first group now playing tier 1 hockey or better.
Rob didn’t coach a team until his mid 20s when he took on a middle school team of 10-13 year olds and he says that was a bit of a wakeup call. “You start to understand what it was like for coaches when you were growing up. How to get a point across to these kids without being too hard or too nice – they just want to chase the puck around,” Banks explained.
When he went back to Erie after graduating from university in Tennessee, he worked for Brian Ramm at High Gear Hockey which is a premier provider of ice hockey and ice skating skill courses in NorthWest Pennsylvania. Robert says that the coaching side of things has “made me a smarter hockey player because when you’re instructing kids you start to pick up on things that you can use in your game”.
In 2016 Rob and Hana, who was graduating that year, decided it was time for some overseas travel. Remembering a great team hockey trip to Germany in 2011 he decided to send resumes to various companies there – when a job came up in Munich mid-July they were off. While there he met an old hockey friend who introduced him to his brother’s hockey team in Moosberg where he began skating with the team twice a week.
It was there that he met and played on the same line as current Red Devils stalwarts Anton Purver and Liam Dallimore. Anton was involved in coaching one of the junior teams and he suggested that Robert come down to NZ and play hockey. After a brief stint back home in Erie, he and Hana made the move to Christchurch and now that they are settled here he says with enthusiasm, “I’m really excited that I was able to stay and am able to stay for years to come in Canterbury!”
Rob feels the difference between America and New Zealand comes down to opportunity. He wonders what a player like Anton, who didn’t get into hockey until he was 15 might have achieved give the opportunities that exist in the USA. He added that he has been impressed with what guys like Dean Tonks are doing here in Christchurch and other centers to develop younger players, and he is enthusiastic about any opportunity to contribute towards the growth of the sport. Rob says all players should study the game and recommends not just simply watching professional hockey like the NHL, but picking one player and watching and learning from that player.
Rob is one of a growing pool of overseas players who are a priceless asset to New Zealand ice hockey. He brings varied experience and knowledge from playing in the premier leagues of North America as well as in teaching young players the intricate skills required to play the game at the highest level. Now settling in Christchurch, he brings an opportunity for the young players of Canterbury to learn from his journey.
Main photo: Josh Fraser