When they take the ice Thursday night in KeyBank Center, the Sabres will be staging their first season opener at home against the Boston Bruins since they met in Memorial Auditorium on Oct. 10, 1974. A bizarre piece of trivia to be sure, that their longtime rivals have not been the opening opponent for 44 years.
Sabres legend Danny Gare was surprised to hear it, too, while in town this week. Especially since he was there the last time, when his first night as an NHL player became a life-changing event.
Gare was 20 at the time, a second-round pick from Nelson, British Columbia, taken from the old Calgary Centennials of the Western League. He had a nice training camp and made the team. Not only that, he was thrust at right wing on a line with Don Luce and Craig Ramsay.
The Bruins were 2 1/2 years removed from winning the Stanley Cup and just five months from their loss to Philadelphia in the '74 Cup final. Go down their '74 roster and Sabres fans of a certain generation can recite the names. Admit it: You hated most of them.
There was Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and Johnny Bucyk. Tough guys like Wayne Cashman, Ken Hodge and a young Terry O'Reilly. Veterans on defense like Dallas Smith, Carol Vadnais and Gary Doak. Gilles Gilbert in net. A relatively unknown coach had graduated from a three-year stint in Rochester to take over the bench for his first NHL game. His name was Don Cherry.
Luce and Ramsay made sure Gare understood what he was up against for the night.
"I was next to them in the dressing room and I said, 'So I guess we're starting?' and Luce turns to me and says, 'Oh yeah, we'll be checking the top line,' " Gare said. "So I go, 'You mean we're on against Cashman, Esposito and Hodge?' and he said we were. And then Rammer goes, 'And Bobby Orr and Gary Doak.' "
Gare, now 64, recalls the nervous energy filling his body as he waited to take the ice.
"I'm thinking 'Holy cow, this is unbelievable,' " he said. "You're anxious, nervous, excited, the whole thing. Sure enough, we go to center ice for the faceoff and there's big Wayne Cashman right next to me, there's Phil Esposito and Bobby Orr. I just watched them as a junior a few months before in the Stanley Cup final and now I'm out there against them. This is how I start my career. It was crazy."
Not as crazy as what would happen next.
Just after the draw at center ice, the Sabres got the puck into the Boston zone. Jim Schoenfeld used a spin move at the blue line to pump it into the corner from the left point and Luce used a quick backhand pass to get it to the slot. Ramsay was waiting and his shot beat Gilbert but hit the goalpost.
The puck dropped to the left of the crease as Gilbert was down and out. Gare swooped in – beating Orr to the puck – and drove it home for his first NHL goal just 18 seconds into the game.
It was three seconds off the NHL record for the fastest goal by a rookie off the opening faceoff in his debut, set when Toronto's Gus Bodnar scored after 15 seconds against the New York Rangers on Oct. 30, 1943. It remains the fastest goal by a Sabre in his debut from the game's start.
(The start of this video clip from the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame shows Gare's goal against Boston on Oct. 10, 1974. )
"I'll never forget it. Ever," Gare said. "The crowd got on its feet and was going nuts. Orr got the puck out of the net, took his stick and broke it right over the crossbar. 'Rammer' got the puck. I'm still so pumped and excited. I'm jumping up and down. Everything is happening so fast.
"So I go back and sit down on the bench and Rammer hands me the puck and I'm looking at it and I just said to myself, 'Well, maybe I belong.' "
Gare gave the puck to equipment manager Rip Simonick – then in his fifth season and now entering his 49th with the club – and Simonick marked it and handed it to Gare at his locker after the game.
"Still have it," Gare said. "It's one of those moments in your career, in your life. First game, you score and it's 18 seconds in. It was a big night for us. We built a lot of momentum and confidence as a team right away and we went all the way to the Stanley Cup final."
Indeed the Sabres' 9-5 victory that night easily remains the most goals they've ever scored in a season opener and set the stage for a 113-point season.
Gare wants this year's club to understand.
"Jack Eichel played behind me at Wanakah (during last month's season kickoff golf tournament) and I was telling him the story," Gare said. "Then my second year I had a two- and a three-goal game to start a year when I scored 50. A start is always so important for confidence, for momentum, for feeling good with each other.
"I was a rookie in '74-75 and I was still learning the ropes. But think about it. That was a really good team. You had the French Connection, you had our line. Peter McNab, Fred Stanfield, Larry Carriere, Billy Hajt, Jocelyn Guevremont. We had such a good team. They're building here."
One of the key building blocks, of course, is No. 1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin. The '74-75 Sabres didn't have anyone like him and Gare is as intrigued as everyone else to see what the 18-year-old can do.
"He's a kid that's got all the tools," Gare said. "I felt I could play in the NHL because I had buddies who came before me like Bob Nystrom, Jimmy Watson and John Davidson who were playing in the NHL. He has to feel that same thing. All of the accolades, it's still up to Rasmus to go out there and do it and I know he will."
Gare said Sabres alums are thrilled to have one of their own coaching the team in Hall of Famer Phil Housley. Fellow alum Jason Botterill is the general manager. And Gare's former Edmonton teammate, three-time Cup winner Steve Smith, has joined Housley this year to tutor Dahlin and the defense.
"Phil has earned his right to be a head coach. He paid his dues," Gare said. "It's important for the organization and to the fans he was so well-liked but this is going to be a challenge, one of his biggest tests. He's a guy that wants to win for the team, the organization and the city."
Gare said Housley encouraged the team's video staff to shoot clips of Gare, Gilbert Perreault, Rene Robert, Larry Playfair and Rob Ray for a video about what it was like to wear the Sabres logo and be a winner in this town.
"They showed it to the guys and he showed it to me and it was really awesome," Gare said. "The expectations are higher here but what Jason Botterill did in the offseason to get some offense, get him a No. 1 goaltender and adding the young kids, the sky's the limit. It's just a matter of how quickly they do it."
And if the Sabres burn the Bruins for a quick goal on the first shift Thursday night? Gare will smile and celebrate. And think about what it meant the last time the Sabres opened their season that way.