What do you get when you combine the bloodying of a beloved captain, a 12-player brawl, two goalie fights, cursing coaches and frenzied fans?
One of the most memorable games in Buffalo Sabres history.
It’s been 10 years since Buffalo and Ottawa dropped the gloves downtown, but the game on Feb. 22, 2007, is fresh in the minds of those who took part.
We caught up with the key figures during the past month. Here are their memories.
Act I: The hit
The drama started when the Senators’ Chris Neil dropped the Sabres’ Chris Drury with a vicious hit. The Buffalo captain never saw Neil coming after getting rid of the puck, and the tough guy came in hot.
Neil drove his shoulder into Drury’s head, cartwheeling the captain. Drury’s helmet went flying as he was upended, and he landed forehead first on the ice.
“The way we played back then, when you're coming with back pressure and a guy cuts to the middle like that, that's the way it was,” Neil said. “You took that hit.
“Things have changed dramatically. It isn't that way now. You don't see a lot of open-ice hits like that anymore. On those plays, it was part of the game back then. You had guys who gave hits like that all the time.
“I’m a physical player, and I try to play within the whistles. I play that fine line, go do whatever I have to do for my team.”
As Sabres rookie Drew Stafford grabbed Neil for his first NHL fight, a dazed Drury tried to stand up. He got to his knees and crumpled back down as blood soaked the ice.
George Babcock, the Sabres’ assistant equipment manager, was the first to reach Drury. Athletic trainer Tim Macre quickly joined and pressed a towel above Drury’s eye.
“Neil hit him with an elbow, so I looked and T-Mac was already tending to a player, so I just bolted onto the ice,” said Babcock, who never goes on the ice for injuries. “Everybody’s asking me, ‘What were you doing on the ice, looking for his mouth guard?’
“I was the first one on the ice to see if he had an airway. I thought he was knocked stiff.”
Drury suffered a concussion and needed 20 stitches to close the wound, but he skated toward the dressing room on his own.
A hit on anyone would have infuriated the Sabres and their sellout crowd. The intensity skyrocketed because it was Drury. He was the most respected player on the team, and Buffalo’s love of the Sabres was at one of the highest points in franchise history.
“We’re getting him back together and I said to myself, ‘No one’s going to get out of their seat now because this is going to get ugly really fast,’” Babcock said.
Act II: Payback
Sabres coach Lindy Ruff screamed at the officials while calling for an elbowing penalty. Referees failed to punish Neil for anything other than the fight.
Unfulfilled, Ruff sought his own justice. He sent the pugilistic trio of Andrew Peters, Adam Mair and Patrick Kaleta onto the ice. The coach’s message, which earned him a $10,000 fine: Go out and run ’em.
“I said let’s get after them,” Ruff said. “I said that right after the game. I didn’t deny it.”
The crowd that had been jeering Neil and the unpenalized hit saw the fighters leave the bench. With everyone on their feet, blood-thirsty roars took over.
Peters skated to the left wing. Mair bent down for the faceoff, hands on his thighs as if ready to pounce. Kaleta, the rugged local guy playing in his first NHL game, got things started before the faceoff.
Kaleta bumped Senators scoring star Dany Heatley after leaving the bench, and the two exchanged cross-checks before a linesman broke them up.
“No one even needed to say anything to me,” Kaleta said. “I knew what we needed to do. My job was to line up against Heatley, and I figured I’d give him a little tap just to let him know that I was going to be there. I lined up, had a few words.
“Once the puck was dropped, basically all hell broke loose.”
Act III: The brawl
The Sabres didn’t care about getting the puck. Mair repeatedly cross-checked Senators center Jason Spezza. Peters chased down Heatley and put him in a head lock.
After Mair landed a left to the head of Spezza, who had no desire to fight, the 10 skaters piled up at the blue line.
“You’re out there to send a message,” Peters said. “We didn’t want to be wild animals. We wanted to address the fact that our captain was just knocked out.
“My exact thought was try to make sure you don’t get suspended. You’re thinking you’re not going to use your stick. You’re not going to be sucker-punching anybody. You look around at who’s on the ice, and you know that you can get in a lot of trouble – but you need to do something.”
Mair put Spezza to the ice, so Sens defenseman Anton Volchenkov jumped on Mair’s back. Peters circled the trio, looking for an opening. Kaleta dropped the gloves with Ottawa defenseman Chris Phillips. Heatley and Sabres defenseman Henrik Tallinder wrapped their arms around each other, while Buffalo blue-liner Toni Lydman grabbed Ottawa forward Mike Comrie.
“That’s what happens when your top guy gets hurt,” said center Mike Fisher, who watched from the Ottawa bench. “You know something’s going to happen.”
Behind the punches was a heated history. It was the 20th meeting in 17 months for two of the NHL’s elite teams. They had met in the playoffs the previous season and would do so again that spring.
“The rivalry was there, and it was real,” Neil said.
As the skaters fought, the goaltenders left the net for their own battle. On one side was Buffalo’s rail-thin Martin Biron. On the other was Ottawa’s Ray Emery, who took boxing lessons and had heavyweight champions painted on his mask.
“When I saw Mairsy and Petey get on the ice and Kaleta, which I didn’t really know much about him, then I knew,” Biron said. “I think I may have started to unstrap my glove even before the puck was dropped because I knew something was going to happen. You’re preparing for it, and the energy is just flowing right through your body. The adrenaline is going crazy.”
A grinning Emery threw six unanswered right hands at Biron before falling on top of the Buffalo goaltender. Emery stood up – then promptly dropped to his backside as Biron tripped him.
“When he came on top of me and we were kind of wrestling a little bit, he said something to the effect of, ‘Let’s get back up,’” Biron said. “I said, ‘Yeah! Let’s get back up, let’s do it again.’ I wanted to get back up because I wanted to get another shot. I’m like, I look really bad in this one. I want to get a chance to at least say, ‘You know what? I stood up to a guy that everybody knows was a tough, tough customer.’
“I don’t know that the trip was really intentional. I look back at it like, ‘Eh, that was such a cheap shot,’ but I don’t remember being, ‘Oh, I’m going to trip him and look good.’”
Biron never got his second chance at Emery. A seething Peters grabbed the goalie and started throwing.
“I kept it reasonably clean until I found probably the most willing combatant,” Peters said. “I wouldn’t have skated down to the crease and fought Ray Emery if he was just standing there. I would never have done that.
“I was mad that I hadn’t been involved in anything yet. I don’t remember what I was thinking, but I hated Emery to begin with. He had just come back from a three-game suspension for slashing somebody in the face, and I just didn’t like him.”
Peters threw 11 punches, most landing on the bulky shoulder pads of the goaltender. Emery, still smiling, tossed four rights.
“That was the first time I’d ever seen a goalie fight a tough guy like that,” Fisher said. “He hung in there.”
Act IV: The coaches
As the on-ice tussles cooled down, the coaches heated up. Senators coach Bryan Murray climbed atop the boards, leaned around the glass divider and started screaming at Ruff. The Buffalo coach ran to the end of his bench and hollered back at his former boss in Florida.
“Both coaches were sticking up for their players and got into a little verbal battle over it,” Murray said. “It was an emotional time. We met in the playoffs before. Both teams were competitive. The way it was going, both knew we had a chance to win in those particular years. You tried to get every edge that you could.
“When the fights went on on the ice, the coaches had to have some conversation.”
The fans watching on television got to hear most of it. As the coaches angrily pointed fingers at each other, they unleashed a flurry of major-league expletives. In the middle stood Rob Ray, the Sabres’ rinkside commentator who had played for both teams.
“That was the very first night that my mike was live,” Ray said. “They were experimenting with me being between the benches, and up till that point it was me push a button, talk to the truck and say, ‘OK, we’ve got something to talk about,’ and they’d turn the mike on and you would do it.
“They decided because I was comfortable with both sides maybe we’d leave the mike on live and go with it. Fortunately they did because it kind of opened up the door to hear what was going on and what was being said.
“To this day people still ask questions about what was Lindy saying, what was Bryan saying. In my position there, it was just get out of the way and let them go at it.”
Act V: The smile
The 18,690 fans ate up the intense show of pugilism and camaraderie. As the referees took nearly 20 minutes to sort out three ejections and 100 penalty minutes, the fans stayed on their feet. They clapped, cheered and pounded the glass for a scene they’d never forget.
“That was my first game, so even sitting on the bench would have been the highlight of my career, just being part of the Sabres,” Kaleta said. “To go out there and be a part of that, not many people can say that stuff happens in their first game. I was just lucky and happy to be a part of it.”
During the pause, Ruff chatted with assistant coach Brian McCutcheon. His rage was gone. A content smile was in its place.
“I was thinking how proud I was of the guys on the ice,” Ruff said. “I put a little smile on my face and I thought, ‘That’s Sabres hockey.’”
News Sports Reporter Mike Harrington contributed to this report.
Here is News Sports Reporter John Vogl's original game story from February 23, 2007:
News Sports Photographer's James P. McCoy's photo gallery from the game, a 6-5 overtime win for the Sabres: