The uplifting moments worked both ways.
For the patients in Roswell Park Cancer Institute and their families, it was a chance to spend time with athletes they watch on television. For the Buffalo Sabres, it was an opportunity to see the fighting spirit of sick children, meet adults going through tough times and shake the hands of selfless caregivers.
The Sabres' holiday hospital visit always lifts spirits, and this one was no different.
"It's great to just go over there and obviously see the kids and just have fun," center Jack Eichel said Tuesday. "That's what it's all about. It's just about enjoying time with them and trying to put a smile on some kids' faces — and not even just kids. Anybody who's there is not really in a good place and going through their own personal struggle and facing some obstacles.
"At a time like this right around the holiday, they want to be home with their family and enjoying time with people. You never want to be in that position, so it's good for us to just go over there, see some people and just enjoy our afternoon with them."
The smiles showed there was plenty of enjoyment to go around. Clad in blue and gold Santa hats, the players visited patients' rooms, checked out their drawings and hosted a party for the kids.
"They really appreciate us going there, and it's the least we can do," defenseman Jake McCabe said. "We have a blast with it, too. They have a kids party at the end of the visit, and the kids have a blast with it. I'm glad we do it every year, and I wish we could do it even more."
Both sides embraced the break from the daily routine. Faces are long in the arena because of an 8-18-7 start. That misery is minuscule compared to fighting cancer.
"It kind of puts life in perspective," McCabe said. "We've obviously had a tough year here, but you go through something like that and it's pretty easy to see the positivity in hockey and how lucky we are to play this game for a living."
While playing in Montreal, defenseman Nathan Beaulieu visited the local children's hospital. He was struck by the passion of the workers in Roswell Park.
"People kind of forget about all the people who spend their life basically working to take care of these people," Beaulieu said. "It's pretty special. It's amazing what they do."
The Sabres spent time with everyone from age 2 to 82, but as usual the kids were a top highlight.
"Something with kids really hits home," Beaulieu said. "They never really get a chance. It's always humbling and heartfelt.
"They were extremely excited. A lot of them were Sabres fans for a long time, and some are even season-ticket holders. It was a pretty neat experience. It's uplifting to see them with their family there and the support staff they have."
Eichel feels blessed that part of him never really leaves Roswell. Local artist Michelle Eisenstein drew a charcoal profile of the center, and it hangs in the main hospital. Eichel posed for pictures next to the artwork.
"It's just a huge honor, first of all, that Michelle would choose to draw me," Eichel said. "She did an amazing job. Just to be able to have it hung up in Roswell, a place that means a lot to me, is pretty special.
"It's a lot of fun," Eichel said of the visit. "We have just as much fun as they do."
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The Winter Classic will have a patriotic intermission.
USA Hockey will announce its 2018 Olympic and Paralympic teams during the second intermission of the New Year's Day game. The organization and NBC Sports figure viewership will be high for the meeting between the Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers, so it will serve as a lead-in to the Olympics, which also will be televised by NBC.
“The NHL Winter Classic is one of the can’t-miss hockey events on the calendar every year,” said Pat Kelleher, executive director of USA Hockey. “We’re excited to share with fans, both at Citi Field and those watching on NBC, our Olympic and Paralympic rosters.”
USA Hockey will have players from the men's, women's and sled hockey teams in attendance. Former Sabres captain Brian Gionta is a lock for the men's team, which may also include Western New York goaltenders David Leggio and Parker Gahagen.
The Olympic Games are being held in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The women's team will begin its schedule Feb. 11 when it faces Finland. The men's team starts Feb. 14 against Slovenia. The Paralympics will run from March 9-18.
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Whenever the Sabres send a player back to Rochester, they give him a to-do list. There wasn't anything major for forward Hudson Fasching, who was demoted Monday after no points in five games.
"Hudson I thought really brought a great spark to our team versus Colorado" in his debut, coach Phil Housley said. "I think he think he lost a little bit of that speed and tenaciousness on the forecheck.
"All the things that we said to him were more positive, just continue to work on your game and get back up here because I think he's a big guy that can get to the net front. He was on our power play, can control the play down low. He's just got to continue to work on those things."
Story topics: Hudson Fasching