Buffalo Sabres play-by-play man Dan Dunleavy has the most difficult job in local media: He is compared to the legendary broadcaster he splits the 82-game National Hockey League season with – Rick Jeanneret.
That's what made a message that Dunleavy received so special after his most memorable call of the season.
"Eichel carries, Kane BURIES," exclaimed Dunleavy after Jack Eichel assisted Evander Kane on a game-winning goal.
"Rick texted me," recalled Dunleavy during a recent interview. "'Great call on the winner.' I texted him, 'From anybody, this means the most.' "
Since adding the Eichel-Kane call to his earlier naming of the Eichel Tower after the Sabres star scores, it has been easier to warm up to Dunleavy and appreciate his solid work when Jeanneret takes off.
The play-by-play men had a more important conversation than the text exchange over the summer after Jeanneret delayed his retirement, resulting in Dunleavy having to wait longer to become the full-time play-by-play man than originally planned.
Dunleavy, who went to Niagara (Ont.) College with Jeanneret's son Chris and considers him his best friend, called to meet Rick over lunch.
"I wanted to talk with him," said Dunleavy. "My exact words were 'I need you to know that I'm not here to push you out of your chair. I'm more than willing to be a member of this broadcast team and work with you and whenever the day comes you don't want to do this anymore that's your choice.' "
Of course, Dunleavy doesn't have the power to push out Jeanneret anyway; the Sabres are content with having the legend stay as long as he wants to call the games. The bigger question is whether the Sabres still view Dunleavy as Jeanneret's eventual replacement. He enters the final year of his five-year contract next season.
Mark Preisler, the executive vice president of media and content for Pegula Sports and Entertainment, gave Dunleavy a vote of confidence and praised the phrases he coined when Eichel and Sam Reinhart score.
"Dan does a good job calling an energetic game," wrote Preisler in an email. "He connects with our fans through his signature calls like 'Eichel Tower' and 'Sam I am' to name a couple. "We are lucky to have him, not just as a member of our broadcast team, but as a member of our entire content team. We look forward to his future contributions across all our media platforms."
Dunleavy, who said he has turned down three play-by-play jobs since joining the Sabres, hasn't yet asked for an extension.
"I would love to remain in Buffalo for the rest of my career," he said. "They knew that when I came here."
The native of Georgetown, Ont., 40 miles west of Toronto, says he loves Buffalo, is engaged to marry the former graphics coordinator on Sabres broadcasts, Brenda Banister, has adopted a rescue dog, Bandit, and established roots here. His biggest problem with some fans is he is not Jeanneret. But if Mike Emrick, the lead announcer for NHL national telecasts on both NBC and NBC Sports, called Sabres games regularly, fans would probably complain, too.
The Eichel-Kane call could have been a turning point for Dunleavy, judging by the positive reaction on Twitter.
He spent February doing play-by-play while Jeanneret was off. In a way, Dunleavy is like a backup goaltender trying to find his rhythm calling games when the main guy gets a rest.
"It is a close analogy," said Dunleavy. "But unlike a backup goalie, I am made aware the beginning of the season what games I am going to do."
Like many Canadians, Dunleavy saw play-by-play as a dream job growing up.
"I was the kid with a blue soap on the rope walking around the house interviewing and doing play-by-play during games," Dunleavy said.
He was glued to "Hockey Night in Canada" every Saturday night and would cry until he was allowed to watch the games.
"I am an absolute junkie for (play-by-play legends) Danny Gallivan, Bob Cole, Dick Irvin, that era of hockey," Dunleavy said. "Dan Kelly was another guy I absolutely adored. And living in Southern Ontario, (the late Sabres announcer) Ted Darling. My mother and I would watch Ted Darling and she and I would try and impersonate him all the time, the way he would roll his B's."
Before coming to Buffalo, Dunleavy was calling Toronto Maple Leafs games in a similar situation to his Sabres role. He worked games on radio when Toronto's regular veteran, Joe Bowen, worked on television. Prior to joining the Leafs, Dunleavy called Ontario Hockey League games for 10 years, worked the World Junior tournament for eight years and worked at The Fan 590 for 20 years. While in college with Jeanneret's son, he worked some college hockey games on cable in St. Catharines. His resume also includes stops at a country music station and an adult contemporary station.
As a result of some uncertainty in Toronto because two media giants were fighting for control, Dunleavy was open to leaving the Leafs for the Sabres for a five-year deal in which he was named Jeanneret's heir apparent.
"I was flattered to think that somebody felt I had the ability to step into a market where you have a Hall of Fame play-by-play man who may think of retiring," Dunleavy said. "People thought I had the ability to not fill his shoes but maybe shoulder the load to be the next guy to sit in a chair that was already occupied by Ted Darling and Rick Jeanneret."
He is aware of the old saying that you don't want to replace the legend, you want to replace the man who replaces the legend. And he realizes criticism comes with the territory and one needs a thick skin.
"I can be Dan Dunleavy," he said. "I'm confident enough on how I call a game that I know I can step into this market or any market around the NHL and be myself. Which I think is an energetic, entertaining play-by-play guy."
He used to read the criticism on Twitter, but recently stopped.
"As thick a skin that you think you have, it does sting because you are trying your best," Dunleavy said. "Even if there wasn't a Rick Jeanneret here already, you are going to have your critics … I don't want the people who expect RJ to be on the air let down with my call."
The criticism that hit Dunleavy like a crosscheck was being told after one of Jeannaret's trademark calls that he had a lot to learn about play-by-play.
"It kind of undermines all the years before today of work you put it in," Dunleavy said. "I don't mind someone saying I don't like your call, but to tell me I have a lot to learn about play-by-play you are insinuating I just showed up here without any experience or I don't have any credibility to have this position. That kind of stung. I get that I'm not RJ and you might not like my call compared to his. But to say that I don't know what I am doing."
He appreciated some recent tweets.
"Some people have said, 'Dan has grown on me,' " said Dunleavy. "If they don't like you, they're not going to like you. But if they sit there and go, 'he's no RJ but he's growing on me a little bit then I'm OK with that.' "
Now, that is a great call for anybody being compared to a legend.
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