In his last appearance in the Buffalo Sabres locker room, Mike Foligno said he did not feel he had done anything to hurt the team and that he was not happy to be traded.
Foligno looked up at his familiar No. 17 and the stall that had been his since Dec. 2, 1981. In a firm but soft voice, and obviously battling emotions from rage to sadness, he said, "No, not at all," when asked if he felt he had done something that warranted being traded.
In the same breath, however, he said he understood why the deal was done.
"I'm not the reason we're not playing well," he said as he watched the trainers pack skates, sticks and his now famous Northlands helmet in a bag that looked very much like the kind undertakers use to remove the deceased from the premises.
"As a member of the team, yes, I am (responsible), we all are. But not directly, no. The hardest thing to accept is being moved when the team is having a problem. I've never been a problem. I've never looked at myself as a problem for this team.
"In my time here, I've been honest enough to say things to people or point out what I believe can help make this team win. I was the captain of this team. I wore this (patting a Sabres crest on his sweater) on my chest. I always did what I felt I had to do."
There are people who believe Foligno was too outspoken in his beliefs. By going public against former Sabres coach Ted Sator in the days after the team was eliminated from the 1988 playoffs, he certainly became marked as a player coaches wouldn't tolerate.
But Foligno, the most popular Sabre since Gilbert Perreault, survived that outburst. Sator eventually was fired and replaced by Rick Dudley.
Foligno had only four goals and five assists in 31 games this season and the argument was whether or not he was through as a player. He never spoke openly of this, but his friends and teammates felt his scoring would increase if he were used more on a consistent line that got lots of ice time.
Foligno stayed away from any comments regarding that Monday, but emphasized he understood why trades are made. He also said he felt this was a difficult one for General Manager Gerry Meehan.
"Obviously, this was a very tough decision for Gerry," he said. "He told me this was a decision he had been mulling for four or five days. I know it wasn't easy. Gerry and I are friends and we go back a long way. We were together here in the very lean years.
"I'm sure he realized something had to be done and he did what a lot of people said would be done. I think it was a decision that didn't sit too well with Gerry, as far as making it, but that's business and that's the game."
Foligno said he was sorry to be leaving Buffalo, his teammates and especially the fans.
He said the timing was rough in that, immediately after he was informed of the trade, he had to call his wife and children and tell them not to come to the Aud for the team's annual Christmas party.
"The toughest thing was for my kids," he said. "They were all dressed and ready to come down here, and I had to tell them they couldn't come. I had to tell them their daddy wasn't a Buffalo Sabre anymore."
In a voice cracked with emotion, Foligno said he hoped the fans would remember him as a player who always gave what he had for the team. He said he was proud to be a Sabre and that the people here sensed that.
"Everywhere I went, the people here were good to me," he said. "In all the years I was here, I never once had anyone say anything negative about me. I appreciate that. I can't say enough about the fans in Buffalo."
Foligno's teammates were almost as crestfallen as he was about the trade.
Few knew or even asked what players the Sabres got in return. Several, including defenseman Uwe Krupp and center Christian Ruuttu, were in tears.
"I've been sitting like this for half an hour," Krupp said in the time between when Foligno left and the on-ice party began. "In your whole life you're not going to meet too many men like him. He was our leader. He will always be that. Everything he did, he did for us and because he cared about us. He helped me as a person and a player like no one else I ever met.
"This isn't his fault. This is our fault."
"We're all going to miss Mike," said Ruuttu. "Mike was the guy who helped me make it as an NHL player. I don't mean that in a hockey sense. I feel I always had the ability. He made me make it as a person who can make his way in this league. He taught me a lot about responsibility and things like that. I owe him a lot.
"This team won't be the same without him."
The move darkened the Christmas party for just about everyone except the players' children, who seemed oblivious to the concerns of their parents.
Meehan was aware the timing seemed odd because of the party, but he defended moving the team's long-time leader.
"Who can time it?" he said. "We've gone five straight games without a win. That's not my fault. If you want to make me out to be the ogre who spoiled the Christmas party, so be it, but I wasn't on the ice for those five losses.
"I have a responsibility to myself, to the owners, to the team and to the fans to do something. I made this deal for no other reason than to try to improve the team."