On what would typically be a quiet practice day for the Buffalo Sabres, thousands of fans will gather inside KeyBank Center on Sunday for an event unlike any in franchise history.
The Sabres are hosting their first annual skills challenge at 12:30 p.m., when the players will be split into two teams to compete in five events: the shootout, hardest shot, shooting accuracy, 3-on-1 power play and a puck control relay.
Twenty-seven alumni — including Dominik Hasek, Gilbert Perreault and Rene Robert — will be there to sign autographs. As of Thursday night, more than 10,000 tickets had been sold despite the event being held on the NFL's wild-card playoff weekend. All proceeds will benefit the Buffalo Sabres Foundation.
Organizing such an event is no small feat given the Sabres' grueling schedule, which has forced coach Phil Housley and his staff to become creative on days between games.
"We don’t want to disrupt their schedule," Rich Jureller, the team's vice president of community relations and president of the Sabres Foundation, said. "I don’t ever want that to come back on us and have people say, ‘Well, the team wasn’t rested because they were doing community things.’ At the same time, Jason [Botterill], Phil [Housley], Terry [Pegula] and Kim [Pegula] have been very, very generous. They understand these things are important, whether we’re raising money or we’re providing our fans with an opportunity. It’s important we do it. The scheduling is always tenuous, but we get through it and I appreciate their support of it."
Jureller and his staff have brainstormed the idea of a skills challenge over the past few years because it is a low-cost, family-friendly event that allows fans to engage with current and former players.
Other teams in the NHL — including the Vancouver Canucks — have received a positive response from their fan bases after holding similar events. The Sabres held an annual open practice at The Aud in the 1970s, which was extremely popular among fans.
When the league's schedule was released in the summer, Jureller approached Botterill, the Sabres' general manager, and Housley, to see when such an event could fit into the schedule.
The first three months of the season weren't ideal, so they agreed on this coming Sunday, which is the first of two days between games. The Sabres will face the Boston Bruins Saturday night in TD Garden and do not play again until Tuesday against the New Jersey Devils in KeyBank Center.
Once a date was agreed on, Jureller's staff began contacting Sabres alumni, many of whom still live in the area. Only Hasek, Robert and Perreault traveled to Buffalo from out of town to attend the skills challenge.
They will be set up at various locations throughout the 100 and 200 levels of the arena from 11 a.m. to noon. Fans will receive a ticket to one autograph table, to which alumni will be assigned randomly. Doors open at 10:30 a.m.
"We felt it was time for us to take it on," Jureller said.
The timing also proved to be perfect. The Sabres announced the event Dec. 3 — only four days after the team's 10-game winning streak ended. Tickets have sold at a rate of roughly 100 per day, according to Jureller.
Though the NHL All-Star Game has its share of critics, the weekend's annual skills competition is universally liked among hockey fans. Players also seem to enjoy the event — Chicago's Patrick Kane famously wore a Superman cape during the 2012 Super Skills Competition — and the Sabres are no different.
Their unusual first half of the season hasn't changed that. Entering Saturday, Buffalo had already played 14 overtime games this season, including 10 in a 14-game span between Oct. 27 and Nov. 30.
This event offers a lighthearted break from the rigors of the season. Rookie center Casey Mittelstadt had yet to give much thought to what events he would be competing in, but he was expecting the friendly trash talk between teammates to ramp up Sunday.
"I’m sure somehow it will get pretty competitive," Mittelstadt said. "It seems like it always does with us. Everyone wants to let loose, have the families around and have a little bit of fun."
Each player is expected to compete in two or three of the five events, and everyone will participate in the shootout. Points will be awarded to each team throughout.
Though he is unlikely to participate because of injury, Jack Eichel is captain of a team that includes Mittelstadt, Linus Ullmark, Vladimir Sobotka, Jason Pominville, Conor Sheary, Evan Rodrigues, Remi Elie, Marco Scandella, Jake McCabe, Matt Hunwick and Rasmus Ristolainen.
Jeff Skinner will captain Scott Wilson, Kyle Okposo, Johan Larsson, Sam Reinhart, C.J. Smith, Tage Thompson, Rasmus Dahlin, Zach Bogosian, Lawrence Pilut, Nathan Beaulieu and Carter Hutton.
"It's been really exciting," Jureller said. "It reaffirms the popularity of this team. … It will be fun. There’s a lot of skill on the team. This will showcase it."
Story topics: Buffalo Sabres