Just as they’re undergoing on the ice, the Buffalo Sabres are slowly moving through a major transition in the broadcast booth.
The latest changes came Wednesday as the team announced longtime analyst Mike Robitaille will retire after this season and former Buffalo forward Brad May will join the television team on a limited basis before moving into Robitaille’s slot full time next season. It’s similar to the phased-in role for Dan Dunleavy, who will replace Rick Jeanneret as the play-by-play man in 2016.
Robitaille, a former Buffalo defenseman who spent four of his nine NHL seasons with the Sabres, was hired in 1980 to join the Sabres radio/TV crews. He has served multiple roles and one of his most well-known was as the original host of “Hockey Hotline,” the popular Empire Sports Network postgame show that reached its zenith in the late ’90s and early 2000s when Robitaille was teamed with Brian Blessing.
Robitaille is 65 years old and has been slowed by a 2010 car accident that resulted in spinal surgery. Robitaille has dealt with back and neck pain since suffering a career-ending broken neck with Vancouver in 1977.
“It’s never an easy decision to walk away from doing something that you love,” Robitaille said. “Hockey and the Sabres have been a major part of my life for the better part of 33 years and I felt now was a good time for me to step away. Many things factored into my decision, one being that the health effects from my car accident a few years back have become more of a struggle to work through. More importantly, however, is my desire to have more quality time to spend with my family.”
“Roby epitomizes hockey in Buffalo and he’s treated the fans here to more than three decades of his incredible knowledge and passion for the game,” Sabres President Ted Black said. “His insight and humor will be missed on our broadcasts next season but he will certainly be around our Sabres family for years to come. It will be special to see Roby pass the torch to Brad, who brings a similar player’s perspective to his analysis.”
May, a former Sabres first-round draft pick, will work approximately 25 road games and some home games. He will continue to work this season for Rogers Sportsnet in Toronto, where he has been an analyst for three seasons.
“It’s very exciting to see my career come full circle,” May said. “I was drafted by the Sabres 23 years ago and now I’ll have the opportunity to come back to Buffalo to start another chapter of my hockey life and my broadcasting career. My goal is to bring my experiences as a player to the broadcasts and help fans get another perspective .”
Zemgus Girgensons’ parents traveled from Latvia to Detroit to see their son’s NHL debut Wednesday but ran into delays in Norway and arrived after the final buzzer, missing the 19-year-old scoring the Sabres’ only goal in his first NHL game.
Girgensons said his parents were driving from Detroit to Buffalo on Thursday morning so they could attend the game tonight.
Girgensons had a rough first shift in the NHL with a couple of giveaways but Ryan Miller made a couple of saves and eventually killed the play to bail out his teammates. Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, the 18-year-old the Sabres drafted with their top pick in June, was also on the ice at that time.
“Me and Risto definitely will remember the first shift,” Girgensons said Thursday. “A pretty rough one. We had good laughs this morning. We watched some video of it and it was pretty funny to look at the couple mistakes. It wasn’t funny at that point but they didn’t score so it’s kind of fun to look at it.
“Everyone plays more intense but definitely it was just you get a little nervous. That’s about it. You just overthink some stuff. In the third period everyone played really well. We had patience. Every period we improved.”
The Sabres are planning an elaborate opening ceremony tonight. Large screens have been hanging from the roof of the building this week, presumably to project player images and video in the manner used by teams such as Vancouver. There is also a pregame Party in the Plaza running from 4:30 to 6:30. p.m.
Tonight is Ottawa’s season opener. Former Canisius College star Cory Conacher, traded to the Senators from Tampa Bay in April, is expected to open on the second line with center Kyle Turris and former Sabre Clarke MacArthur. Ottawa’s top line will feature Jason Spezza centering Milan Michalek and newly acquired Bobby Ryan.