Hunkered down in the old red seats in Memorial Auditorium, Terry Pegula gleefully watched a rookie named Phil Housley explode onto the Buffalo sports scene in 1982. As Pegula sat next to Housley on Thursday, the joy was back for the owner.
It wasn’t memories of Housley that made Pegula happy. It was seeing the man Housley had become.
“He’s come a long way,” Pegula said as Housley was introduced as the 18th coach in Sabres history. “He has humbled himself by having the career he had in the National Hockey League and then coaching high school hockey. Not coming out at the end of his career and saying, ‘I want to be an assistant coach in the National Hockey League.’ He’s learned his trade. He started at the bottom humbly.
“He didn’t play humble, but he started his coaching career in that kind of fashion.”
Indeed, Housley’s rise to the top of the coaching profession wasn’t as meteoric as his confident leap to NHL rinks. The 53-year-old spent nine years coaching at a Minnesota high school and four more as an assistant in Nashville. Along the way, he gained experience working for USA Hockey.
When Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill came calling this week, Housley was ready. He was ready for the interviews, and he was ready to accept the job offer.
“I don’t think people realize how pumped I am about coming back to Buffalo and being a part of this organization and trying to do something special here,” Housley said. “I just feel I’m ready. I knew this organization before. I’m really excited for that challenge to be the head coach of a hockey team.”
Housley’s passion was evident during his talks with Botterill. The GM had to wait until the end of the Stanley Cup finals to talk with the candidate, but the hiring process escalated quickly from there.
Botterill was impressed by Housley’s organizational skills. He liked how the Hall of Famer connects with players. He loved how Housley develops youngsters.
Finally, Botterill was blown away by Housley’s desire to return to Buffalo.
“That was very evident in my discussions with him, and it excited me,” Botterill said in KeyBank Center. “I obviously had a ton of respect for him as a player and also as a coach. To see that passion level and how much he wanted to be a part of building this organization up again was certainly one of the main reasons why I wanted to bring him back.”
As Housley sat in the atrium of the Sabres’ arena, he recalled high-fiving fans in the Aud. He remembered their fire, their appreciation for teams that gave an honest effort.
“We’re definitely going to be competitive,” Housley said. “People who come to the games are going to really like the brand of hockey here. I think the guys will be excited to play the brand of hockey that I’m going to bring forward.”
Housley promised to have an aggressive, competent defense corps. His success in teaching and leading the Predators’ blue-liners is what put him on the coaching hot sheet.
“Finding the right person to lead our players on the ice has always been the main priority,” Botterill said. “After reviewing some potential candidates, I clearly feel we have the right man here.”
Although Botterill and Housley spent part of the 1999-2000 season together with Calgary, their contact was merely in training camp and Botterill’s two-game call-up. As they talked this week, they realized they were kindred spirits.
“It was exciting how our communication flowed back and forth, and how so many of our ideas on how to build a team and how we want our team to play sort of jelled together,” Botterill said. “Certainly, we will have to continue to improve our relationship and keep that dynamic going, but it just seemed like a good fit. I’m very excited to have him right here beside me now.”
A few feet in front of Buffalo’s new power duo sat Housley’s wife, Karin. They were married three seasons into Housley’s eight-year stay on the Sabres’ blue line. Two of their four kids were born in Buffalo.
The hiring coincided with the Housleys’ 32nd wedding anniversary. The whirlwind from Sunday’s Cup finale to Thursday’s news conference left the coach emptyhanded on the big day.
“I walked back to the room and I said, ‘I forgot to get you a card,’” Housley said. “She had her cards on the table, and I said, ‘But I’m the new head coach of the Buffalo Sabres,’ and I said, ‘Happy anniversary.’
“It was a great present. I’m really excited to be a part of the organization.”