Rob Ray and Brad May fought their way into Sabres lore by dropping the gloves with some of the hardest punchers in NHL history. They had a blast doing it, forming one of the more feared and beloved tag teams Buffalo has ever seen.
It’s been 25 years since they first joined forces, and they’re still throwing haymakers. The difference now is the jabs are verbal and directed at each other.
Longtime teammates on the ice, Ray and May are in their third season as colleagues on the Sabres’ television broadcasts. They add spice to the shows by taking well-timed shots at each other.
“We rip each other in front of everyone,” May said. “Nothing that he could say would offend me, and it’s the same thing for him. It’s that respect and trust just because you know each other so well.
“When you fight with each other and for each other as teammates, there’s that bond that never goes away.”
The bond is evident whenever the duo is together. Off the set, they’ll recall the hilarious or testosterone-fueled moments from their seven seasons as teammates in the 1990s. Once the cameras start rolling, they bring in a dressing-room jocularity that gives viewers a glimpse of what it was like to be in the back rooms of Memorial Auditorium.
“When we played we were good friends, and it just kind of carried through,” Ray said. “We’re comfortable with each other. You’re able to have some fun most of the time at each other’s expense. We both have very thick skin so things don’t bother us.”
It’s common for athletes to become broadcasters, but it’s rare for teammates to reunite. Philadelphia is the only NHL club that has a similar approach with former Flyers Keith Jones and Chris Therien serving as analysts. They didn’t achieve the on-ice popularity that May and Ray had in Buffalo.
“It’s not like you’re just bringing in two guys and dropping them in Florida and hoping that it works out for the market,” Sabres studio host Brian Duff said. “The market enjoys seeing guys that they enjoyed watching on the ice. To me it’s almost a natural evolution for them.”
Duff works with May in the 200 Level for home games and in the press box during road games, with the duo providing analysis between periods and after the game. Ray does in-game color commentary from between the benches. They’re all part of a pregame roundtable with play-by-play man Rick Jeanneret.
During those discussions, the group expounds on issues in the sport or with the team. That’s also when most of the arrows are slung by the erstwhile pugilists.
“When we do the roundtable segment, it almost becomes a game between the two of them,” Sabres broadcast producer Joe Pinter said. “There’s a lot of chemistry between the two of them, and that really shows their personality a lot better because they’re so comfortable with each other.”
Ray says he’s finally reached a comfort level in the overall job, too. He is in his fourth season as Jeanneret’s go-to guy. He started as a studio analyst alongside Danny Gare in 2003 after temporarily retiring from playing.
“You sat down in the chair, you put the mic on and away you went,” Ray said. “You kind of really had to learn on the go because you had no instruction. There’s guys that do this job who went to school for four years and learn how to do it. You’re kind of just thrown in and you learn as you go.
“If you know the game somewhat you can sit there and talk about it. It takes a long time, though, to become comfortable. Even though you can be an idiot on the ice and run around half-naked and do whatever you do, all of a sudden when the camera is on you you’ve got a responsibility to say the right thing, not to swear.”
Ah, the swearing. In everyday life, Ray sprinkles vulgarities into the conversation as if he were throwing salt on French fries.
“Rob said his resolutions the other day were to stop swearing as much as he does,” Duff said. “It is the one question I get all the time from people: How does Rob not swear on the air? He acknowledges it’s a problem, everybody else knows it’s an issue for him.
“It’s as remarkable that he doesn’t swear as it is that he never lost a tooth during the course of his career. Those two things just don’t make sense.”
Ray’s microphone will occasionally pick up street language because he’s so close to the action. It’s exactly where he wants to be.
“I don’t like sitting in a press box doing a game,” he said. “I feel so disconnected from it that you don’t have that excitement or enthusiasm sometimes. But when you get to be between the benches, you feel like you’re still on the front lines and playing and are part of it a little more.”
Said Pinter: “He had that view for so many years that he can see things there, pick up things that you just can’t see over the TV. That’s why he’s so good down there.”
The desire to be close to the game is also what led May to broadcasting.
“I’m in hockey,” he said. “You’re kind of like a 30-team scout in many ways, but I don’t have the pressure or grind of just the day-to-day that a coach would have or a scout would have with a particular team. But you’re still around. Every building you’re in you run into old players and old acquaintances.”
And in every building he runs into Ray. Actually, they take runs at each other.
“It’s nice to be back in Buffalo, and obviously with Robby it’s great,” May said. “It’s been fun to be with him. I think we work well together.”