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Sabres' Cody McCormick done playing but hopes NHL remains in his life

There were times, Cody McCormick admits, when he’d scoff at his accomplishments. His wife would point out that he played 432 NHL games – 431 more than he ever dreamed of – but he couldn’t get past the way his career ended.

It’s officially over now. McCormick’s contract with the Sabres expired this summer, and the blood clots that suddenly sidelined him 30 months ago have sent him into retirement.

But McCormick has always been a positive thinker. With help from his family, he’d quickly win his bouts with the blues. The 34-year-old realizes he’s had amazing times. He knows more are ahead.

“I don’t want to just be remembered for a guy who played hockey,” McCormick said. “I’ve got some more stuff to do.”

While time doesn’t heal all wounds – McCormick is still on blood thinners after his life-threatening hospitalization in January 2015 – it did give the forward an opportunity to ponder his next steps. He has two big ideas.

The first is to continue to influence his fellow First Nations people and Native Americans. McCormick is of Oneida and Chippewa/Ojibway descent, and he’s involved in various charities. He was a guest speaker who ran clinics at the Little Native Hockey League tournament, which drew more than 200 teams to Mississauga, Ont., in March.

“I’m trying to be proactive because of my native background in helping out the youth and the community,” McCormick said. “There’s not too many native players that have played in the NHL, so it’s something that I can give back to them and show that it happens and you can do it, too.”

McCormick also learned he has a passion for the developmental side of professional hockey. After being sidelined for the second half of 2014-15, he helped rehab Buffalo’s injured players. His ability to empathize with their plight helped the training.

“You can see some days they come in and they’re excited, and some days they just would give anything to be out there in a game,” McCormick said. “That was something that obviously I could relate to, so we would head out, get the work done that we needed to do that day, and then get out of there.

“I’ve been reconnecting with ex-players who are now in management. I’ve been out of the game for a couple years now, but you call those guys and it’s like you’re picking up where you left off. I was able to pick up some good stuff off of them and see how people develop players and get as much research done on it as I can.”

San Jose's Mike Brown was just one of Cody McCormick's many opponents. (Getty Images)

While he knows that profession can take him anywhere, he wants to stay with the Sabres’ organization. Buffalo is home. It’s been that way since he arrived in 2009 after advice from Colorado teammates Brad May and Bob Boughner, fellow tough guys who thrived with the Sabres.

“They said, ‘You would love Buffalo, and the people there will appreciate the way you play,’” said McCormick, who has spent the last eight seasons in the organization, aside from a 27-game stay in Minnesota after a deadline trade in 2014. “We’ve made a lot of friends and become part of a community that we’re very fortunate to have, especially when you go from having a team to not being in the dressing room.”

McCormick, who sat out the past two seasons, has missed the dressing room as much as he’s missed the games.

“You walk into a room, and you inherit 23 best friends,” he said. “I always loved the dressing room. I was one of the first guys in. I liked to hang out in there and laugh and joke.

“That was tough. I wasn’t in the dressing room with them, but you know what? They always made me feel good when I was around. They would reach out to me and kept me involved as much as they could. With how busy they were, I really appreciate that they did that.

“The Pegulas were always good to me, too. They included me on the team when I wasn’t around. They even got me the Christmas presents that the team got. They were always checking in on my health, whether it’s one of them seeing my wife at a function or passing by me in the press box.”

Cody McCormick found a home in Buffalo. (Getty Images)

Aside from those Pegula moments, the press box was where McCormick felt most out of place. He was on the Sabres’ roster with a three-year, $4.5 million contract, but all he could do was watch the games.

“It was emotionally taxing not being able to do what I was there for,” he said.

Slowly, he stopped going to the arena and would watch from home. It was those days when his family propped him up. He and wife Alyssa would play with their daughters, Aubrey and Ava, and son Caden.

“You take a second to realize that I’m enjoying things with my kids and wife that I wouldn’t have enjoyed,” McCormick said. “They were the first ones to lift you up and tell you you’ve accomplished so much. My wife would tell me look at what I’ve done.

“It kind of brings you back to reality that you did something a lot of people hadn’t done.”

It was quite the ride. The kid who followed his dad and older brother to the rink became an aggressive junior player who won fights and scored 36 goals in his final season. Colorado’s fifth-round pick in 2001 outlasted more heralded prospects in training camp and earned a spot alongside Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic and Paul Kariya in 2003. McCormick played 11 seasons in the NHL, recording 23 goals and 47 assists. The majority of his 587 penalty minutes included taps of appreciation from his teammates.

While blood clots ended all that early, they haven’t stolen the memories or ruined the future.

“I always wanted to just play one NHL game, just to say I played in the NHL,” McCormick said. “I’m walking away feeling like I did something that I set out to do.”

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