Buffalo has been little more than a pit stop the last few years, a place for NHL players and coaches to grab a paycheck before getting on with their lives elsewhere. The hired guns, aging journeymen and salary-cap fillers had no real feel for the area or understanding of the Sabres and their history.
Mike Weber does. He arrived in a beat-up ’96 Chevy Lumina just as the city was going crazy for Chris Drury, Daniel Briere and the back-to-back Eastern Conference champions. He learned the names of little towns and family restaurants while driving between Buffalo and Rochester. He saw how the fans embraced winning teams, how much they ached when expectations once again went unfulfilled.
Weber fell in love with it all.
“This is home,” the defenseman said Monday. “From my neighbors on the street to the people you see at Wegmans to walking around the mall, you’re treated extremely well here. People know who you are but respect your privacy and your family time. It really is a family-first type of city.
“You can raise your kids here. You can have a great life here. You see how many veteran guys come back and live here. That’s a testament to the city in itself is how many guys have moved and played other places that might be a little fancier, a little nicer, but they come back to raise their families here. That’s pretty special. You don’t have that everywhere.”
The thought of leaving it behind has the passionate Weber even more emotional than usual. He needed a few seconds to gather himself when thinking about Sunday’s game in First Niagara Center and how it might be the last one he plays there as a member of the blue and gold.
“I don’t know even know what to say,” Weber said. “It’s tough.”
Weber joined his teammates on a flight to California, but he has no idea if he’ll come back with them at the end of the three-game road trip that starts Wednesday in Anaheim. The NHL trade deadline is Monday, and Weber is one of the unrestricted free agents that General Manager Tim Murray wants to turn into a future asset.
Plus, the 28-year-old and his wife are expecting their second child any second. He nearly had to rush home from the previous trip after she had contractions.
“Obviously with the trade deadline a week away it’s always in the back of your mind, then you’ve got personal stuff in the back of your mind also,” Weber said. “It’s part of the business. It’s what we do. It’s what happens every year.
“I’ve said it before kind of as a joke, you’ll see a little bit bigger suitcases on the plane today, just in case.”
Some of Weber’s baggage was emotional. He doesn’t want to leave Buffalo behind. Drafted in the second round in 2006, he’s spent a decade in the Sabres organization.
“I do feel really honored that I’ve been part of this organization for that long, and I hope I continue to be part of it,” Weber said. “It’s been a roller coaster throughout my tenure here in Buffalo, but this team, when we start winning here there’s going to be no better place to do it.”
Weber remembers being a prospect in the press box and seeing the fans go wild during the 2007 playoffs. He was a rookie on the Sabres’ last postseason team in 2010-11. He’s lived through the lows of near misses and last-place finishes since then.
“There’s been a lot of good guys in and out of these doors over the years, and somehow I’ve managed to stay here this long,” he said. “I’ve talked to other players that have been in and out and moved around. You don’t really have a connection. You don’t have a feeling of belonging.
“Myself and my family, we’ve been extremely lucky to be in one city and for it to be here.”
Weber has both given and received during his time in Buffalo. His teammates twice voted him as their “Unsung Hero,” bestowing the honor in 2013 and 2015.
Weber has made of point of honoring real heroes. The brother of a military man, he has sponsored “Tickets for Troops” for three seasons, giving more than 100 soldiers and their loved ones an opportunity to see a game and be recognized for their service. He’s also been part of fundraisers and charity drives.
“It’s been great to be able to be in place and put roots in and be able to see it grow through the years,” Weber said.
He has no desire to branch out to another city and team, but he’s prepared for it.
“You just try to worry about the guys in the locker room, the guys you’re battling for every night,” Weber said. “If something happens, you move on and you compete and battle with the other 20 guys you meet.
“I would like nothing more than to be a piece here. I’ve been here a lot of years. I want to stay here. I want to have success here. There’s no better place than here to win, but that’s out of my control.”