Longtime Sabres beat writer Bill Hoppe of BuffaloHockeyBeat.com, will be writing about Sabres prospects, the Rochester Americans and related topics this season.
Nine months ago, after a chronic knee injury forced Mike Weber to retire, the former Buffalo Sabres defenseman returned home to Ontario hoping to start a coaching career.
Right away, Weber met with Windsor Spitfires coach Trevor Letowski. Having skated with the Spitfires, his former junior team, the ex-NHL journeymen knew each other.
They talked and agreed Weber would join the Spitfires in a voluntary role. That arrangement, however, ended in a few days.
On Jan. 31, the Spitfires officially named Weber, 30, as an assistant coach. He signed a three-year contract in May.
“I’m treating this the same way I treated my playing career,” Weber said earlier this month in HarborCenter, where the Spitfires were participating in a preseason tournament.
That means Weber, who possessed a gritty, blue-collar style, is treating his new gig passionately. He’s inquisitive and wants to evolve.
“I’m always asking questions,” Weber said. “I’m open to new ideas and new systems – maybe things I didn’t like as a player, but I’m open to them as a coach. Just basically taking everything, being a sponge, kind of go back, revert to being a rookie again.”
Of course, the timing of Weber’s hire was odd. Teams rarely add coaches during the season. But Letowski had one assistant, Jerrod Smith, on his staff. Weber wasn’t taking anyone’s job.
“He was willing to do whatever we wanted,” Letowski said of Weber. “He just wanted the experience, and I felt that would help our young players, a guy that’s so fresh out of playing at a real high level.”
The Pittsburgh native wants to reach hockey’s highest level again, a long-term goal he has no problem sharing.
“I want to get back to the National Hockey League, and I don’t think there’s a better organization to start that with than the one I did as a player with Windsor,” he said.
Windsor and the Spitfires are special to Weber. He met his wife, Janine, while playing for the Ontario Hockey League club. They’re raising their three sons in the area.
In recent years, the Spitfires have groomed head coaches for pro hockey.
Letowski replaced Rocky Thompson, who now leads the Chicago Wolves, the Vegas Golden Knights’ AHL affiliate. Thompson replaced former Sabres defenseman Bob Boughner, who now runs the Florida Panthers.
Weber understands the dues-paying process well. He spent three seasons developing in the AHL before graduating to the Sabres for good in 2010. Still, for a few years, he often sat out weeks at a time as a healthy scratch.
“Maybe this is a little bit of what (former Sabres general manager) Darcy Regier beat into me, but I’m a big believer in doing the right things, taking the right steps, developing the right way,” Weber said. “I think I’m in the best spot to develop to hopefully get back to the National Hockey League.”
Letowski has already increased Weber’s duties. In addition to running the defense, he’s in charge of the penalty killing. Weber ran the forwards last season before switching with Smith.
“I want to challenge him, and he wants that, too,” Letowski said of Weber. “We had that discussion in the summer. He wants to coach, he wants to learn, he wants to know what he’s doing well, what he’s not doing well.”
Letowski said Weber’s NHL career gives him instant respect.
“When the players get to know him and see him day-to-day, it just kind of grows from there,” he said.
Weber, however, knows he can only lean on his career so much.
“You can use those personal experiences, but not every player’s like you, you’ve got to be able to change and adapt and deal with different kind of mindsets on different kids and what’s going on,” he said. “It’s no different from junior hockey to the NHL. I think that’s something I continue to learn and deal with. I’m a positive guy.”
Weber, who was traded before the 2016 deadline, sees positive signs and growth all over Buffalo. He said he felt a little nostalgic spending a few days back in the city.
“It feels like home,” he said.
He met up with some former teammates, although he did not see Rasmus Dahlin, the dynamic rookie the Sabres drafted first overall.
Weber played his final games as Dahlin’s teammate with Frölunda HC. Like most fans, he can’t wait to watch slick defenseman showcase his talents in the NHL.
“As a fan of the Sabres and this city, I hope everything goes as planned,” Weber said of Dahlin. “I’m excited for this town and this city and the excitement. You can kind of just feel the buzz around town.”