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Inside the Sabres: Three franchise legends recall death-defying moments

Before Ryan Miller rewrote the Sabres' record book, before Jason Pominville became a playoff legend, before Thomas Vanek became a top-five scorer, they could have died.

Can you imagine the Sabres without them? What a horror story.

The chilling tale traces to a snowy night during the 2004-05 season, a year before the trio arrived in Buffalo. They were playing in Rochester. The Americans had just put one game behind them, and the road between Rochester and Albany loomed ahead.

"There was no snow while we were in the rink, maybe a dusting, and we got out and it was just a full-on lake effect," Miller said. "We just got a ton of snow.

"We get on the highway, and obviously the highways weren't clear yet."

It was the first night on the job for a new Amerks bus driver – or as the players say, a "Bussie."

"We never had the guy before, and that just kind of stood out," Miller said during Tuesday's visit to Buffalo. "I don't know what his experience was."

Whatever his experience was, he added to it in a hurry.

"We weren't doing a full clip, but we were going fast enough," Miller said. "We started getting a little bit loose. We kind of looked at each other, and then we got pretty much almost sideways."

"The tail swerved a few times, and on the one side was a ditch," Pominville said. "It was pretty deep, so everyone was worried about that.

"We saw the ditch and we were really swerving. We thought it was definitely going down."

Miller immediately recalled the rock band Metallica. Their tour bus had skidded on ice, and bassist Cliff Burton flew out a window and was crushed to death by the rolling vehicle. Visions of a similar fate flooded the Amerks.

"It's snowing outside, no big deal, and all of a sudden next thing you know we're kind of getting whipped around and flying around," Vanek said. "That was not a fun moment."

As the bus fishtailed and the ditch loomed, the voice of charismatic forward Geoff Peters boomed.

"He grabbed the seat in front of him and started yelling, 'Bring her back! Bring her back, Bussie!'" Pominville and Miller both recalled.

The Bussie brought her back.

"We were riding sideways, we snap back, and we just keep going," Miller said. "Bussie just turned around, and he's (raising his arm in fist-pumping triumph), celebrating like he just won the Super Bowl.

"To see a driver be that excited, you kind of knew you were in a little bit of trouble."

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"It sure wasn't fun being on that," Vanek said during the Sabres' recent visit to Vancouver. "The other thing I remember, we had a flight in Buffalo from Boston to Ottawa."

Yup, there's more – as if one close call wasn't enough.

It was March 2012, the latter stages of the players' run that featured 284 victories for Miller, 254 goals for Vanek and a series-clinching overtime winner for Pominville. The Sabres had just lost in Boston and boarded their charter for a flight to Ottawa.

Normally, pilots are aware of weather trouble because previous flights on the route take notice. How many planes had a midnight path from Boston to Ottawa?

One, and it had no idea a warm front was colliding with a cold front. The plane arrived at the same time.

"We dropped I don't know how many thousands of feet," Vanek said.

It wasn't a nosedive. The bottom simply dropped out, as if something punched the top of the plane and sent it straight toward earth.

"No warning, either," Pominville said. "Guys hit their heads on the ceiling."

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The plane went down, and everything that wasn't buckled went up. Tyler Myers, the 6-foot-7 defenseman, took an especially memorable blow as he vaulted out of his seat into the roof. One of the assistant coaches had a glass of wine. The glass went down with his hand and the plane, but the wine went up and hung in the air – cartoonlike in nature – before splashing over the coach's seatmate.

The freefall stopped and the flight resumed with a payload of shaky passengers.

"Even our stewardess was sick in the bathroom," Pominville said, "so you know that's a bad flight when even they get airsick."

Memories of the flight jar Vanek to this day.

"I step on a plane now – and this was six, seven years ago – and every time it shakes it reminds me of that," Vanek said. "That was scary."

Fear was evident when Miller first told the tale of the bus ride years ago. His eyes widened, and he repeatedly emphasized that every detail was worse than he could explain.

Even now, a decade and a half later, he shakes his head in disbelief. But at least he's alive to relish the experience.

"It's good to be able to tell that story and smile about it and be like, 'Ah, one of the stories from down in the minors,' " Miller said. "But it was certainly one of those dodge-a-bullet moments."

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