If any member of the Buffalo Sabres organization exceeded his expectations this past season, it was Hall of Fame play-by-play man Rick Jeanneret.
That’s because in the dark days when he was battling throat cancer last summer, Jeanneret wondered if his broadcast career was over.
Sure, he was publicly optimistic that he would return behind the microphone. But privately, the 72-year-old Jeanneret had his doubts.
“When I was going through the recovery period, I honestly didn’t think I was going to come back,” Jeanneret said during an interview at First Niagara Center. “I was thinking more at that period of time about living, rather than working.”
This week’s revelation contradicts his vow to return when his throat cancer was diagnosed.
“Of course I said that,” said Jeanneret. “I was trying to be optimistic. But when you are sitting there in that dark room and thinking things you shouldn’t be thinking and you are under the influence of painkillers …”
His voice trailed off but he didn’t have to finish the sentence.
It’s been about a year since his first symptoms appeared and several months since he was declared cancer-free. He still has another scan scheduled Monday but he doesn’t appear to be worried about it.
“I feel great,” he said. “I really do. I am surprised about how well I feel. I felt better as the season went on. … I was really pleased and surprised.”
In a wide-ranging interview, Jeanneret candidly talked about the season, his future and the team’s future and dealing arguably with more criticism than he has had since he began calling Sabres games 43 years ago. Despite missing the first six weeks of last season, Jeanneret worked all 47 games that he was contracted to do. His first game back was against Toronto. He was exhausted after one period.
“At the end of the first period, I got up, went to the elevator, got to my car, drove home (to Canada) and went to bed,” said Jeanneret. “I didn’t know until the next day what the final score was.”
Buffalo won that game but the Sabres finished last in the National Hockey League for the second straight season. The horrendous seasons remind Jeanneret of his early days calling Sabres games.
“Don’t forget when I started, we were awful,” Jeanneret said. “We were an expansion team and there wasn’t much talent to begin with. The first year I worked we were out of it at Christmas.”
Jeanneret had to find ways this season to keep fans interested in a team going nowhere. He and game analyst Rob Ray decided they needed to entertain more because the team on the ice “wasn’t going to carry it. I think we did a reasonable job of that.”
They mentioned what players did away from the ice and brought up humorous situations from Ray’s playing days in an effort to entertain by filling time in a trying season.
“Absolutely,” Jeanneret said. “You have to be honest about that. It was trying for the fans, it was trying for everybody, and it was trying for the announcers.”
Jeanneret said there was no organizational directive to avoid the one thing on the minds of Sabres fans – tanking to get to last place to be able to draft one of two players believed to be superstars-in-the-making: Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “I can tell you in my 43 years I’ve never been told what to say. I’m smart enough to figure out some things on my own. I’m not going to be overly critical of a situation that’s only going to cause a problem. I tried to treat all the games as a hockey game, tried to maintain my excitement level, be as creative as I could.”
There was no conversation about the Sabres being better off losing.
“I think we all took for granted that we shouldn’t be talking about it,” said Jeanneret, laughing. “Every fan in Buffalo was talking about it, we didn’t have to add fuel to the fire. I found out from the immigration agent the moment I hit the border. They would always mention, ‘They going to win tonight?’ And they would add ‘We hope not.’ I just laughed.”
It hasn’t always been easy for him to laugh at criticism. He is a legend and still has a large share of backers, but he received more criticism on social networks than he has in the past. The criticism connected to his cancer was sick and ugly and easy to dismiss. But he is self-aware enough to realize some other criticism has been fair and inevitable for an aging broadcaster.
“In some cases, I know I can’t hit the high notes like I used to be able to,” he said. “That’s progression and time, that’s all that is. I have to work a little harder at the games to maintain my concentration. It all came so naturally at one point. As you get older, some of your skills erode.
“I’ve read criticism that I missed a call. I confused a player. The problem is they were right. How can I be upset about the criticism when they are correct?”
He is scheduled to call 41 games next season in his final year of what is supposed to be his final contract.
“None of that has changed,” he said. “Nor do I expect it to.”
“If there is any interest in my carrying on, it probably wouldn’t be exhibited until some time next season,” Jeanneret added.
He said he won’t know until he gets into next year if he feels good enough to continue anyway.
Jeanneret clearly sounds re-energized when talking about the chances of the Sabres improving with the expected addition of Eichel, the debut of newly acquired Evander Kane and the acquisition of potential free agents. He calls Eichel “a helluva player” and Kane “a whale of a player.”
“If he gets himself in the right situation, he’s a borderline superstar, if not a superstar,” Jeanneret said of Kane. “I honestly believe the Sabres will be in the playoffs next year. I just think the future looks really good.”
Sabres fans certainly have to be hoping that he is right and he and the team are able to hit some high notes again.