The once baby-faced redhead is 51 now and it’s been 33 years since he made his NHL debut with the Sabres. Phil Housley was back in town Thursday night as an assistant coach with the Nashville Predators but this visit was different.
He has that label now that no one can ever take away. It goes in front of his name in perpetuity. It’s now Hall of Famer Phil Housley.
Induction weekend was earlier this month in Toronto and Housley, the highest-scoring American defenseman of all time and the No. 2 U.S.-born scorer to Mike Modano, said it was a whirlwind reliving an NHL career that stretched from 1982 to 2003.
“You have to thank the Buffalo Sabres and Seymour and Norty Knox and Scotty Bowman to take that chance on me out of high school where I was sort of unproven,” Housley said before Wednesday’s game. “I was very focused. It was guys like Gilbert Perreault, having Larry Playfair as my first roommate, Lindy Ruff and Mike Ramsey inviting me to come into their house until I got my own place, Mike Foligno. It’s a great core group of leaders who made me comfortable and part of their team.”
The Sabres showed a classy touch by putting together a tribute video honoring Housley during the first TV timeout Wednesday. Yes, it had one of Rick Jeanneret’s classic “Wowie Housley” goal calls. And it’s always great to hear the dulcet tones of Ted Darling again too.
Housley waved to the applauding crowd. It wasn’t a raucous ovation and part of that is that if you’re under 30 you probably don’t remember Housley at all from when he played here.
If you’re older, he was a pretty polarizing figure in these parts in the 80s.
Housley’s 81 points in 1989-90 remain the most ever by a Buffalo defenseman. He had 178 goals, 380 assists and 558 points in his Buffalo career, all tops among Sabres blueliners. So why is he not remembered with the fondness of many others who wore the Blue & Gold?
You have to remember what this franchise went through in the 80s, falling just short so many times. Starting with their Game Seven overtime loss in the second round in Boston in 1983 until Brad May’s “May Day” overtime winner against the Bruins in 1993, the Sabres played eight postseason series. They lost them all.
Housley was here for five of them. Three times, the Sabres had at least 90 points and didn’t get out of the first round. It was Housley who took a ton of criticism in that stretch. At the draft in 1990, the Sabres sent him to Winnipeg to get another future Hall of Famer in Dale Hawerchuk and a first-round pick that turned into May.
Still, Housley has spent weeks praising the Sabres for giving that huge break to a kid out of South St. Paul, Minn. He did it again Wednesday.
“You hear the rumors about Scotty and him being a great coach and the first time I met him was at the draft and I thought he was a great man,” Housley said. “He really allowed me to play the game he wanted me to play. He didn’t put too much pressure on me. He let me play and the leaders on that team made me feel really comfortable.
“In the 80s, it was a great sports town here. The fans were great, really supported us. Jim Kelly came to play with the Bills and things were really good. The fans were just exceptional.”
“He’s been great for me personally. He knows so much about the game,” said Predators defenseman Seth Jones, taken fourth overall in the 2013 draft as the first defenseman selected. “Your ears are definitely open when he’s talking to you and giving advice, whether it’s offensively or defensively. Everyone on the D corps really appreciates his knowledge of the game.”
Players like Jones and Sabres standout Jack Eichel are the beneficiaries of USA Hockey’s influence in the game. Housley and Tom Barrasso, who joined the Sabres in 1983, were great American hockey players who emerged in the wake of the Miracle on Ice at the Lake Placid Olympics.
“People like him have done a lot for us. He’s one of the best American players ever to play the game, and not just defenseman,” Jones said. “Guys like me, Jack and all young Americans can look up to him and the way he played the game.”
Jones joked that he knew Housley was a standout former player who had a long career but had no idea how good Housley was offensively until he got on the Internet and looked for himself.
“Even as my coach at World Juniors, I knew he was a great player but had no idea you were talking about almost a point a game for maybe like 1,300 games,” Jones said. “That’s pretty impressive for a defenseman.”
Housley finished his career with 1,232 points in 1,495 games. But over his first 16 seasons in the league - spanning his years with Buffalo, Calgary and Winnipeg - Housley was even better with 1,055 points in 1,168 games.
As Housley stood at the podium in Toronto, during a speech where he pulled out his old Jofa helmet as a prop, he admitted a lot of career memories and a lot of life memories of his family and late parents flashed before him.
“The one thing you look back and want to try to thank everybody and it wasn’t just possible,” he said. “The great players I played with, the people I got to meet in different cities put me in a position to get there.
“The thing that came back to me when I really thought about it was growing up in South St. Paul and having the resources back in those days. The outdoor rinks, the coaches, the players that shaped you as a young kid and your mother and father who were not alive today to take part in it but I know they were looking down on me.”