Listening to the excitement in Derek Plante’s voice, it was as if he had just scored off Ron Tugnutt’s glove all over again.
“The old team is coming back!” Plante said by phone. “It’s great.”
News traveled fast last week when the Sabres brought back Pat LaFontaine and Ted Nolan to run the organization and coach the team. Folks greeted the hirings with almost universal acceptance, and that was especially true for the alumni.
“It’s a good recipe to try to fix this thing,” former defenseman Garry Galley said. “This was the smartest, best move to make to settle everything down. It’s an opportunity to come together and get this thing turned around because that’s a great market. I loved my time there, so I’d like to see it get turned around and back to where it belongs.”
Like the fans, it pained former players to see the Sabres descend into shambles. No matter where they are now – Plante, for example, is an assistant coach for the University of Minnesota-Duluth, while Galley is based in Ottawa and works for CBC’s “Hockey Night in Canada” – Buffalo remains part of their lives.
“It’s not like, ‘Adios, goodbye, I’m on to my next team, and I’ll do whatever I’m doing for the rest of my life and I won’t ever look back,’” said Larry Playfair, the Sabres’ director of alumni relations and former president of the alumni association. “It’s part of us. For a lot of us, it’s the women we ended up marrying. It’s the town our kids went to school in. Hockey brought us to Buffalo, N.Y.
“All along the way, when the team is doing well we’re happy. When the team is not doing well we’re upset. It’s not something you get to turn on and off. … A lot of our guys were disappointed. The bottom line is all of our alumni guys are truly fans, maybe with a little bit more invested because at one point in their lives they were part of the team.”
They want to see respectability restored to Sabreland, and the guys who played with LaFontaine and under Nolan believe that will happen.
Plante was LaFontaine’s roommate on the road. The center had the two best seasons of his eight-year career under Nolan, totaling 50 goals and 59 assists from 1995 to ’97. Plante became part of Sabres folklore in 1997 by scoring in overtime of Game Seven against Ron Tugnutt and Ottawa to put Buffalo into the second round.
“It starts at the top, and if you can get the right people in place you’ll start having success again,” Plante said. “Patty cares about the area and the team, so I was excited for him and the Sabres. He’s got a ton of ideas. I’ve talked to him a few times, and he’s always got stuff going on. He wants to do the right thing for the Sabres and be in a position that he can hire the right people.”
Galley, who spent three years on the Sabres’ blue line in the mid-1990s, also said LaFontaine’s passion will benefit him.
“Patty cares, and that’s the thing,” Galley said. “He is a knowledgeable, intelligent guy. He speaks very well. He speaks from the heart. He means what he says. He’s not going to try to make things into what they’re not, and he’s going to be accountable for what he does.”
While running a professional team is new to LaFontaine, he knows how to lead organizations. His Companions in Courage charity has put interactive children’s areas in 17 hospitals across North America.
“You don’t get to be successful all by yourself,” Playfair said. “You need to have people you can trust. He does that with his Companions in Courage program. He’s really made some substantial impacts around the country, and while other people did some of the heavy lifting for him, certainly he was the leader with that.”
When it comes to people LaFontaine trusts, the faith he has in Nolan is absolute.
“His relationship with Patty is a special one,” Galley said. “There was a lot of chaos and pandemonium going on in that organization in the latter parts of my career between John Muckler and Teddy and all that mess between John and Patty, and then Dominik Hasek in the mix. It was an absolute firestorm.
“There’s no doubt that Patty and Teddy formed an alliance. They trusted one another, and that friendship and trust has stayed true through all these years.”
Nolan’s motivational skills carried the Sabres during his first two seasons. It was clear during his opening few days he hasn’t lost his touch.
“From all the coaches I’ve had, I’d put him right up there near the top,” said Galley, who played for six organizations in 17 seasons. “He had the ability to come at you in straight lines. There’s no games. He doesn’t believe in playing games. He puts his trust and faith in you, and he expects you to answer it.
“He’s a guy that I would run through a wall for. Those are the guys that you want to be surrounded with, and those are the cultures you truly appreciate.”
It’s nice to have that culture back.
“All the former players, we’re going to need their support and we want them to take pride and be passionate about the product that’s on the ice,” LaFontaine said. “I know the alumni will support anything we’re doing going forward.”
Close the book
It’s unlikely – far, far beyond unlikely – that Ron Rolston will make a Nolan-like return, so he closed his Sabres coaching career with a 19-26-6 record. If you turn the overtime and shootout victories into ties, he was 9-26-16.
Craig Ramsay had the fewest games and victories behind the Buffalo bench, going 4-15-2 during his 21 games in 1985-86. Jim Schoenfeld (43 games in 1985-86) and Jim Roberts (45 in 1981-82) also had shorter tenures than Rolston’s 51-game stay.
Rolston’s closest counterpart in the NHL coaching annals is a member of the Sabres’ scouting staff. Randy Cunneyworth went 18-23-9 as the interim coach for Montreal in 2011-12. Sprague Cleghorn was 19-22-7 for the Montreal Maroons in 1931-32.
For all his faults, Rolston can at least say he had a better coaching run than Rick Paterson, Gary Agnew, Godfrey Matheson, Mike Rodden and Dick Duff. They are the only coaches of record who never won a game. Eddie Bush went 1-23-8 with the Kansas City Scouts in 1975-76.
Bishop moves up
Ben Bishop flamed out in last year’s world championships and didn’t even get invited to USA Hockey’s Olympic orientation camp. The Tampa Bay goaltender might be on his way to Sochi, though.
Bishop entered Saturday’s schedule as the top American goalie. He was 13-2 with a 1.96 goals-against average (fifth in the league) and .932 save percentage (ninth). New Jersey’s Cory Schneider was the only U.S. netminder close in GAA (1.98) while the Sabres’ Ryan Miller was second in save percentage (.919).
Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick will be out up to six weeks with the groin strain he suffered Tuesday in Buffalo, putting his return right on the cusp of the announcement of the team. USA Hockey will name its Olympic squad Jan. 1 at the Winter Classic in Michigan.
On the fly
• The Bruins opened 12-6-1, which should help them survive what will likely be a late-season swoon. They’ll have at least six players go to Russia for the Olympics, and they will return to an arduous 17-game schedule in March.
• Mired in a slump of 12 games without a goal, Pittsburgh star Evgeni Malkin swapped out all of his equipment to try to change his luck. Penguins fans were expecting him to reach for a different cup.
• Ladislav Smid, traded from Edmonton to Calgary, needed a lot of help to go the 185 miles to the Saddledome. “I thought, I’m just going to take a turn left here – and it was a one-way,” the defenseman said. “Seriously, I was like, ‘I’m lost. I don’t want to be lost anymore.’ I just pulled over and Googled the Saddledome address.”