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Inside the Sabres: Chris Hajt feels at home coaching his father's longtime team

When first-year coach Chris Hajt attended the Sabres' alumni golf tournament, it was hardly an introductory affair. He said hello again to Gilbert Perreault, who used to attend the same Christmas parties. Hajt not only recognized the players practicing putts, he asked about their wives and kids by name.

It's easy to be part of the crowd when your dad is in the group.

Hajt is the son of Bill Hajt, the longtime Sabres defenseman who is in the team's Hall of Fame. New Buffalo coach Phil Housley hired Chris Hajt as an assistant in July, and the golf tournament on the eve of training camp was the first big gathering since the announcement.

"My buttons were bursting all day," Bill Hajt proudly said Friday. "Irregardless if I played for the team, for my son to be at that level and coaching in The Show, it's pretty astounding."

Chris Hajt, new associate coach Davis Payne and holdover assistant Tom Ward emerged from a long list of candidates to earn jobs on the Sabres' bench. Although the Hajt family is filled with pride now, there were anxious moments.

Chris Hajt was working as an assistant with the Los Angeles Kings' American Hockey League affiliate when the Sabres asked for permission to interview him in early July. Hajt grew up in the Northtowns, and his parents still live in Williamsville. The opportunity to come home was so immense that Hajt told only his wife, parents and one of his three sisters about the interview. He didn't want others to get their hopes crushed.

During the talks with Housley and General Manager Jason Botterill, Hajt discovered they saw the game the same way. Buffalo hired the 39-year-old on July 17.

"Until the process ended, which was about 10 days, I hardly slept," Bill Hajt said. "It was tough because we knew what it would mean to the family. Chris would be home for the first time in 23 years, coming back to his hometown and the team that he learned to love and adore because his father played for them.

"The process was crazy for us, and when they picked him, we were ecstatic. There was a lot of screaming and bawling, that's for sure."

Chris Hajt has enjoyed a life in hockey since starring for the Amherst Knights and Williamsville North High School in the early 1990s. The defenseman was captain for Guelph of the Ontario Hockey League. He had a 10-year professional career, including six NHL games with Edmonton and Washington.

Hajt went back to Guelph as an assistant coach in 2008 and spent five years there. He worked for the Kings' minor-league club for the past three.

Now he's back in Buffalo. He was 9 when his father retired, so many Sabres memories are vague. He remembers trainer Frank Christie and equipment manager Rip Simonick handing him Wrigley's Doublemint gum in the dressing room. He recalls holiday parties with the players and going to a few games a year at the Aud.

The Sabres selected Bill Hajt in the third round of the 1971 NHL Draft, and he played 854 games from 1973 to 1987.

"As far as dad playing, there's certain snapshots in your head of what he was like and what the team was like," Hajt said. "You ask him once in a while about certain things like that. Being 9, you don't remember that much, but those are some of the neat things that you remember."

The Sabres inducted Bill Hajt into their Hall of Fame in 2000. (NHLI via Getty Images)

Housley, who shared the blue line with Bill Hajt but hadn't seen him for about five years, has tasked Chris Hajt with handling the defensemen. They're trying to build a swift-skating, puck-moving group.

"Being able to get pucks back and being able to go north is something that I've been able to do and teach as a coach," Hajt said.

His familiarity with former and current Sabres extends to Payne. While Hajt was with the Kings' minor-league club, Payne worked in Los Angeles. He spent five seasons as Darryl Sutter's assistant, including the Stanley Cup-winning season of 2014.

The British Columbia native doesn't have ties to Western New York, but the 47-year-old is also thrilled about the opportunity in Buffalo.

"It's been exciting to be back in a hockey environment and get a sense and a feel for how important this game is to the city and to the fabric of the community," Payne said. "Nothing against the southern climates, but this is what we grew up doing with the sport and this is the environment we grew up in. It's good to be back in it."

Davis Payne got into coaching in 2000 after an eight-year career as a player. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Payne spent parts of three seasons as the head coach in St. Louis before joining the Kings, so he should be able to help Housley past any first-year speedbumps. They'd had brief encounters in arena hallways through the years, and – like Housley with Hajt – they connected on philosophies during the interview process.

"We sat down and had a conversation at the draft, and it was one of those things where you kind of get a sense for what would work and what excites you and the people in the organizations you want to be a part of," said Payne, who coaches the forwards and wants to share the playoff experiences he gained with the Kings. "It helps with the expectations that we have to have every single day. What goes into getting into the playoffs isn't a lot of talk. It's day-to-day expectations and execution.

"Knowing how hard it is and knowing what happens once you get in there, they're experiences that you can rely on and help these players get to."

Ward is back for his second season in Buffalo, joining goaltending coach Andrew Allen as a survivor of the housecleaning. He was the longtime coach of prep powerhouse Shattuck-St. Mary's, which produced stars such as Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Buffalo's Kyle Okposo.

"He wants to win," Okposo said of Ward. "He wants to do things the right way. That's the way that he fundamentally thinks things should run is the right way. That's something that he's always preached, so I think that's a big reason why he's back here."

Now that the coaches are here, the goal is to build a winner. The Hajts and Housley, in particular, know what a winner means to Buffalo.

"This town is such a great sports town, just an amazing city to live in, and to be living here again after 23 years is amazing," Chris Hajt said. "You just see the pride and how much the fans and the city loves their sports teams. It's awesome."

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