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Mike Harrington: Sabres' NHL100 legends ready for franchise's better days

LOS ANGELES -- They came together on the stage late Friday night in Microsoft Theater, a place where the ESPYs have been for several years. And the American Music Awards and Primetime Emmys. And many finales of American Idol.

They were hockey idols themselves for several generations in Buffalo, three members of the Rafters Club for retired numbers. Joined as part of NHL100, the once-in-a-lifetime ceremony to honor the league's top 100 players, they were congratulating other legends and chatting with reporters before being brought together for an iconic group photo.

They stood shoulder to shoulder, perhaps 5 feet in front of me. Dominik Hasek, Gilbert Perreault, Pat LaFontaine. Three legends of Blue and Gold (OK, and Black and Red). Resplendent in the black blazers with the official logo for the ceremony the NHL provided.

If that sounds like an ultra-cool moment to witness, let me assure you that it's a struggle to put words together that give it proper due.

"That was so great. It was a great honor to be part of this group of 100," said Perreault, still owner of a handshake as firm as ever who joked that he didn't feel a day over 52 now that he's 66. "I played 16-17 years and you put those years together and you get to 1,300 points. Most guys played 5-7 years and go somewhere else. I had a chance to play 17 years for the Sabres and I'm always going to be grateful."

They were three stars who got used to winning, something the Sabres haven't done remotely enough of in recent years. But they feel what you do: Maybe the tide isn't shifting as fast as you might want, but better days are ahead.

"I see a lot of Canadiens games on TV living in Quebec but I still follow the Sabres so much because the crest is in my heart for the rest of my life," said Perreault, the spine-tingling skater who led Buffalo through its glory years of the 1970s. "We're not too far from the playoff spot this year. What, 4-5 points? We have a chance to make it.

"It takes a while to rebuild a team and you have to give a chance to the guy in charge, the manager. Let's hope this year is going to make it count."

Like Perreault, Hasek got the Sabres as close as two wins from a Stanley Cup. We're not talking anywhere near that level yet but The Dominator is once again able to stiffen that slinky-for-a-spine and talk up his former team.

"I'm feeling much better," Hasek said in that trademarked staccato English mimicked across town through much of the '90s. "Last year I kind of thought no chance to make the playoffs this year, but next year I believe they can do it for sure. What I like is they're improving, they have young guys. I wish them to fight for the playoffs definitely this year still but next year they have to make it. It will be their time."

To the legends, just like to Sabres fans most everywhere, this is all about Jack Eichel. It's his team to take as far as he can. Both Perreault and LaFontaine said they were enthralled to watch Eichel's game-winning goal in overtime Tuesday in Nashville.

"I love him. I love the way he plays," Perreault said. "He had a great goal the other night. I watched that on TV. Whoa. What a goal. He's got a great pair of hands, let me tell you. I love the way he plays the game because he learns very quickly. He's a great goal scorer. I saw him five years ago in Victoriaville, in a tournament in Quebec and I knew he had a lot of talent."

"You can't teach that. Those are special moves," LaFontaine said. "Those are what the next generation brings. I know guys like him watched a guy like Patty Kane and you grow another whole generation with guys like that."

Hasek said he loves Eichel's skills and that the 20-year-old's high ankle sprain that cost him the first 21 games of the season was an unfortunate blow to the Sabres' season.

"He's the one to become the man of the organization. He has to take responsibility but he has to be healthy," Hasek said. "He's the one to take the team to the playoffs. This is his job. The Sabres right now depend on him and on him becoming a leader. He needs to play well."

LaFontaine recounted a conversation he had here with Kane about coming up with Chris Chelios and how they were followed by the likes of Brian Leetch and Mike Modano to keep the American hockey star pipeline flowing.

"Now Eichel and Auston Matthews are the next generation," LaFontaine said. "You're proud to be in the NHL and part of that fraternity but there's also an American pride too. You want to see the growth continue in a young player like Eichel."

The Sabres tweeted out congratulations to each player and to goaltender Grant Fuhr, a 62-game player in the mid-'90s who was also named mostly for his exploits winning Cups with the Edmonton teams of the '80s. The tweet is believed to be the organization's first acknowledgment of LaFontaine in nearly three years, since he was dumped under murky circumstances as the team's president of hockey in March 2014.

LaFontaine, who has never spoken about his departure due to a nondisclosure agreement and now works in a variety of roles for the league, was the one who brought Tim Murray aboard to be general manager. He said he's following the struggles of both the Sabres and the New York Islanders, the team he was most associated with in the league video for NHL100.

"I'm seeing bits and spurts where both teams are putting together streaks," he said. "Consistency is so key. You have to get on those runs these days."

LaFontaine, who is now 51 and was born 24 days after Hasek, said he was blown away by receiving the honor. While Perreault and Hasek were certainly NHL100 locks, LaFontaine's candidacy was on the bubble in some Internet and Canadian media circles in recent weeks.

"I used to follow Gilbert and Guy LaFleur. Those were the guys for a kid born in St. Louis and raised to play hockey in Michigan," he said. "Then to play for the Buffalo Sabres like someone you idolized and to become a captain like him, how great is that? And then to stand next to him for this? I thought I'd be pinching myself for this and I am. I'm very humbled and tremendously honored."

Perreault said he wanted to thank owner Terry Pegula for remembering the French Connection with their statue in Alumni Plaza at KeyBank Center. He also took a moment to recall the late Rick Martin, his beloved left winger who died less than a month after Pegula took over the team in 2011.

"I miss Rico a lot. I played junior with him. We grew up together in Buffalo, became lifelong friends," Perreault said. "He was a great part of the franchise. It's great to have an owner like that to remember us. He did something so big with the statue. Every time I go to Buffalo with my kids we always take a picture in front of it. My children are 39 and 31. My grandkids are 12 and 2. We're coming again soon for another picture."

Their own picture completed, it was time for the Sabres' legends to mill about some more before their departure. The scenes were everywhere.

There were Swedish legends Borje Salming, Nicklas Lidstrom and Peter Forsberg posing together for anyone with a phone or camera. Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier together again. Marcel Dionne holding court and telling jokes about his stocky 5-foot-8 frame. Larry Robinson, all 6-foot-5 of him, gracefully speaking with his jacket slung neatly over his shoulder. Bobby Clarke shaking hands with Phil Esposito. Billy Smith smiling and not carrying a goalie stick around like some kind of weapon.

Remarkable stuff indeed.

"This was fantastic. This is a great event," Hasek said. "It will happen once in your life for so many great stars to get together. It never happened before. It will never happen again. In 100 years, it's only once in your life. It will never be repeated."

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