PHILADELPHIA – Justin Bailey’s first taste of NHL life was a bite of calamari. That as much as anything told Karen Buscaglia that her boy had become a man.
“It was like, ‘No way, for my picky kid?’ ” Buscaglia said. “The world is really opening up.”
Bailey took a historic step in his new world Thursday night. The 20-year-old who grew up next to Matthew Barnaby and lived with Pat LaFontaine joined them as players for the Buffalo Sabres when he made his NHL debut in a 5-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers.
“It’s something I’ve been looking forward to my whole life,” the Williamsville native said. “From the time I got drafted till now, it’s been special that it’s my hometown.”
Bailey showed off his rapidly developing maturity by handling the nerve-racking moment with the aplomb of a 10-year veteran. He smiled and laughed away from the ice and skated determinedly on it while soaking in the atmosphere.
“You want to take this all in,” he said in Wells Fargo Center. “You’re only able to do this one time, making your first callup and your first opportunity to play with the team, so you want to enjoy it.”
It was a given that Bailey would include his mom in the fun. She and her mother arrived in Philly on Thursday morning, and Bailey made a post-lunch visit to two of the people who’ve inspired him the most.
“When I played in Kitchener, my mom and grandparents were at every single home game,” said Bailey, whose final junior season in Ontario included a trade to Sault Ste. Marie. “It was a 10-hour drive and they made that trip two times. My support system’s great. I’m very thankful for that.”
The woman who knows Bailey best could see how much he appreciated wearing a Sabres sweater for the first time. Buscaglia also saw how prepared Bailey was for the moment.
“He just has a different calmness about him,” she said. “He has a different level of calmness about his ability. He knows how hard he’s working, and he knows how far he still has to go. He just wants to prove himself, and I love watching that process. It’s watching your son grow literally from a boy into a man. It’s exciting.”
Bailey earned the callup during his first year as a pro by excelling in Rochester. He ranks second on the Americans with 10 goals and recorded five goals and 10 points in his last eight games.
“The first probably 10 games were tough,” the rookie said. “The speed wasn’t really an issue for me. It was more decision-making and things like that. After that I was getting opportunities and they just weren’t finding the back of the net. Over probably the last 15 games, they’ve been going in for me.
“The way I’ve been playing lately, I’ve been doing my best to earn a spot. Whenever you are able to put points together for a string of games, it’s always in the back of your head. You never know. Obviously, I’m excited that it was this year, but I wasn’t expecting it for sure.”
Sabres coach Dan Bylsma watched Rochester play during the NHL All-Star break and saw how much the 6-foot-3, 210-pound right winger has grown.
“Justin is using his speed and size to be effective up and down the wing, starting to learn to get on pucks, hold pucks and be a presence in the offensive zone with that big physical size,” Bylsma said. “The two games I watched him, his speed up the wing and driving the net was evident.”
Bailey started on a line with center David Legwand and right wing Dan Catenacci, but he moved up the lineup because of impressive play and got shifts with centers Ryan O’Reilly, Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart in his debut. He finished with 7 shots, 1 hit and 1 blocked shot in 11:54 of playing time.
“As soon as the game started I felt like I was in the right spots,” Bailey said. “I felt like I could keep up with the pace of the play. I didn’t feel out of place at all. I got a lot of chances.”
Said Bylsma: “He was probably our best forward, best player in the game.”
The lifelong Sabres fan would have loved to make his debut in Buffalo, but Philly also made sense.
“I grew up watching the rivalry between the Sabs and the Flyers,” Bailey said. “I remember when Danny Briere went to the Flyers, it was one of the worst days for me as a fan. You grew up, you watched the Flyers and it’s crazy. It seems just like yesterday there was the Brian Campbell hit in the playoffs. Just little things like that I think of when I think of the Flyers. It’s special for sure.”
He’s hopeful of making his home debut Friday. The Sabres will host Montreal in First Niagara Center, and there’s a chance he’ll be in the lineup.
“That rink, I remember being a little kid and being able to skate on the ice,” Bailey said. “If I can play a game there, that would be awesome for sure.”