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Inside the Sabres: Simonick still letting it rip

Rip Simonick, the last of the original Sabres, has set a retirement date.

It’s an unthinkable situation. The Buffalo native has really, truly seen it all. He’s befriended Hall of Famers Gilbert Perreault, Pat LaFontaine and Dominik Hasek. He’s congratulated 17 coaches after victories and cried with some of the 464 players after losses. He welcomed Mike Foligno after arriving from Detroit, and he welcomed Marcus Foligno after arriving from childhood.

After 52 years in hockey and more than 3,500 NHL games, Simonick still shows up at the rink with a smile. But he knows there’s a time to call it quits.

“When Marcus’ son plays in the National Hockey League, that’s when I’m going to retire,” Simonick said with a grin.

Thankfully, that gives hockey quite a bit more time with one of the characters of the game. The 25-year-old Foligno just got married this summer, so any son of his won’t be skating in the NHL for a couple of decades.

“I love the game or else I wouldn’t be here,” Simonick said Thursday as he prepared for Game No. 3,503. “We’ll be doing this when I get to 4,000.”

Simonick knew he’d be a hockey lifer long before the Sabres came into existence. He started as a stick boy with the Buffalo Bisons of the American Hockey League in 1964. His older brother, Paul, first got the job through a friend in the neighborhood. Rip joined him, then took over when Paul headed to junior hockey and Vietnam.

“When you count the Bisons and the playoffs and the exhibitions, it’s probably 5,000 games,” said Simonick, whose real first name is Robert, though no one ever calls him that.

He got to know Seymour H. Knox III while working at rinks, and when the Sabres’ co-founder brought the NHL to Buffalo in 1970, Simonick was there. He never left.

Buffalo Sabres trainer Rip Simonick sharpens a skate during game against Philadelphia Flyers in second period of preseason game at HSBC Arena in Buffalo, N.Y. on Sunday October 3, 2010. Sabres 3-2 Flyers after 1 period of play . {Photo by John Hickey}

Rip Simonick at work in 2010. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

“I knew it would be my life,” he said. “The day Gilbert Perreault and Jean Beliveau walked into the Aud for the first NHL game, I was like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’”

Simonick has declined offers to write a book, but the tales are readily available for anyone who asks. People always do. Take a walk toward the Sabres’ dressing room, and odds are good a smiling Simonick will be in the hallway catching up with someone he’s met along the way.

“If I met one person every day for 3,500 games, that’s a long list of friends,” he said. “It’s a long road. A lot of fun, a lot of heartbreaks.”

The springtime joy and ultimate pain of two runs to the Stanley Cup finals stick out the most. The Sabres nearly went from the cradle to the Cup in 1975, and Hasek’s brilliance gave them a chance again in 1999.

“They were heartbreaking when we lost, but we were there,” Simonick said. “I hope to get there one more time. Maybe the third time will be the charm.”

While Simonick has remained constant, change has swirled around him. The little game has become a billion-dollar business. Coconut whey smoothies have replaced cigarettes after practice. Team chefs have made coffee runs obsolete.

“I used to walk down Main Street to White Tower and get 30 coffees for the visitors and 30 for the home team,” Simonick said. “That kept me going. Everybody liked me because I brought the coffee.

“Bottled water? There was no such thing as bottled water. It was right from the tap. It’s just weird things, little things that people don’t think about.”

While many things have gotten easier, the hours keep getting longer. In Simonick’s early days, the Sabres would fly into a city just before game time, then head home after the final whistle. He could still take classes at Buffalo State.

Now the equipment guys can barely take a nap. A typical day might see them show up at KeyBank Center for a morning practice, pack the equipment in a truck and drive it to the airport, then load the plane. After arrival in the next town, they’ll reload the gear, drive to the arena and wait for a concert or basketball game to finish. After setting up the dressing room well past midnight, Simonick, fellow equipment manager Dave Williams and assistant George Babcock might just sleep there since the team is coming soon for the morning skate.

“I’ve got great guys to work with,” Simonick said. “It makes it a lot easier.”

{FOR SPORTS}The Sabres' Dave Williams, right, and Rip Simonick sharpen skates after the warm up before the game Saturday, February 19, 2012. The players had problems with their skates when the skated on broken glass from a light blub in the ceiling.{Photo by Mark Mulville / Buffalo News}

Rip Simonick, left, and Dave Williams sharpen skates before a Feb. 19, 2012 game. The players had problems with their skates when the skated on broken glass from ceiling light bulb. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

The friends on the road and in the game have helped him heal from losses at home. His wife, Maize, and his brother-in-law, EJ McGuire, both died in 2011.

“You miss things,” Simonick said, his eyes moistening. “I miss my brother-in-law, my wife, but they were part of my hockey life. They pushed me. EJ was great and well-respected. My wife, the same thing. She was the best hockey person in the family.

“I’m still here. I’m still trying hard.”

Thankfully, he’ll be here for a long time.

Amerks news takes hit

While one fixture is remaining in Buffalo, another is unfortunately gone in Rochester. Kevin Oklobzija, who has delivered news, anecdotes and profiles about the Amerks for more than three decades, was laid off by the Democrat and Chronicle on Tuesday. The shocking news came as Gannett Co. cut 2 percent of its workforce.

Oklobzija has tracked the Sabres’ minor-leaguers since the 1985-86 season. He kept fans abreast of their progress and let them know who was getting called up. He told the organization what it was doing right and wrong. He did it with a sense of humor that created bonds in the dressing room.

“I have a lot of respect for him,” said Sabres captain and Rochester native Brian Gionta. “He was great to myself and my family. Nothing but first class in everything he did and how he handled himself. He’ll be missed in the rooms. I always enjoyed chatting with him.”

The Sabres have to be worried how Oklobzija’s departure will affect the Amerks. He was a daily presence. In the four days after the layoff, not one story about the hockey team appeared on the Democrat and Chronicle website. Out of sight, out of mind would be troubling as the Sabres fight with the city of Rochester for improvements to the arena.

“Thank you for 30-plus years of hockey coverage in this community,” the Amerks tweeted. “It hasn’t gone unnoticed and is greatly appreciated by many.”

Home depreciation

The Sabres have played 125 home games from the start of the 2013-14 season to Saturday morning. They won just 43 of those. That didn’t give fans much bang for their buck.

A season-ticket holder sitting in 200 Club spent $13,434 on those 125 games. That works out to $312.42 per victory. A fan in 100 Level II spent $8,053. That’s $187.28 per victory. The $4,297 spent by a season-ticket holder in 300 Level II equated to $99.93 per win.

It’s time for Sabres season-ticket holders to start getting their money’s worth.

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