The hugs and handshakes were plentiful. After spending four seasons with the Nashville Predators, Phil Housley happily welcomed his old team to Buffalo on Sunday.
The friendships will be put on hold Monday night. Housley will step to the Sabres' bench and face the Predators for the first time since leaving last spring.
"There's going to be a lot of emotions, mixed emotions, but I'm just glad the game's here to start out and it's been so far into the season," Housley said in KeyBank Center. "I spent a lot of time with that organization. They gave me a start in the NHL and we sort of grew together, the players and myself as a coach.
"It's great to see them, but we're going to still try to win that hockey game."
Housley joined the Predators' coaching staff in 2013 and helped the team reach the Stanley Cup finals last season. It put him on the hot list for head-coaching jobs, and Buffalo pounced in June.
While the NHL-leading Predators are poised for another Cup run, Housley's first season with the last-place Sabres has been a disappointment.
"It's probably not the way he had it written up, and it's not the way any of us had it written up, either," right wing Jason Pominville said. "You can't put the blame on coaching because he's giving us every tool to have success. We just haven't been able to win as many games as we would like."
Housley and the Sabres are 23-36-12 heading into the game, just one point ahead of Arizona for 31st in the 31-team league. The setbacks have packed a lot of lessons into Housley's first season as a head coach.
The biggest lesson he's learned is how to send the same message to the team on daily basis regardless of wins or losses.
"You want to try to sell something as a coach or try to get their minds focused in the right area, and that's a daily thing," Housley said. "Whether it's a good message or a negative message, you're trying to get better. You're trying to push your players and motivate them to be the best players they can be."
The players see it.
"He's very detailed," alternate captain Kyle Okposo said. "He really wants to win. His passion for the game is very noticeable. He really gets fired up if things aren't going the way that he wants them to.
"You can tell he's one of the best defensemen of all time just in the way that he's so fiery. I've heard from guys about when he played that he wanted to be the best, and you can definitely see that in his coaching style."
Buffalo fans often shake their heads in disbelief when it's said Housley is fiery. He's stoic on the bench during games, prompting a misconception that he's too laid-back.
"He'll show his emotions between periods, the next day, at times at practice," Pominville said. "Most of it is done in here in the video room, which a lot of guys respect that. He's not a guy to skewer anyone in the media, so he has our back, we have his back.
"We all have to push in the same direction, and he's done a tremendous job of that."
What's impressed Pominville the most is Housley's propensity for positivity. It's certainly easy to be down on the Sabres, who've made a habit of being lackadaisical.
"He's pretty positive, and if you give him what he wants he'll give you what you want," Pominville said. "It's obviously been really, really hard for us at times, but he still has been able to keep it pretty loose and at the same time pushing buttons when he needs to.
"Sometimes when things aren't going our way, you don't want to keep pushing the buttons because then guys are like, 'Oh man, here we go again.' But he's done a good job of that. They've been pretty positive, and when the buttons need to be hit they do it."
The Sabres have finally started taking steps. Their comeback victory over Chicago on Saturday moved them to 9-7-2 in the last 18 games.
"This season's obviously not what he had envisioned, and he really wants to try and get better every day," Okposo said. "I know that's a cliché, but he thinks you've got to come to work and you've got to prepare and you've got to get better every single day. We could definitely use that message."
The Sabres have a chance to show Housley's old team that his message is sinking in.
"He's going to want to win," Okposo said. "He's a competitor, and you always want to win that first game back."
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