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Sabres’ TV booth feels like fate for Dunleavy

Dan Dunleavy grew up in Georgetown, Ont., which is about a 45-minute drive to Toronto on Highway 401 and the Gardiner Expressway. But when he thinks about his career as a hockey announcer, Dunleavy feels like all roads have been leading to Buffalo.

Dunleavy is embarking on his first full season as a member of the Sabres’ broadcast team. The former Toronto Maple Leafs radio play-by-play man will work with Rick Jeanneret and the other broadcasters for three seasons before taking over Sabres play-by-play from Jeanneret in the fall of 2016.

When Dunleavy studied broadcasting at Niagara College in Welland, Ont., one of his classmates was Chris Jeanneret, Rick’s son.

“He and I became instant friends, and we still are to this day,” Dunleavy said in a phone interview. “That’s kind of a neat little side story.”

After college, Dunleavy worked for a radio station in Orangeville, Ont., doing “just about every job possible” there. When full-time sports radio came to Toronto in late 1992 with what turned into The Fan 590, friends told Dunleavy he should apply for a job there. In another bit of foreshadowing, Dunleavy interviewed at the station with Allan Davis, who is now program director at WGR 550, the Buffalo station that carries the Sabres’ radio broadcasts.

“Allan is the one who gave me my break in this industry,” Dunleavy said. “And now I’m working for him again, in a sense.”

Dunleavy did sportscasts, traffic and whatever else needed doing at The Fan. He also got his first play-by-play job, working games for the Toronto Rock of the National Lacrosse League.

“I did Rock broadcasts for a number of years, through their championship years with Les Bartley and Derek Keenan,” he said.

Bartley, Toronto’s head coach, had won three championships coaching the Buffalo Bandits. Keenan, his assistant, played for two of those Bandits title teams.

“So many connections to Buffalo,” Dunleavy said. “I think that destiny has just kind of worked its magic here. Now it’s up to me to respect the opportunity, the path that Rick Jeanneret and Ted Darling have paved here.”

The plan announced over the summer is for Jeanneret to gradually reduce his workload in each of the next three years, with Dunleavy taking on play-by-play duties for 25 games this season, 35 games in 2014-15 and 41 games in 2015-16. The season after that, Dunleavy steps into the role full time. And in the meantime, he will perform various other duties on Sabres broadcasts, while spending three seasons learning from an NHL announcing legend.

Dunleavy likes the idea of his gradual transition into the job.

“If there was a scenario where Rick said, ‘I think I’ll do all but eight games this year and then I’ll call it a career,’ I think it would be really hard for the next guy to step in and take his lumps,” Dunleavy said. “It’d be like, ‘Hey, that guy’s not even close to being Rick Jeanneret.’ You just can’t fill those shoes.

“And I think with this three-year transitioning, it will give people a chance to say, even if at first, ‘I don’t know if I like this guy,’ to maybe get to know me a little bit and find out, nobody was going to be Rick Jeanneret. So hopefully, by the end of it, they’ll say, ‘We actually enjoy the guy.’ ”

For now, Dunleavy will commute to Sabres games from his home in Burlington, Ont. Jeanneret has even given him advice on crossing the border.

“We’ve had lunch a couple of times,” Dunleavy said. “He’s already schooled me on which bridge to take, which Nexus lane to use. As you know, a lot of times guys in his position don’t necessarily do that. They’ll say, ‘OK, we’ll let the new guy figure things out his own way.’ But Rick has called me from Columbus after a game, he’s been texting me about anything that’s been going on in Toronto. He’s really made an incredible effort to be a friend of mine and a colleague.”

Dunleavy did Maple Leafs games on radio for two seasons. And for the past six years, he’s been doing the games of Toronto FC, the Major League Soccer club.

“That’s something the Sabres in the summer have given me their blessing to continue doing because I love the game of soccer,” he said.

He has also been around hockey for pretty much all of his career, working with various junior teams and eventually covering the World Junior Championships, including the 2011 tournament at what is now First Niagara Center.

Dunleavy saw several of the Sabres’ prospects play in junior hockey, which makes him optimistic about Buffalo’s future.

“Guys like Marcus Foligno, and Brayden McNabb, who was sent down to Rochester on Monday. I watched him play as a kid in junior, and I know it’s a different level but all the tools are there for both of these guys. And Cody Hodgson, I called his entire junior career in Brampton. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be a sure thing, but I’ve seen him have everything it takes to be a player who is special at the next level.

“My experience at the World Juniors and watching these kids work their way up, this team really is primed for three or four years from now – and that’s if they don’t surprise us sooner, and they just might because I don’t think they’re as far off as everybody thinks. When I go up and down the roster, I look at the size of these young kids, and at their ability and their skill, I think they’re closer than people suggest.

“In three or four years down the road, this team might be in position to become the next Chicago Blackhawks, and by that I mean a team full of young and really good talent that’s just realizing how good they can be.”

When he was growing up, Dunleavy and his mom would watch “Hockey Night in Canada” on Saturday nights, rooting for the Maple Leafs. Right behind the Leafs in their affections was the Sabres.

“In Southern Ontario it’s not your first team, but Buffalo is the second team that you’re kind of hoping does well. I know there are fans that really draw the line on which team they root for, but I can tell you, since I got this job there are so many people who tell me, ‘I’ve been a closet Sabres fan for years.’ ”

The Sabres’ Darling was a particular favorite in the Dunleavy household.

“Ted certainly was in a class of his own, I thought growing up, and I used to impersonate him all the time. The phrase he used to say, ‘Heading over the Buffalo blue line,’ and he would just roll the Bs at the end of his tongue, the way he would say blue line and Buffalo.”

Dunleavy worked with one of the current Sabres announcers, Brian Duff, when both were coming up in broadcasting in Ontario. At one point they both were on the air at The Fan in Toronto.

“I’ll tell you what I think of Brian Duff,” Dunleavy said. “I always tell everyone, if Ron MacLean ever wanted to step down and they wanted to find the next Ron MacLean for ‘Hockey Night in Canada,’ I think Brian Duff would be that guy. I just think the world of him, he’s so solid, so smooth, very passionate about his work. I’m glad he’s in Buffalo – I hope he doesn’t go anywhere – but I think he could replace Ron MacLean someday.”

Dunleavy, who is 47, had paid his dues in the sportscasting world.

“A lot of guys want to rocket to the top right away – I completely get that,” he said. “I like to marinate in the process a little bit here. This process is happening for a reason, and I just consider myself lucky that I get to ride the bus with Rick for three years and really learn from him and watch his habits. Aside from his calls, what else makes this guy a Hall of Fame broadcaster?

“We had lunch and I asked him, ‘So after a game do you like to sit around and talk about the game or what do you like to do?’ Rick’s very much like me. He said, ‘I’d rather go watch a football game. I’ve just done three hours of hockey.’ His life is about balance, which mine is as well. I’m a big music fan. I like going to concerts and live theater. I love travel, I love kayaking in the mountains with my wife or going to the ocean.”

Even after Jeanneret has taken off his microphone and moved on, Dunleavy can see at least one scenario in which the veteran might step back into the booth.

“If Rick Jeanneret is able to call the game and the Sabres get to the Stanley Cup final, in that situation I would gladly step aside and have the legend and the voice call the game, because I want to hear that call, too. As a hockey fan, I want to hear that call when the Sabres win the Cup. And if he’s able to do it, the only thing I would probably ask is that I’m in the booth with him when he’s calling it. I want to see it, I want to hear it, I want to feel it. As would any hockey fan across the NHL. Who doesn’t want to hear that?”