After a year-long standoff with Buffalo Sabres management, Michael Peca finally got the trade he had been demanding. Headed downstate to play for the New York Islanders, Peca leaves behind a legacy of grit and leadership -- and of holding his ground at any cost.
Peca leaves Buffalo fans as he found them: frustrated and ambivalent. When the Sabres acquired Peca from the Vancouver Canucks in the summer of 1995, hockey devotees questioned the wisdom of trading away former 76-goal scorer Alexander Mogilny for an undersized, part-time NHL center.
But Peca won over Sabres fans with the fearlessness and skill with which he threw around his 5-foot-11, 180-pound body. On April 14, 1996, Peca scored the last NHL goal recorded in Memorial Auditorium. The following season, he posted a team-best plus-26 rating, led the NHL with six short-handed goals and won the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the league's top defensive forward. In 1997-98, Peca scored more than half of Buffalo's special teams points (22 of 40), including five goals and four assists on the penalty kill. He won the Sabres' Punch Imlach Memorial Award for dedication and leadership, and was the Selke runner-up.
That season, he also took over the Sabres' captaincy, helping fill the void left by the trade of Pat LaFontaine to the New York Rangers. In 98-99 Peca played in all 82 regular-season games, recording 56 points and leading Buffalo to the Stanley Cup Finals. When Peca missed last season in a contract holdout, coach Lindy Ruff refused to give anyone else the "C," largely out of respect for the Sabres' absent leader.
"(Former general manager) John Muckler brought me in here, and (former coach) Ted Nolan gave me the opportunity and Lindy Ruff continued to give me that opportunity. The Buffalo Sabres organization is always going to have a place in my heart, as far as hockey goes," Peca said Sunday. "The fans were always great to me. It was tough coming in as a 20-year-old, nobody knowing who I was. They took a liking to me, which was nice. Hopefully the fans here in Buffalo, who as we all know deserve a winning team more than any, get that chance somewhere down the road."
But it wasn't all a big lovefest. Even during the best times, Peca's career in Buffalo was marred by off-ice head-butting. Peca staged an 11-game holdout at the start of the 1997-98 season, demanding that the Sabres sign him to a $1.5 million contract or trade him. General manager Darcy Regier ultimately signed Peca to a contract worth $4.3 million over three years.
Later that season, Peca angered some of his teammates and fans when he refused to reschedule his wedding to Buffalonian Kristin Herzog to accommodate the playoffs. The June 20 wedding date coincided with Game Six of the Stanley Cup finals; the issue turned out to be moot, as Buffalo lost a 4-2 Eastern Conference final series to the Washington Capitals.
The real battle began last summer, though, when Peca skipped arbitration in the hopes that Buffalo would see past his stats. Coming off a 20-goal, 21-assist season, Peca insisted that "intangibles" like leadership and physical play offset his mediocre numbers.
Buffalo turned into Never-Never Land. Peca wanted a four-year contract valued at more than $17 million, which he knew he would never get through arbitration. The Sabres offered $9 million over four years, which they knew he would never accept. As the season wore on with Peca's jersey in mothballs, the numbers crept closer together, but never close enough to indicate that either side would ever blink.
In January, Peca announced that he would never again play for the Sabres. Buffalo GM Darcy Regier promptly raised his offer to $11.5 million over four years, but it was too late; Peca had already decided that he was outta here.
The problem for the 27-year-old Group II free agent was that Buffalo owned his rights until he turned 31. Any other NHL team that tried to sign Peca ran the risk that the Sabres would match the offer, or that they would let Peca go and claim compensation from his new team in the form of a series of first-round draft picks.
So Peca worked out at the Amherst Pepsi Center on his own, and waited. He was discouraged when Regier failed to move him before the NHL's March 13 trade deadline, and all but distraught when day one of the NHL entry draft passed Saturday without a deal.
He perked up Sunday, when Regier called the self-exiled captain to report the trade. Now all that's left, as Peca repeated like a mantra Sunday, is to "move on" -- and to assess the damage.
Peca lost $2.5 million to $3 million in salary last season. It was a trying year physically, as well, as Peca injured his groin and cheek in separate international competitions five months apart. He said Sunday that all his aching body parts -- including a left shoulder that was surgically repaired six months ago -- are completely healed.
As for the Sabres, they advanced to the second round of the playoffs before dropping a heartbreaking, seven-game series to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Buffalo lost each of the last two games in overtime, leaving the team and its fans to wonder if Peca's presence might have put them over the top.