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Core strength Sabres built around a group that's in it for the long haul

Jason Pominville was clueless. He was just a 19-year-old kid, out on his own for the first time, living in a new country. The only banks he'd dealt with involved caroms off the side boards. He needed a phone, but he didn't know who to call to get one. Besides, how can you call someone about a phone when you don't have one?

In stepped new Rochester teammate Andrew Peters. The big guy had been out in the world for a whole two years already in the fall of 2002, making him a wise, old sage at the tender age of 22.

"We come into Rochester and we were all 20, 21 years old, never really lived on our own," Pominville recalled recently. "I'd never paid a bill on my own. Our first year I actually lived with Petey and he had to teach me everything about how to pay bills and . . . hook me up with cell phones."

It was similar throughout the dressing room. Fellow first-year pros Ryan Miller and Paul Gaustad asked teammates for help now and then. The next two seasons, when Derek Roy and Thomas Vanek arrived in Rochester, more of the same life lessons were taught and learned.

And now? Well, let's just say there's no reason for Vanek, Miller, Pominville, Roy or Gaustad to worry about paying bills or finding a cell phone. They can do it, of course, but with contracts ranging from $9.2 million to $50 million each, they can just have their accountants or personal assistants take care of it.

"It's fun to see that everybody has done well for themselves," Pominville said while marveling at the past six years. "It was a great experience for us. We've matured together. We've grown together. It's just great to look around the room and see the faces are the same ones that have been here for five, six, seven years together."

The amazing thing for those five is the experiences are far from over. Along with Jochen Hecht, they are the core of the Buffalo Sabres. They are six of the players the team relies on most, and they are the six guys who aren't going anywhere. The contracts they signed in the past 15 months will keep them together at least four more seasons, and half of the group is scheduled to be in Buffalo two years beyond that.

"It's pretty special," Miller said. "It's something I'm really proud of. A big reason that I wanted to stay is I just wanted to keep the guys I'm familiar with.

"I'm sitting here seven years deep with a few guys, and I consider them some of my best friends. It's just kind of the attitude. You're around them, you get to know each other, you have a history. I know just a ton about these guys, where they came from, what they're all about, what they want to do in their life. Not just in hockey, but everything, because you have that time to talk. You're sitting on the bus, and you're talking about everything. You're on the plane, you're goofing around, and you're talking about life.

"It's what you do with your friends -- your best friends."

Every team in every sport has players who are close. But the Sabres seem to take their kinship higher. As Miller said, it's because of their history.

When Miller sees Gaustad on the ice, he doesn't just see a physical forward. He sees a friend he traveled through Europe with this summer. He sees the buddy who was standing next to him in the fall of 2005, when their lifelong dreams were fulfilled.

They were rookies then, hardly a relaxing existence. Most are forced to live in hotels, because there's no reason to get a house if a trip to the minors can come at any moment. One day, Lindy Ruff summoned them. Surrounded by uncertainty, they marched to see the coach. Guys, he said, it's time you found a place to live.

They nodded stoically until Ruff was out of sight, then unleashed a celebration worthy of being assured you're finally an NHL regular. Amidst the leaps and high-fives, they decided to become housemates, which built a bridge from the top moment of their lives to the best year they'd ever lived.

Pominville and Roy, meanwhile, recall sitting in Rochester early in the '05-06 season, watching on TV as the struggling Sabres got dismantled by Ottawa, 10-4.

"We were kind of like, 'Hmmm,' " Pominville said as they wondered whether their call was coming. "Like an hour later, the phone rings."

Roy was on his way to the Sabres, and Pominville was in Buffalo a few weeks later. They've been here ever since.

"We all strived to have that one common goal of playing in the NHL, and I think that kind of brought us a little bit closer together," Gaustad said.

The players and organization are betting a close team means a great team. It's why the players committed to staying together long term, and it's why the organization gave the six of them more than $155 million to do so.

"I see an organization that's trying to win, trying to get players to play for the city, play for the team," Roy said. "When you know a guy for 10 years, you know a lot more about him, and it's easier to go to battle with him during the game."

Craig Rivet, in his first few weeks with Buffalo, has already seen the camaraderie the Sabres possess. A group of teammates was gathered around the defenseman's stall, regaling him with stories of musical jam sessions they've held. He watched them laugh and poke fun at each other.

"I think I'm going to like it here," he said.

What Rivet is buying into is a new chapter in Sabres history. If the six core players stay through their contracts, they'll have been NHL teammates for seven seasons. Miller and Pominville could have a 12-year partnership, including their three-season run through the minors.

It's tough to find a time when the Blue and Gold had so many key figures together for so long. The sextet of the French Connection (Gilbert Perreault, Richard Martin and Rene Robert), Don Luce, Craig Ramsay and Jim Schoenfeld spent six years together. Danny Gare joined Perreault, Ramsay, Luce and Schoenfeld for a seven-year stint. Mike Foligno, Phil Housley, Mike Ramsey and Dave Andreychuk took the ice for eight seasons.

For this newest group, the potential for an even longer journey exists because of the players' ages. Miller is 28, Gaustad is 26, Pominville and Roy are 25, and Vanek is 24.

"I like the youth that we have, except for me," the 31-year-old Hecht said with a smile. "They haven't even hit their prime. That's really good for the future and really interesting to see what's coming and how they're going to build around those guys, get a team that can contend for the Cup."

The Stanley Cup is, after all, the point of this long-term-deal era.

"Longevity and success are the two words that you've got to put together," Ruff said. "If you don't have any success, the longevity doesn't usually stay."

The group knows not everyone gets a chance to have a chapter like this. It's rare, it's special, and they're treating it as such.

"Everybody's worked hard to get to where they are right now," Gaustad said. "We still have a lot to accomplish as a group, though: with these guys signed; in this locker room; everybody. We've kind of got to prove ourselves."

The fact they can do it together allows Miller to dream big. Before he was a die-hard Sabre, he was a dyed-in-the-wool Michigan State Spartan, with friends as close as the ones he has now. His graduating class never won a national championship, so it is remembered more for his Hobey Baker Award than for being a group of guys who achieved a lot together.

Miller doesn't want individual honors to define this team. He yearns for a time when people will look back and remember how a bunch of friends learned to translate bills together, and that bond paid off with a Stanley Cup.

"We've done great things," Miller said. "We've had some fun. We're good people. We've done things in the community that are positive, and everybody embraces Buffalo.

"But I think we really need to be defined by something bigger, and we want it to be a legacy of a championship."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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