This weekend, the Buffalo Sabres organization and its fans will honor the greatest goaltender in franchise history when Dominik Hasek will be inducted into the Buffalo Sabres Hall of Fame. It’s the precursor to being named to the Hockey Hall of Fame this summer, and it’s also a certainty that his number 39 will be hoisted to the First Niagara Center rafters to join 7,11,14, 2, 18 and 16. I’m looking forward to Hasek’s moment Saturday, but he’s not the Buffalo sports icon I’ve been thinking about this week.
Ralph Wilson’s passing on Tuesday was sad news for all of Western New York. Mr. Wilson, as we are all discovering, did more for this community than most thought. He gave us the Bills before we had the Sabres, and thus an introduction into the “big” leagues.
I had a few memorable interactions with him during my years covering the Bills’ beat and working on the radio network. I remember him welcoming me to training camp my first year on the beat in 1995. It was classy, especially since I was a wide-eyed reporter fresh out of college. Mr. Wilson was considerate each time I spoke or interviewed him. He was a treasure to pro football, and to WNY. May he rest in peace.
But Ralph Wilson is not the person I’m thinking about. My heart is heavy for “our” hero, Jim Kelly. His cancer has returned, and according to many accounts, very aggressively. Doctors have decided not to operate this time, other methods are needed. Former teammates, fans and the community have put #12 in their daily prayers.
That’s because we rally like no other community when one of our own needs us, with Blue 4 Ben being the most recent example. But with Jim Kelly, it feels different. How could our hero be in jeopardy? He’s been a pillar, a rock, a constant in our lives.
Why I am referring to Jim Kelly as “our” hero? Because every town needs a hero, someone to save the day, or in our case, bring hope. Jim Kelly was, and still is, that guy. The Bills were our identity throughout the late 80’s and early 90’s. He gave credibility, recognition and hope to a rust belt city with a declining population and stagnant economy.
Kelly led the Bills to four straight Super Bowls, and even though his team didn’t win any of them, he kept coming back for more. Think about the mental toughness it took to carry on. The further away those four trips become in the rearview mirror, the more remarkable they are.
As impressive as Kelly’s gridiron feats were, his work in honor of his late son, Hunter, is even more incredible. Jim and his family took a private battle public to raise awareness for Krabbe disease. He used his status to raise funds, lean on lawmakers, and help implement testing of newborns to prevent other families from suffering the heartache he probably experiences each day. I was a huge Jim Kelly fan (even when I covered the team), but I’m more impressed and proud of what he’s accomplished for our children, and those to come. It’s a fight he continues to this day.
We needed Jim Kelly here in Buffalo, and we still do. He’s ours. It’s comforting seeing him at a Sabres game, dining at the next table, or just being a father and husband. Jim’s a man of strong faith, and I’m sure he knows the plan was for him to stay in Buffalo all along. Heroes go where they’re needed. Every time I see Jim Kelly, I see someone special. It’s special that he lives here. And even in the face of his battle against cancer, he is giving hope to many others with this horrible disease. His wife, Jill, recently wrote a blog about Jim giving some flowers to a young man who didn’t have much time left. The fellow was absolutely thrilled that #12 stopped by his room to make him feel special. That’s what a hero does: they think of others first.
Now it’s our time to be there for Jim Kelly. Number 12 needs The 12th Man. Buffalo, put your Bills jersey on, dust off the Super Bowl seat cushions, and maybe even wear the Zubaz pants. Now is the time to show our hero we’re still his biggest fans.
This blog still exists?
|Steve Ott (Photo: Sabres.com)|
It’s been a while, but that’s because nothing has happened this off-season. There’s been no news. Those that have been paying attention know that’s false and true. There hasn’t been much lately, but the start of the summer had plenty. So to catch you up, or catch me up, I bring you a new feature to this blog and my daily radio show: “Kevin’s Top 7.”
In this installment: “Kevin’s Top 7” things that have happened so far this summer
- I now host Sabres Hockey Hotline on WGR 550 from 10-noon Monday to Friday.
- Derek Roy was traded to the Dallas Stars for Steve Ott and Adam Pardy.
- John Scott is the new enforcer in town.
- I know how to correctly pronounce both first-round draft picks this year. Zemgus Girgensons and Mikhail Grigorenko (don’t asked if I spelled them correctly).
- There was talk about hockey moving to the Summer Olympics (only on my show, but it was talk!)
- Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Shea Weber bought new cars (I made that up, but they should have with all the $$$$$$$$$$$$ each one signed for).
- There was and is optimism that a deal can get done between the NHL and NHLPA without a lockout.
For further explanation and discussion of each, tune in to the Hotline!
- My goal was not to make this entire blog about the radio show, but I do want to point out that Kevin Snow from Sabres.com joins me frequently on the show and is an excellent contributor.
- The show is broadcast live from the Sabres Store at First Niagara Center each day and you are welcome to stop by and say hello (just not while I’m on the air!)
- That’s all for now. But if you see the pizza truck driving around town, please send it back down to the arena for lunch.
* Is it me, or have things calmed down a bit in the second round? I haven’t watched every minute of every game, but I haven’t witnessed the nastiness that dominated talk in the first round.
* I want to care about the World Championship, but it’s not the same as the old World Cup that used to take place with the game’s best battling for world supremacy before training camps began. The Olympics took that event away, and as long as the NHL participates in the Olympics, I don’t see the World Cup coming back.
* New Montreal GM Marc Bergevin returned Randy Cunneyworth to the position of assistant coach, after he took the arrows as interim head coach of a bad team. Bergevin said that the new head coach will decide whether or not Cunneyworth remains on board. I expect that answer to be yes, given how Cunneyworth handled the bad situation with dignity and the fact he’s a good coach.
* Speaking of good, I thought Bob Cole was, during the CBC broadcast of Devils and Flyers in Game 3 on Thursday night. The broadcast booth in New Jersey might be the highest in the league, but Cole was on the play and identified everyone correctly. So why is that impressive, given that it was Bob Cole? He was born in 1933, so do the math. It’s also nice to hear former Sabres defenseman Garry Galley doing great work alongside Cole.
* I have most of your suggestion in for Pancakes of Buffalo. I’ve already hit the first spot. Reviews and the rankings will be out in a month or so, because I can only eat pancakes once a week!
* Quote of the week comes from daughter when she entered the room and saw me watching hockey: “That’s boring. The Sabres aren’t playing.”
- It seems like forever since the season ended, but it’ll be three weeks on Saturday. Isn’t that hard to believe? I have been trying to figure out why it seems like a long time, and the only conclusion I can come up with is the suddenness of the end. I wasn’t prepared for it to end, and the void that the season being over would leave. The void makes the days and nights seem longer. It’s a complete shift, one that I usually take a month to get used to. Watching the playoff games doesn’t help either, at least for me anyway. I love the competition, but miss the energy surrounding the game and broadcast. I guess I have a double dose of envy. I’m envious of the teams that are still in the hunt for the Stanley Cup, and of the broadcasters who get to deliver the goods each night. Well, I feel better getting that off my chest and no longer need to visit my therapist!
- So much for my pick of Pittsburgh coming out of the East. I wasn’t alone, as most expert picks were for the Penguins. The big question in Pittsburgh is: what happened to Marc-Andre Fleury? He wasn’t the flower that we’ve seen in years past. Of course, I’m not giving credit to the Flyers for a tremendous performance in the first round. That team should be commended for their resiliency and spirit.
- Brendan Shanahan has received a ton of criticism this season for suspensions he’s given or not given to offending players. I’m not sure what the league is paying him, but it’s not enough. No matter what he does, he gets ripped. However, he did get it right by suspending Raffi Torres for 25 games. There was nothing redeeming about that hit or the intent of it.
- I received a tweet reminding me of my “Pancakes of NHL” blog from last summer. Following that blog I asked for some recommendations for right here in Buffalo. As a follow up, the web staff and I would like to do “Pancakes of Buffalo.” We need some suggestions, but there are two rules: 1) It can’t be a chain restaurant, and 2) You can’t be the owner of the establishment. Send your submissions to me via my Twitter account - @kevsylvester. We’ll visit the top five suggestions and provide the rankings right here at Sabres.com.
* I’ve received several inquiries as to what I’ve been doing with myself since the season ended. The answer: my taxes. And the government wins again! That’s sort of true. I’ve found the end of the season to be a strange place. So much is put into a campaign physically and emotionally by the entire staff, and the sudden finish is not easy to digest. Walking into First Niagara Center without the ice and activity is a bit depressing. It’s a daily reminder of what could have been. That’s how I feel at least. I’m sure for many fans it’s even tougher, given all the emotion and discretionary dollars invested in the team. That shouldn’t be taken lightly, and I can assure you it isn’t, as management combs over the team and how to improve it. Nobody is happy, but they’re not sitting around wallowing in it either. It’s time to evaluate and move forward.
* It will be interesting to see how some of the players expected to be here full time next season perform in the playoffs for the Rochester Americans. In particular: Marcus Foligno, Corey Tropp, Luke Adam, Brayden McNabb and TJ Brennan. They were difference makers in the final push to make the AHL postseason and need to continue that. David Leggio is also intriguing between the pipes given he was the team’s MVP this season. And I’ll add one more player in center Kevin Sundher. He joins the Amerks after finishing his junior season, although his playoff production with the Brandon Wheat Kings was low with only three points in nine games.
* You have to love the monikers of junior hockey teams in Canada. For example, the Brandon Wheat Kings.
* My son asked me last week why we were not in Florida for spring break like many of his friends. My answer: If I worked for the Columbus Blue Jackets we would have been. That may have been an unnecessary shot at Columbus, but I thought it was better than telling him I’m too cheap to book last minute.
* Drama aside, it’s great to have every playoff game available on TV. Great move by the NHL and NBC.
* I think Kenny Albert and Joe Micheletti did a nice job handling the Chicago/Phoenix game following the Raffi Torres hit on Marian Hossa. That’s not easy to handle a situation like that, but they were class all the way. Micheletti particularly handled the Joel Quenneville interview well, as the Blackhawks coach was rightly irate over the hit that was not penalized. In the end, however, it was not a good night for the NHL with one of the league’s better players carted off on a stretcher. As for that hit and other offenses that have resulted in fines and suspensions this post season, whatever happened to respect for your competitor? I may be wrong, but it used to be you hated the opponent and played as hard as you could against him. You didn’t try to injure him. What did Torres think was going to happen when he charged from across the ice and launched himself into Hossa? Any idiot would know connecting on the hit would be devastating. NHL players are in great shape, but they don’t train to acquire mass to absorb hits like that. Football players do. I like a good hit just as well as the next guy, but the brutal predatory hits need to be eliminated from the game. There’s no place in the NHL for Ronnie Lott. I guess the suspensions and fines will have to be longer and heftier, which will likely have to be negotiated into the next CBA. Additionally, the players union shares some responsibility in this and should have a general meeting of its constituents to discuss ending some of the carnage.
- Admit it: six weeks ago you didn’t believe they could do it. Few did. Here’s the truth on what I felt. I knew they could play better and put together another run, but I didn’t think the other teams in the race would let Buffalo back in. They did, and as of today, the Sabres are in. They deserve to be. The players in that room believed in one another, including the new faces that joined the team. The coaching staff may deserve even more credit. Lindy Ruff never wavered in his belief that his team had a run in them, and continued to show up for work and meetings despite the pain of broken ribs. That may have gained him more respect from the team, a team that he clearly did not lose. Now, all they have to do is finish it off.
- Ryan Miller has been lights out the past two months. He has achieved something this season that didn’t seem possible in early January -- reach 30 wins. It’s the seventh time in his career he has won that many games, an affirmation of his excellence and drive that he has. He’s currently on a five-game winning streak, along with the team, but his two biggest wins came a month ago. The Sabres made the splashiest trades on deadline day, sending Paul Gaustad to Nashville for a first-round pick; and trading Zack Kassian and Marc-Andre Gragnani to Vancouver for Cody Hodgson and Alexander Sulzer. Many saw it as a sign of giving up and moving to the future. The players may have been in a bit of shock heading to the West Coast for tough matchups against Anaheim and San Jose on back-to-back nights. Miller clearly wasn’t. He put the team on his shoulders, playing the best back-to-back set of games I’ve witnessed, shutting out the Ducks and Sharks. I think his performance in those two games is what propelled this team to where they are today.
- Lindy Ruff should be nominated for the Jack Adams Award for coach of the year. My other two candidates would be Kevin Dineen of the Panthers and Ken Hitchcock of St. Louis. With that said, Hitchcock will likely be the consensus winner for turning St. Louis into a beast of a team.
- If you know my wife, wish her happy birthday this week. I will be giving her the greatest gift any woman could want: shower caps of the NHL! Cheap, but thoughtful.
- I want to thank Danny Gare for his work this season on the road broadcasts. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner in the booth. I hope you appreciated his knowledge, passion and enthusiasm for the game as much as I did.
I was inspired by visiting so many cities the last month that I’ve decided to become a slogan writer for the visitor bureau’s of each. Marketing of an area and its image is important. The right slogan can mean everything. Buffalo currently has the marketing campaign: “Buffalo. For Real.” This year it should have been: “Buffalo. Mother Nature vacations here.” Brilliant, but who could have predicted our weather-less winter? Maybe they’ll use it next year (just remember you heard it here first).
So, with great risk and attempt at humor, the following are my city slogans for some of the NHL cities we visited this season along with short explanations.
Boston: “Lowda Chowda” – Have you been to a game at TD Garden? You can’t hear yourself think.
Philadelphia: “Sleep well?” – This is in reference to the loudest inner city in America. We stay in a very nice place, but it’s so loud throughout the night with all of the sirens and fire engines. I guess there isn’t that much brotherly love going around.
Raleigh (Carolina): “Take back Buffalo” – I’ve noticed a growing resentment towards all of the transplanted Western New Yorkers that now live there and attend the games sporting their Blue and Gold proudly. The alternate slogan is “We do have a downtown.” I’ve never been there, and doubt I ever will.
Anaheim: “We’re not really L.A.” – Depends on who you ask. Some will say that Anaheim is really part of Los Angeles, and others will say that Orange County is definitely not L.A. I don’t really know or care, because traffic stinks in both.
San Jose: “Curfew is 11:30” – You are welcome to visit San Jose, just make sure you get there by 11:30 p.m. or leave by then. The airport has that curfew, so we had to fly to Oakland following the Anaheim game and take a bus to San Jose. Not a huge deal, but it did add 40 minutes to our trip, and stress on the bladder.
Vancouver: “It’s wet here” – Vancouver is beautiful…in July. Other than that, it’s wet and foggy. (Sort of kidding.) The city is beautiful and diverse, but man it has to get depressing there with all of the rain in the winter.
Detroit: “For Sale” – I love going to games at The Joe in downtown Detroit. Other than that, there’s no reason to go to downtown Detroit. It’s empty with plenty of buildings available. It’s actually sad.
Newark (New Jersey): “We’re not Secaucus!” – That’s not saying much. I now know what David Letterman has been joking about for all of these years.
Winnipeg: “We’re closed.” – Try finding someplace to eat dinner on Sunday night in downtown Winnipeg. And you thought it was going to be: “Hell isn’t hot.”
-The three-game suspension for Tyler Myers is too much. The boarding of Scott Gomez was a bad hit on Myers’ part, and he was right to expect some supplemental discipline. I figured it would be $2500 or one game at the most. But three games doesn’t seem right. Myers is a first-time offender. Zac Rinaldo received nothing for hitting Nathan Gerbe, and there are other examples of hits that have gone unpunished. I think Myers is a victim of timing, with the hit occurring on the final day of the General Managers’ meetings in which player safety was part of the discussion. I also think it was an opportunity for Brendan Shanahan to send a message to the rest of the league that things will still be policed and punished despite this being the stretch run. It’s still too harsh to have Myers suspended for 25 percent of the remainder of the schedule.
- It’s one week before the NHL trade deadline and I’m asked quite frequently at games and on Bitter (my name for Twitter) what the Sabres are going to do, and what can we get for so and so? They’re great questions and I wish I had the answers (if I did I’d be working down the hall in the hockey department). However, I do have a few opinions to offer. I think this year is a really difficult year for General Managers across the league to navigate this deadline, especially in the Eastern Conference. It’s close. The Sabres sit (today) seven points out of the final playoff spot in the East, but with six teams to overtake for the spot. It’s possible, but oddsmakers say highly improbable. Anything can happen, as we witnessed last year. The deals to date have been for pending UFA’s heading to teams that are in good playoff position right now in exchange for draft picks. Tampa Bay sent two players (Pavel Kubina and Dominic Moore) packing despite being only 6 points out. Is Tampa GM Steve Yzerman giving up on the season? I doubt it. I think he received good draft picks for players that he didn’t plan on re-signing. To me, that’s the right approach when you’re not currently in a playoff spot. If you get a good offer for pending free agents (UFA or RFA) that you have no future plans for, then trade them. Other than that, I’d be very cautious with other players you still have under term or that anybody else does.
- Sometimes you’re too close to the forest to see the trees. I feel that way about Sabres captain Jason Pominville. I knew he was a good player, but I was blind to how good. I guess it’s because he was always in the line-up as the Sabres “iron man” until being blindsided by Niklas Hjalmarsson last season. The coaching staff knew, and that’s why he was named captain in Helsinki, Finland, back in October. His numbers are tops on the team with 23 goals and 57 points. He kills penalties, and can move around on the power play from the point to the front of the net, and averages 19:29 of ice time per game. Those numbers speak for themselves. What really convinced me was talking to Thomas Vanek, and seeing what Ville Leino was able to do playing with Pominville. Leino has played his best hockey for the Sabres during stints on Pominville’s line. I think it’s because Pominville adjusted to Leino’s style and can read what Leino is going to do with the puck. I recently asked Thomas Vanek if we don’t realize how good the Sabres captain is. His response (and I’m paraphrasing): ‘We all know how good he is and I think the fans in Buffalo do too. I personally love playing with him, because he’s always in the right spot. He puts in himself in great position.’ I also asked Sabres assistant coach Kevyn Adams the same question. Adams said (once again paraphrasing): ‘I know from having played against him how good he is. Believe me, guys in the league are aware who Jason Pominville is and how tough he is to play against.’ I always knew he was good, but am a little embarrassed that it took a letter on his sweater for me to notice.
- I was reading the results of the Hockey Night in Canada/NHLPA 2011-12 Player Poll today and wanted to share a few items. Judging by all the categories he won, Pavel Datsyuk is regarded as the best player in the league by his peers. Datsyuk was voted the smartest player, most difficult to play against, hardest to take the puck from, most difficult to stop, cleanest player, and the toughest player to play against. The only one of those I would take exception to would be smartest player. My vote is for George Parros of the Anaheim Ducks. He played four years at Princeton (no dummies allowed), and has figured out how to stay in the league for seven years and counting, while becoming a fan favorite in Anaheim. That’s smart. He’s a fighter, and that’s the other thing I would like to share from the survey. The poll also said that 47 percent of the players are in favor of getting rid of the instigator penalty, while 98 percent want to keep fighting in the game. Count me in on the latter.
|Tyler Ennis (Photo: Bill Wippert)
I respect Claude Julien as a coach, and he’s excellent with the media during interviews. He gives thoughtful and insightful answers to questions on strategy and match ups. However, I had to chuckle when NBC’s Pierre McGuire asked Julien what the Sabres were doing to frustrate his team during Buffalo’s eventual 6-0 win. Julien said, and this may not be exact, ‘Nothing. It’s what we’re not doing. We could be a lot better.’ Of course they could, but the reason was what the Sabres were doing to prevent that! In Claude’s defense, every coach gives that answer when getting thumped during a game so forgive me for picking on him.
The game of hockey brings people together. From the grass roots level of youth hockey, to the big events like this weekend’s Labatt Pond (street this year) Tournament, people form bonds that become quickly cemented. That also happened this year with the Buffalo Sabres trip to Europe to start the season. Specifically, the first three days spent practicing in Mannheim, and the final exhibition match up against Adler Mannheim. The fans in Mannheim were nothing short of fantastic. The tribute they paid to hometown hero Jochen Hecht prior to the game was something I’m sure he’ll never forget, because I sure won’t. They sang in chorus, “Jochen, Jochen” as he took warm ups and was the last to leave the ice, still recovering from a training camp concussion. The local fans weren’t finished there. They sang and chanted the entire game, paid another great tribute to the retiring Rene Corbet, and finished things off chanting ‘Let’s Go Buffalo.’ It was the best atmosphere for a non-playoff game that I’ve ever witnessed. But that’s not all.
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Finally, Dave Andreychuk is the featured speaker at the Friday’s Power Play Luncheon. It begs me to ask one rhetorical question. How is he not in the Hockey Hall of Fame? The case is simple: 1639 games played, 640 goals, 698 assists, all time leader in pp goals with 274, and captained Tampa Bay to the Stanley Cup at age 40.
*Yesterday was Groundhog Day, and Punxsutawney Phil and Dunkirk Dave had differing opinions on winter. Phil saw his shadow and predicted 6 more weeks of winter, while Dave didn’t and says it will get warmer soon. Either way we win, because this has been the winter that wasn’t.
*The last three games have felt like Groundhog Day (the great movie starring Bill Murray) with great goaltending from Ryan Miller and excellent defense. It’s also no coincidence that his better play coincided with the return of Christian Ehrhoff to the lineup. The reason Ehrhoff was coveted, rights acquired, and subsequently signed was for his offensive and puck handling skills. He can eat up minutes, taking some of the load off of Robyn Regher, thus making him more effective. I also think the pairings Lindy Ruff has been able to put together on the back end have made a big difference at both ends of the ice. Tyler Myers and Ehrhoff are both offensive threats and able to carry the puck the entire length of the rink, helping with puck control. Mike Weber, to me anyway, is a more confident and aggressive player when paired with Regher. Jordan Leopold is the unsung player on this team, and if all stay healthy, he could add some stability to Andrej Sekera and hopefully get #44 back to his early season form.
*I was asked quite a bit how the latest long road trip was. My last blog touched on a good deal of it, but here are a few more items. The team went 2-5-0, losing the first five and winning the last two with the All-Star break as a buffer. We’re in and out of cities so quickly that results are how I judge trips. But I do remember a few off-ice items, and here they are. The Buffalo streets department needs to send someone to St. Louis and teach how to handle freezing rain, especially on the sidewalks. The restaurant that most of us dined at two weeks ago was one block from the hotel, but it was the toughest walk in the league. The sidewalks were as smooth as Ken Johnson (aka “Slick-The Doctor of Style” – a wrestling reference for Kevin Snow). I witnessed a group of players trying to maneuver crossing the street like a pack of penguins, bunched together using short choppy steps, arm in arm to prevent a fall. It worked, as they made it without mishap. The same cannot be said for the broadcast crew.
Brian Duff and I are in the clothing business. Yes, we try to look our best on the show (with a great assist to Napoli’s), but research is required too. So, during our stay in New Jersey, we talked our way into a men’s clothing show at an adjacent convention center to our hotel. Oddly enough, we were the main attraction. Why? We didn’t know it was predominantly a street style show, so we stuck out like sore thumbs in our tailored suits and black overcoats. One vendor asked if we were feds making sure things were legit. We took the hint (along with more stares) and left. Duffer did snag one free sample: a pair of burlap cargo shorts. They’re beyond sweet.
I tweeted and mentioned on the air during the Montreal game that we took a cab from our hotel to the Bell Centre. That’s usual practice in most cities, but not for the two blocks that separate these two entities. For the record, I was willing to walk despite the snow and cold. It was Danny Gare that made the call. Also for the record, it was the right call and I’m glad I went. I was able to witness Danny’s incredible ability to communicate in French with the cab driver, despite barely knowing a word of the language.
*One note from the game in New Jersey, and it’s a high one. I heard some discussion on the radio as to why we just didn’t say Tyler Myers was struck in the groin when he blocked the initial shot that lead to Patrick Elias’s goal. Two reasons: (1) We were so high up and couldn’t call for exact replays to see where it actually hit him, and (2) There was no need to be crass or exact in what was obviously an agonizing moment. We’ve all been there. I did ask Myers after the game if the puck did indeed catch him where we thought it did. His answer was that it just missed, but was close enough. Still ... ouch!