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Inspirational Irish tenor sings the praises of Sabres

He's a physician, a record-setting Paralympic athlete, a famed Irish tenor -- and a huge Buffalo Sabres fan, even though he calls New York City his American home.

The Irish-born Ronan Tynan serves as one of the Sabres players' inspirations, a role model whose motivational comments are on display inside the team's HSBC Arena locker room and on the T-shirts players wear.

Tynan will be in Buffalo tonight, the fifth time he has sung "God Bless America" before a Sabres game.

Just before the start of the Sabres-Rangers playoff game being broadcast to American troops overseas, Tynan also is expected to dedicate the game to those troops, from both the Sabres and Rangers.

It's odd that the Sabres' source of inspiration may be best known in America for the reassuring hymns he sang at funerals for Sept. 11 victims in New York City -- home of the visiting New York Rangers.

He has also gathered quite a fan base singing "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch at many New York Yankees games.

But his hockey home remains Buffalo. The Sabres are his team.

"They're going to bring Stanley to Buffalo," Tynan said Thursday.

*A week ago Monday, Tynan walked into the Nassau Coliseum for Game Three of the Sabres-Islanders series, when a priest who's an Islanders fan greeted him enthusiastically.

"Thank God, Ronan, you're with us," the priest said. "We're going to beat them."

"Just a minute, father," Tynan replied.

He then opened his jacket to reveal a Sabres shirt underneath.

*Following the Sabres series victory over the Islanders last Friday, Tynan called Sabres officials to congratulate them -- all the way from Ireland.

*And Wednesday night, in the excitement just after league officials ruled that the Sabres had taken a 4-1 lead on a disputed goal by Jason Pominville, Tynan called Sabres managing partner Larry Quinn to ask whether the goal had counted.

"He's not one of these people who gives you lip service," Quinn said. "He gives you his whole heart."

Tynan first sang "God Bless America" for the Sabres on Oct. 5, 2005, opening night of the 2005-06 season, as the Sabres returned to action after an 18-month layoff. A team that was struggling at the gate was looking for new ways to relate to its fans and start a new chapter in its history.

The Sabres approached Tynan, who agreed, assuring them that he would confine his pregame anthems to one team in each sport. The 18 months that Tynan has been affiliated with the Sabres have coincided with a remarkable turnaround at the gate and on the ice.

"He was there at the beginning of this turnaround," Quinn said. "I kind of look at him as a member of our family. He's a part of our team."

Tynan, the 46-year-old Dublin native, remembered the first Sabres game he attended, specifically the exhilarating pace of the game, "the great bunch of guys" he met on the team and the way everyone treated him.

"Everything fit," Tynan said by phone Thursday. "It was a fantastic experience. I was treated like a king, and this is a tremendous team."

The Sabres insist that Tynan is not some good-luck charm, the way Kate Smith was when she sang the same song for the Philadelphia Flyers. A look at the record shows that the Sabres are 3-1 when Tynan sings.

Tynan has spoken to the Sabres players several times. And he has clearly left his imprint.

Just inside the entrance to the Sabres locker room, a pair of crossed swords sits underneath a glass plaque bearing the following inscription:

"The will is inside you. You just have to bring it out. . . . The team player gets the result. Not one man. If the team is together in thought and spirit, then you have an army. -- Ronan Tynan, Dec. 14, 2005."

That was the night former President Bill Clinton attended the Sabres game. But it's Tynan's words that have stayed with the players.

Those players know all about his life story.

Born with a lower-leg disability, Tynan rode horses and raced motorcycles as a boy, according to his Web site. But after an auto accident left him with complications, he had both legs amputated below the knee, at age 20. Weeks later, he was climbing the stairs of his college dorm. Within a year, he was winning Paralympics gold medals in the discus, shot put, javelin and running; between 1981 and 1984, he won 18 gold medals and set 14 world records.

He became a medical doctor, specializing in orthopedic sports injuries. He later turned to music, winning some voice contests that led to his being named one of The Irish Tenors.

Hockey players relate to Tynan's overcoming his physical disability to be both a top Paralympian and a world-renowned tenor.

Not only can Sabres players see his words when they walk into their locker room, but many wear T-shirts under their jerseys with the inscription, "The will is inside you."

"That's a great honor, a great privilege, to inspire people," Tynan said. "I'm humbled by it."

Three Sabres who were asked about Tynan on Wednesday -- Chris Drury, Henrik Tallinder and Adam Mair -- all used the term "inspiration" to describe his effect on the team.

It's hard to make excuses during a hockey game, when you see all that Tynan has accomplished in overcoming the obstacles that have been put in his way, Mair said.

"You can't help but think what he's been through, when you hear him sing," Mair said. "He sings with such a strong voice, with such conviction. Nothing seems to faze him."

Tallinder said visiting with Tynan helps put things in perspective for the hockey players.

"Now he's like part of the team," he said of Tynan's locker room visits. "It feels like he's coming home. He knows everyone. He's not afraid to talk to us, and we're not afraid to talk to him."

Sabres players were struck by Tynan's initial comments to them in October 2005, when he talked about his father's unconditional praise for him, in sports, academics and music.

"Because of that, I found a will that was inside me, and when I captured it, it brought the finest from me," he said that day.

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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