Once Cole Schneider learned he was headed to the NHL, he drove home to Williamsville to surprise his parents. He did, but not in the way he planned.
Schneider’s parents weren’t home, so he used the house phone to give them a call. They got a jolt when the caller ID showed up.
“They thought someone was in the house,” Schneider said with a smile Thursday.
It’s a safe bet no one will be home Friday night, either. The Sabres host Columbus in First Niagara Center, and Schneider will make his NHL debut for his hometown team. Thursday’s practice was the first time Schneider had been in the arena since playing for Buffalo in the Bowman Cup high school showcase in 2007 and 2008.
“I had season tickets growing up, so it’s always fun coming to games,” the 25-year-old said. “It was a little different this morning.”
Schneider’s first big-league opportunity was a long time coming. After two years of junior hockey and two seasons at the University of Connecticut, he spent parts of five seasons with Ottawa’s minor-league team in Binghamton. Despite recording 83 goals and 191 points in 263 games, he never got the call from the Senators.
Sensing he wouldn’t ever get a shot, especially after scoring 29 times last season, he asked for a trade. Buffalo granted his wish in February. He’s recorded three goals and 12 points in 15 games with Rochester.
“I was pretty excited when I got traded, and to get the call yesterday felt really good,” Schneider said. “I was just trying to play down there, and luckily it happened for me.”
The 6-foot-1, 199-pound winger practiced alongside center Ryan O’Reilly and left wing Zemgus Girgensons. Before starting his junior career, Schneider played youth hockey for Amherst, Wheatfield, the Buffalo Regals and St. Joe’s Collegiate Institute.
“He’s paid a lot of dues to get here,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. “Want to see if he can do it at the National Hockey League level and rise up to the pace and the speed of the game and still contribute like he has been at the American Hockey League level.”
Schneider won’t be alone in playing for the first time. The Sabres also recalled left wing Evan Rodrigues, the Boston University linemate of Jack Eichel who is in his first professional season. Rodrigues practiced with center David Legwand and right wing Matt Moulson.
“It’s obviously a dream come true just to be here, so I’m going to take it all in and enjoy it,” the 22-year-old said. “You have to put the work in, and now that the time’s come I’m just going to make the most of it.”
Rodrigues got the call after figuring out the intensity of the pro game. After a slow start with Rochester, he has six of his nine goals and 19 of his 28 points during the 2016 calendar year.
“It’s been an adjustment, obviously, going from the college game to the pro game,” Rodrigues said. “Over the last 20, 30 games, I’ve really come along and got back to playing the way I can. I’m looking forward to the opportunity here.”
Bylsma said there’s also a chance Jason Kasdorf will make his NHL debut this weekend. The goaltender, who joined the Sabres out of college last month, is recovered from a groin injury. After playing the Blue Jackets in the home finale, the Sabres close the season Saturday at the New York Islanders.
Bylsma will feel good about the Sabres’ closing kick even if the team doesn’t finish with a .500 points percentage. But, since it’s within reach for the 34-35-11 team, he wants to go for it.
“We’re shooting for it,” he said. “We’re taking pride in it. We want to get there.”
The Sabres were just 15-22-4 at the midpoint of the season. They’re 19-13-7 during the second half, which includes runs of 13-7-5 since Feb. 12 and 7-2-2 in the last 11 games.
“The way we’ve played the last 10 games, 20 games, 30 games, our record and what that would put us on point-wise if we could continue that for 80 is playoff picture, it’s playoff hockey,” Bylsma said. “You feel a little bit like the season’s running out of time on us.”
Eichel can’t believe how fast the time has flown.
“It’s pretty weird to think there’s only two games left,” he said. “It went by so fast, and before you know it you’ve already went through your entire rookie season. It’s been a whirlwind, and I’ve definitely enjoyed it.
“Looking back, there’s definitely a lot of goals you wish you scored or plays you wish you made and things you wish you did to try and help your team win games, but it’s all in the past. You really can’t control what’s behind you. We have two games remaining, a chance to get to over .500. I think that’s pretty exciting for us as a group.”