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Like father, like son for Numminens

The first thing that stood out about the man was his striking resemblance to the late, great Herb Brooks, who coached the U.S. Olympic hockey team to the greatest win in American hockey history. Teppo Numminen's father could have passed for Brooks' brother. The guy just looked like a hockey coach.

In case you forgot, Kalevi Numminen was the opposing coach in the game that secured the gold medal for the Americans in the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid. He's in town for two weeks visiting his son for the holidays. You wouldn't notice him walking in the mall, but he's been a national treasure in Finland for more than a quarter century.

You always gain a better understanding of a person upon meeting his parents. Once you get past the language barrier, it's easy to see how Numminen has evolved into a cerebral, unflappable leader during his two years with the Sabres. It clearly comes from his father, a serene man who called himself a parent first and a coach second.

The house rule in Tampere, Finland, was Numminen could ask his father anything about hockey, but Kalevi would not offer unsolicited advice. They didn't talk X's and O's at the dinner table. Kalevi made it clear he wasn't raising a hockey player. He was raising a man, which meant Teppo finding his own way.

"We wanted to keep parents as parents, Dad as a dad and Mom as a mom," Kalevi said through his son Tuesday. "Knowing what the kids go through, we thought it would be better to leave the kids alone and figure it out on their own. I've seen parents ruin their kids by forcing them."

Some concept, a hockey dad keeping his ears open and his mouth shut. Kalevi's breezy approach explains plenty about Numminen's temperament now. At 38, he plays a peaceful, methodical style while maintaining the same passion. He's no longer the fastest guy, but he's always in the right position.

If Chris Drury is the heart of this team, and Daniel Briere is the soul, Numminen has to be its collective conscience. He's been a calming influence, especially on partner Dmitri Kalinin after the defenseman struggled through last season. He has a way of keeping the highs and lows in perspective.

And that's how he was Tuesday after an ugly 5-2 loss to the Montreal Canadiens. He missed an open net and didn't overreact. It was the first time this season the Sabres dropped two games, but every team is bound to lose its way at some point. The trick is keeping defeat in its proper place, making sure two losses don't turn into five.

"It's going to happen to every team," Numminen said. "It's how you handle yourself that matters. . . . We've got lots of confidence. We know we can play better, and we know we're going to be fine."

The Sabres didn't play well defensively Tuesday and might stink it up Thursday night in Nashville. It's not easy being the best team in the conference with opponents gunning for them every night. But they have a 24-7-2 record. Tuesday was Game 33 of 82. It was anything but pretty, but let's not panic.

Numminen learned long ago how much a loss can contribute to the greater good. See, the greatest hockey win in American hockey history also was the greatest moment in Finnish history. Finland wound up fourth in 1980, marking the first time it competed for an Olympic medal. It wasn't treated like a loss.

It opened the door for Jari Kurri's entrance into the NHL and became a springboard for a Finnish pro league. Numminen was among the first to follow in his footsteps and has spent 18 seasons and 1,266 games in the NHL. Earlier this year, he broke Kurri's record for most NHL games played by a European.

Once you meet his father, you understand why.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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