August 06, 2010
(Ed. Note: Welcome to Puck Daddy's August series, "Mount Puckmore," which will feature fans, bloggers and various media personalities of all 30 teams choosing the four defining faces of their franchise. These four people are who you remember most when you think of these teams -- whether they be players, coaches or executives. We'll be running these daily for the rest of the month. Today, representing the Buffalo Sabres, Kris Baker of Sabres Prospects.)
By Kris Baker
It's pretty damn cold in Buffalo. Ice is a natural amenity covering 1/3 of the calendar, and despite all the change the rust belt hub has endured, hard-working Buffalonians have rallied around a frozen downtown sheet for the past 40 years to cheer on their beloved hockey team. With each blustery winter, hope springs eternal that the Sabres will someday skate the Stanley Cup.
The franchise has seen its share of great names come and go since their inaugural puck drop in 1970, yet rounding out the Sabres Mount Puckmore was somewhat challenging. With no championship moments to celebrate and a decision to not consider coaches or executives, the issued boiled down to who are the four iconic players who embodied everything the franchise wants to be known for?
From talented '70s teams emerged leaders like Jim Schoenfeld and Danny Gare. Those affable figures patched a segue way into the '80s when a trio of young Americans -- Mike Ramsey, Phil Housley and Tom Barrasso -- laid foundations for long NHL careers while in a Sabres sweater. Joining them was Dave Andreychuk, a big dependable forward with good hands who scored 368 goals during his stay. Shortly thereafter, a gifted sniper named Alexander Mogilny defected from Russia with one of the deadliest wristers the game has ever seen to light the lamp an amazing 76 times in 1992-93. All had superb numbers. All were keys to the team's success. All were left as also-rans.
Current notables Ryan Miller(notes) and Lindy Ruff also came up short. Miller appears well on his way to someday locking up a spot, but his body of work would likely not qualify if he were to leave tomorrow. A tough utility man and former captain during the '80s, Ruff is more iconic for his longevity behind the bench. He represents a compelling argument as an appreciated asset in team history, but there wasn't enough club in the bag during his playing days to make the cut.
With Buffalo a manufacturing town where folks make their hay with their hands, it seems right that those adorning the Sabres Puckmore worked theirs in a variety of ways from shooting and passing into the Hall of Fame, to scooping pucks with a blocker glove, to starting one of the greatest plays in team history, to punching tickets to penalty boxes league wide.
Long before the era of video games and obnoxious goalie equipment, a dazzling yet laid-back French-Canadian named Gilbert Perreault was stick handling end-to-end nightly en route to piling all 512 of his NHL goals in a Sabres uniform. An obvious choice that will be written about anyways, no other Sabre has played in more games, scored more goals, and totaled more points than the original Sabre himself.
In the summer of 1970, a roulette wheel landed on the No. 11 awarding the fledgling Buffalo franchise the first overall pick in that year's draft ahead of expansion brethren Vancouver. Sabres boss Punch Imlach eagerly snatched the slick Perreault, who in turn uncorked 38 goals as a rookie to win the club's first piece of hardware, the Calder Memorial Trophy.
With recent "History Will Be Made" commercials in mind, Sabres fans should wonder "What if that game of roulette wasn't so kind?"
For starters there would have been no "French Connection," the aptly dubbed Quebecois trio consisting of the wheeling Perreault flanked by finishing wingers Rick Martin and Rene Robert. Perreault's motoring creativity produced pairs of 40- and 50-goal seasons for Martin and two 40-goal outings for Robert (the Canucks didn't have their first 40-goal man until 1978-79), along the way thrusting the franchise to its Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 1974-75.
There also wouldn't have an opportunity for Sabres fans to watch their star player score the overtime goal at the 1978 All-Star game hosted in Buffalo, excel as Wayne Gretzky's wingman at the 1981 Canada Cup, or cheer him five years later as he notched his 500th goal on home-ice against the New Jersey Devils.
The 1970-born clubs have achieved similar levels of success, but Perreault made the Sabres legit from the get-go. The Canucks' consolation prize, a big center named Dale Tallon, scored a scant 98 NHL goals over a 10-year NHL career prior to becoming a color analyst turned Stanley Cup-winning architect in Chicago. Perreault's 16 seasons of high-level play earned a 1990 induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame, whereas the Canucks are still awaiting their first true-blooded inductee.
What a way to start a business.
Toting back-to-back Hart trophies, six Vezinas, franchise marks in wins and shutouts, and an Olympic gold medal, Dominik Hasek not only belongs on the Sabres monument, but perhaps one for all-time goaltenders as well.
A 10th-round draft pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in 1983, "The Dominator" quietly arrived in Buffalo via a 1992 exchanging of Stephane Beauregard and a draft pick that would eventually go down as one of the most lopsided trades in NHL history. An injury knocked future Hall of Famer Grant Fuhr from the nets in 1993, at which point the second-year man took the gig and never looked back on the road to his own guaranteed enshrinement in Toronto. One of his first memorable feats came that spring in the form of a 72-save playoff shutout of the Devils.
It's easy to suggest that Hasek influenced a generation of goaltenders. Any time a modern netminder goes paddle-down along the post, anytime one drops his stick to pick up a loose puck with his blocker glove, and probably anytime you see one sporting an old-school helmet and facemask -- all Hasek. However, it's best to stop short of saying that he revolutionized the position because it's virtually impossible to coach his unorthodox, rubbery methods of puck stopping.
For lack of a better term, Hasek was just sick in the Sabres crease. His acrobatic body stopped pucks that a goaltender has no business stopping, frustrating shooters while backstopping the team to playoff berths in all but one of his eight seasons as the starter. He was masterful in 1998-99 when, in front of what many consider an average team, he posted a ridiculous .937 save percentage to spark the Sabres' second-ever Cup appearance. In between the memorable run, he earned the club worldwide recognition with a dominating performance at the Nagano Olympics to land the Czech Republic its first and only Olympic gold medal.
"MAY DAY! MAY DAY!"
Every Sabres fan can tell you where they were when Brad May(notes) exorcised 10 years of playoff futility by jocking Ray Bourque, freezing Andy Moog, and firing the biscuit into the yawning net to complete the Sabres' sweep of the Boston Bruins in the 1993 playoffs. Can every Sabres fan recall who started that great moment?
Tripped up and falling to his side in the neutral zone, No. 16 in white threaded a needle and hit May's tape to send him on his way to history. The effort, one of several standout points earned in his career, exemplified what Pat Lafontaine was capable of on the ice, and was a reflection of his commitment to assisting plays off it.
With trigger-happy Mogilny riding shotgun, the premier pivot enjoyed some of finest years of his career in Buffalo. The argument will rage over the greatest American-born hockey player of all time, but biased Sabres fans will tell you how hard it is imagining another season like 1992-93 when play-by-play man Rick Jeanneret exclaimed "LALALALALALALALALALA-LAFONTAINE" 53 times as part of his franchise-record 148-point campaign. The total still stands as an NHL single-season best for an American, and was special enough to earn the franchise its first Hart Trophy finalist.
Lafontaine appeared in just 268 games over parts of six injury-riddled seasons in a Sabres sweater, but his 1.4 points-per-game suggests there was never a night off. There weren't many days off either, as the Captain's regular visits to Children's Hospital during his Buffalo playing days paved the way for the establishment of Companions in Courage, a foundation that has offered sick children a positive diversion in over 50 hospitals nationwide.
Hasek expanded the team's boundaries, yet it was Lafontaine's production and leadership that put the team back on the map. His all-around excellence aided the small-market club's transition into a new arena, a fact that weighing heavily when viewing the franchise as a whole.
The future appeared bright in 1989-90, when a scrappy young wing scored on his first shot on goal on his very first NHL shift. Rob Ray would go on to score just 39 more times over his 14 years in Buffalo, but his stay can never be defined by just goals and assists.
Ray was at the forefront of the Sabres' "if you can't beat ‘em, beat ‘em up" approach of the mid-'90s when he, Brad May and Matthew Barnaby were all regulars on the league's penalty minutes leader board. When the going got tough, the inevitable chant of "WE WANT RAY!" would summons the team's chief of police, and the end result was usually a half-naked pugilist raising his fist on the way to the dressing room. His fighting style of shedding equipment was so influential that the NHL changed the way jerseys were worn via the unofficially named "Rob Ray Rule."
In total, the consummate protector dropped the gloves an astonishing 245 times as a Sabre, and that doesn't include the time he jacked-up an ill-advised Nordiques fan that slipped onto the ice and approached the Sabres bench.
So how can a player of limited skill be considered one of the most important players in the team's franchise? It's simple. He was a great teammate; a fan favorite who excelled in a difficult role for a long period of time. He was a huge asset for the overall business.
A bona fide hard hitter, it was Ray's impact off the ice that really cements him here. From his work with the Make a Wish Foundation or his holiday servings to the under-privileged, the heart of gold presence that earned him a King Clancy Memorial Trophy have continued beyond his playing days. As this was being written, Ray was rappelling down the side of a Niagara Falls casino to raise money for the Special Olympics.
By the way, Ray even went as far as protecting the wallets of Buffalonians, once owning a downtown spot named "Rayzor's" where the man notorious for racking up ‘five-for-fighting' offered patrons five drinks for a friendly five bucks.
Ray's loyalty, blue-collar attitude, and desire to make a difference for his team and city could not be overlooked when etching these faces. There's a reason the Sabres gave this guy a giant fishing boat at his retirement ceremony.
Mount Puckmore photo by B.D. Gallof of Hockey Independent