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Junior Sabres enjoy view from above

Larry Playfair never gave it a passing thought. The point of the Buffalo Junior Sabres since he took over as president was to help kids earn scholarships. Winning would be nice, but a top-10 ranking throughout all of Canada’s Junior A leagues?

“It was never, ever on our radar screen,” Playfair said Friday. “It wasn’t something we had even thought or something we were after.”

They’ve earned the national recognition, however. The Junior Sabres are ranked No. 10 in the Canadian Junior Hockey League, an organization that oversees 10 leagues and 128 teams from coast to coast.

“It’s always good to be rewarded for the hard work the players have put in, the coaching staff has put in,” said first-year coach Michael Peca, who has guided the team to 20-8-4 record in the Ontario Junior Hockey League. “I think we’re more satisfied with our place in the standings, being first in our league, first in our conference, than to be ranked top 10 in all of Canada. That’s a little added luxury that’s nice to talk about.”

The ranking symbolizes a remarkable turnaround for the program. Formerly a doormat that forced players to pay for a roster spot, the Junior Sabres have become a dominant team that has the financial backing of the Sabres’ alumni association and foundation.

“It’s an indication of how far this program has come,” said Playfair, who has been team president since the Sabres and their alumni group bought the organization in 2008. “The league when we first got into it was 37 teams, and what’s happened is the league has contracted to 22. That’s raised the bar as far as competition goes. We came into a league that was somewhat watered down, and we weren’t very competitive. It’s a more competitive league now, and we’re up near the top fighting for first place.”

Name recognition has helped the Junior Sabres develop a roster that is balanced at forward, versatile on defense and exceptional in goal. Youth players know of Peca and former coach Grant Ledyard and are interested in playing for them.

“We have former NHL players who have come in, and that’s given our program some recognition and is something we can add to the program that other teams can’t,” said Playfair, who played parts of 10 seasons for the Sabres during the 1970s and '80s. “That was always our intention when the alumni association took over the Junior Sabres, to give any of our guys who are out there and want to consider coaching, they can try it on for size.”

It’s been an ideal fit for Peca. He’s coached his son’s youth team for years in Western New York and was eager to try the Tier II junior league, which has players ages 16 to 20.

“At this age you can touch kids and have an effect on what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it more so than pro guys,” Peca said. “Anytime you’re successful the environment is always going to be fun, but we’ve also tried to keep them reined in and teach them about humility and realize that things can change pretty quickly and not take any moment for granted. It’s just been a really, really good environment.”

Peca, who was captain of the Sabres in the 1990s, is in his second season as general manager. He traded for Sean Federow, the team’s top defenseman, and signed Pennsylvania forward Tyler Gjurich, who leads the league with 27 goals and 50 points in 32 games.

The Junior Sabres have eight players with at least 20 points, depth that will help them get through a road trip of three games in three nights that starts today in Georgetown, Ont.

The team is also led by goalie Parker Gahagen, a Williamsville North product in his second season. He has a league-high six shutouts, a 2.46 goals-against average and .923 save percentage.

Colleges, including Colgate and Canisius, have taken notice, which remains the primary goal. Forward Josh Kielich has committed to play for the Golden Griffins, while defenseman Darrin Trebes will skate for Fredonia.

“The more of those kids who can move on, the better we feel we’ve done,” Playfair said.

In a domino effect, the better the team does, the more attention it attracts for current and future players. Peca has been getting calls and emails from kids as far away as Florida and Chicago who want to try out for the squad.

He foresees the Junior Sabres growing from a great team this season into a perennial powerhouse, especially once the organization moves into the Webster Block rink that Sabres owner Terry Pegula is constructing.

“We’ve got a unique opportunity this season to do really well in the postseason and give some guys an even greater opportunity for exposure,” Peca said.