Danny Briere looked out the window when the Canadiens’ charter made its final descent Tuesday and drew the same conclusion he reached when he arrived from Phoenix more than a decade earlier. He saw a landscape blanketed in white and was greeted by a damp chill when he exited the aircraft.
It felt like hockey.
And it felt like home.
“It’s always fun coming back,” Briere said. “Coming here and seeing the snow on the ground made me realize just how special it is. I stepped off the plane and started laughing. It still feels like home even though I’ve been gone for a few years.”
It has been more than six years since Briere and fellow co-captain Chris Drury left town as unrestricted free agents after leading the Sabres to consecutive trips to the conference finals. Both wanted to stay, but management left them with little choice. You know the story. Their exits marked a dark day in franchise history.
At the time, I remember saying the Sabres would need five years to overcome their departures. Boy, was I wrong. Six years after posting the best record in the NHL, the Sabres own the worst record in the league. The people responsible have been replaced, but Buffalo is a long way from recovery.
Pat LaFontaine & Co., will spend time putting the pieces back together and figuring out who they can keep for the long haul. Their 3-1 loss Wednesday was just another step in lengthy process that began two weeks ago, when Terry Pegula finally came to his senses and booted Darcy Regier.
“I always had a good relationship with Darcy,” Briere said. “I have nothing bad to say about him. Following that sentence, I think it’s exciting that Pat LaFontaine is back. For me, personally, to see Patty coming aboard and trying to turn this franchise around, it’s very exciting. I’m happy to see that. It’s amazing.”
Remember, it was a player from a division rival talking. Too often, players say what they think the public wants to hear or follow the company line. Briere genuinely liked Buffalo, and he continued saying so long after he left. He’s had an affinity for LaFontaine that goes back to his childhood.
Briere, 36, was most often compared to LaFontaine in terms of playing style. Both were undersized forwards who built their games around speed and creativity. Both were right-handed shots and sneaky dirty. Both were consummate professionals. And both had concussion issues late in their careers.
The game Wednesday night against the Sabres was the seventh for Briere since he took a shot to the jaw against Nashville eight games into the season. The Canadiens signed him to a two-year contract worth $8 million amid fears they were getting damaged goods, a player susceptible to concussions.
Really, nobody knew for sure.
Briere dismissed his latest knockout as he did the others, as an occupational hazard and inconvenience that comes with being a player. He suffered several during his time with the Flyers and likely had others that were undetected or unreported. He brushed off the recent injury as simple misfortune, a fluke, no big deal.
“I’m not a doctor,” he said. “But for me, if I take the time to let it heal, if I don’t try to come back when it happens, I’m fine when I do come back. I’m ready to go. That’s the thing with concussions. They’re different with every player. For some guys, it lingers on and on. Other guys, after a few days or a couple weeks, they seem to be better.”
Briere has become an authority on concussions, but he exercised his right to remain silent about a lawsuit filed against the NHL. Former players allege the league failed to recognize a problem and address it before they did. He didn’t have enough information to form an opinion. He didn’t want to say something he would later regret.
Regardless, Briere was back in the lineup against the Sabres and feeling good again. He believes the time off may have worked to his benefit. It helped him get into better shape and get his game back in order. He scored in his first game back and had three goals in six contests before showing up in Buffalo.
He’s playing left wing with Tomas Plekanec and Rochester native Brian Gionta on a line loaded with skill and scoring ability. He enjoyed the visit, but he was prepared for departure Wednesday.
Briere has three sons living with his ex-wife back in South Jersey. The Canadiens were bound for Washington, which is driving distance for Briere to see his boys.
He’s spending Thanksgiving with them before leaving for another game, another city. Someday, he’ll grow tired of playing, tired of the travel, tired of being tired.
And that’s when he’ll be home for good.
“I’m not there yet,” he said. “I still have a few years left. I’m trying to make the most of it.”