Greg Royce knew it was time to make a decision. He was starting a family, but his jobs as a high school teacher and junior hockey coach kept him away from home too much. One of them had to go.
“Hockey was a passion, so I went with it,” Royce said.
It’s nearly 20 years later, and hockey is still Royce’s passion. He’ll head to the NHL Draft as Buffalo’s director of amateur scouting for the first time, and he’s eager to help build a franchise that is undergoing heavy reconstruction.
As he sat through his first organizational scouting meetings last month, Royce saw his enthusiasm was equaled by Sabres owner Terry Pegula, new coach Dan Bylsma and all the other scouts.
“There’s optimism,” Royce said in First Niagara Center. “We hit rock bottom. It was a long year, but with the draft around the corner and a franchise player joining the team it’s very exciting now. We’re building from the ground up here in Buffalo with a fantastic owner. It’s going to be fun.”
The fun, of course, starts at the top of the draft. The Sabres’ scouts from all over the world met in Buffalo, but the team’s first pick could have been mailed in from Timbuktu without discussion.
“They were relieved that we had one of the top two picks,” Royce said with a laugh. “Building the list right off the hop was easy.”
The Sabres will draft Jack Eichel with the No. 2 overall selection Friday in Florida’s BB&T Center. It gets tougher from there, with Buffalo holding the 21st pick of the first round and Nos. 31 and 51 in the second. They also have picks at the top of the fourth, fifth and sixth rounds. Their third- and seventh-round selections were shipped out in trades.
“The first round, we have to hit,” Royce said. “The second round becomes a little more pressure, but we have to find players there.”
Royce was an assistant director of amateur scouting once - with Nashville from 2003 to 2005 - and the Predators had good luck finding players. In addition to No. 7 overall pick Ryan Suter, Royce and the Predators nabbed Shea Weber and Kevin Klein in the second round, Cody Franson in the third, Mike Santorelli in the sixth and Patric Hornqvist in the seventh.
Most importantly, they have one of the draft’s all-time steals with the selection of three-time Vezina Trophy finalist Pekka Rinne in the eighth round in 2004.
“There’s a little bit of luck, but hopefully if we do our homework we can repeat that,” said Royce, who’s noticed one major difference between that era and this one. “There’s not as many secrets anymore. We got Rinne in the eighth round. I don’t think that’s going to happen again. I think with the world becoming increasingly smaller, the Internet, there’s more balance of knowledge between the clubs, so you’re not really going to steal someone in the later rounds.
“But that’s still a goal. You’ve still got to aim for it.”
After eight seasons with Nashville, the resident of Belleville, Ont., spent three years as a scout for the Phoenix Coyotes. In 2008, he joined the Ottawa Senators and worked under Tim Murray. Royce had a clause in his contract that allowed him to leave if Murray became a general manager elsewhere, and the 50-year-old joined the Sabres in August.
“There was no hesitation,” Royce said about rejoining Murray. “He asked if I’d be interested, and I thought, wow, this is something that we can build together.”
Royce doesn’t have a preference when it comes to drafting prospects from college or junior. He does have a distinct mindset he’d like to see.
“We want to find guys that fit the Sabres, guys that have the compete and the passion to play the game,” Royce said. “Guys that are going to come to the rink and work their tails off every game. They’re going to play hard whether it’s a win or a loss.
“Hopefully going forward when we make a pick, other teams will say, ‘That’s a Sabres pick, of course.’ We want guys like that.”
Adam Mair is moving from HarborCenter to First Niagara Center.
The Sabres announced Wednesday that they have hired Mair and Krys Barch as player development coaches. Mair, who played in Buffalo from 2002 to 2010, spent the last 18 months as a coach at the Terry Pegula-owned Academy of Hockey.
Prior to joining the HarborCenter staff, the 36-year-old spent the 2012-13 season as director of player development for Canisius College. Mair, who also played for Toronto, Los Angeles and New Jersey, recorded 114 points in 615 games.
Barch, who retired in 2014 after an eight-year NHL career, will coach for the first time. The 35-year-old had 35 points in 381 games with Dallas, Florida and New Jersey.
Barch is likely more known for two off-ice incidents. The NHL suspended the Panthers forward for one game in 2012 for inappropriate language, with the Miami Herald reporting that he asked Montreal’s P.K. Subban if he “slipped on a banana peel” after falling. Though the comment carries racial overtones, Barch insisted it wasn’t meant that way.
The enforcer also penned an epic Twitter outburst about NHL owners while drinking at a campfire during the 2012 lockout.