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Mike Harrington: After Flight 3407 crash, an emotional Sabres victory helped the healing

Buffalo Sabres winger Jason Pominville never has forgotten the phone call.

It was just after 10 p.m. on Feb. 12, 2009. Pominville's wife was out of town, and he was lounging on his couch, watching a movie. His cellphone beeped and he didn't answer. It beeped again and he noticed he had a voicemail. It was from Sabres backup goaltender Patrick Lalime. Thinking it was an odd call to get at that time of night, Pominville grabbed the phone and played the message.

"He's in a full-out panic on it," Pominville recalled after practice last week. "He says, 'Oh my God, you should see it. There's a plane crash.' And he's talking about how they saw the plane. So I call him back and they had already gone to see.

"His brother-in-law was at their house at the time and was bringing stuff inside from the driveway. He started running away because he thought the plane was going right at them. They called 911 right away but people already knew what happened."

What happened, of course, was the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 into a home on Long Road in Clarence.

Tuesday will mark the 10th anniversary of the crash, and the Sabres will hold a moment of silence in memory of the 50 victims prior to their game against the New York Islanders in KeyBank Center.

The crash came close to the homes of many members of the team who lived in Clarence Center. And they were shaken to the core when they reported to work the next morning, Feb. 13, for the pregame skate to that night's game against the San Jose Sharks.

For a time that morning, there was doubt the game would go on. Sabres officials first made sure they had no connections to anyone who was lost on the flight, then consulted with the NHL before moving ahead to play the game.

Look back at The News' coverage of the Flight 3407 crash

As it turned out, the game had healing powers for a grieving community. The Sabres blew a three-goal lead but rallied to tie it on a Pominville goal with 3.9 seconds left and went on to win, 6-5, in a shootout.

"You came to the rink and there was sheer disbelief," former Sabres captain Craig Rivet recalled last week. "How did this happen? To us in our community? You hear bad things on the news but you never think it would happen to you. Hockey was so minimal. The emotions in our dressing room were tough. Many of our guys were a quarter of a mile away from where that was.

"Your first thought was why are we doing this? But by the time we went out for the game, we realized this was the best thing for everyone. If we can help a little bit by being athletes to entertain these people for a minute or an hour or whatever, that's what we needed to do."

An emotional morning

The players reported for the pregame skate like any other game day, but this was far from a normal morning.

Many had stayed up deep into the night watching news bulletins about the crash. Others, especially those who didn't live near teammates in the Spaulding Lake section of Clarence, woke up with no knowledge of the incident.

Defensemen Toni Lydman and Jaroslav Spacek had to calm the fears of worried relatives in Finland and the Czech Republic, respectively, who had seen "Clarence" on news reports of the crash and sent frantic texts to make sure they were OK.

The homes of Lalime and defenseman Teppo Numminen were the closest to the crash site.

"I heard the plane coming," a somber Numminen said that morning as he sat in his locker. "I was in my bed, and I heard it and thought it sounded really weird, really close to us. Then I heard a little 'poof' afterwards. I was in my bed and I was thinking, 'That doesn't sound good, doesn't sound right.' So I looked out of my window and I saw the red sky, so I knew something was wrong."

Alerted by his brother-in-law, Lalime was the only Sabre who saw the full aftermath of the plane's impact.

"He saw it coming, coming down. It was pretty low. He came in. We didn't hear a noise or anything," Lalime said that day, telling the story several times as various reporters inquired. "We thought something would happen and a couple seconds later, we saw a big ball of fire not even a mile down the road. As we went back outside we saw fire everywhere and we called 911 to make sure. They already knew what happened."

Rivet, now a Sabres analyst on MSG's "The Instigators," remembered how coach Lindy Ruff struggled to find words during his first meeting with the team that morning.

"Lindy had lived in that area many, many years. You could see a very strong man look like he was ready to cry," Rivet said. "You knew this was just so tragic and big. Everybody had that pit in their stomach. I remember before we went on the ice we didn't know what to expect. The whole city was in mourning."

When Ruff met reporters after the skate, his voice was halting and his eyes were red-rimmed. He said he heard the sirens heading to the crash and was watching news bulletins until 1:30 a.m. Reporters spoke barely above a whisper in asking him questions.

"It was incredible," Ruff said. "Surreal at times you know? You think maybe it's just something small, to ending up being as big as it was. I've just got tremendous feelings about an area as small as where we live and all of our players in that area. And then you think about the number of times you fly. It affects my kids. It affects a lot of things. It's tough."

Sheer quiet to sheer joy

A sellout crowd filed into then-HSBC Arena for the game. Before it began, the arena lights and Jumbotron were dimmed and there was a moment of silence in honor of the victims. Most people who have been coming to the arena since its 1996 opening will tell you it's the quietest moment they've ever heard in the building.

"Not a word from anyone," Pominville said. "For it to happen so close to us, it made you take a step back and realize how things can change pretty quick. Pretty emotional time."

"You could hear a pin drop," center Derek Roy said after the game. "You heard nothing. No fans talking or coughing. No players moving their feet or tapping a stick at the bench. Just nothing."

Then it was time to play and fans, clearly needing a communal gathering place, started to roar. The Sabres responded, with Rivet getting the game's first goal and Buffalo building a 4-1 lead in the second period.

"So we're up 4-1 and the building is rocking and people are all here going crazy and trying to forget this tragedy for a few hours," Rivet said. "But we were playing probably the best team in the league at the time. People are sitting there thinking, 'This is amazing.' Lo and behold, the powerhouse came back."

Rivet had spent the last 1 1/2 seasons with the Sharks, so he wasn't surprised there was pushback. But it was fierce. San Jose scored four straight goals to take a 5-4 lead and the building was quiet as the clocked ticked inside the final minute.

Phil Johnson tries to keep luminaries glowing at the site where Flight 3407 crashed during a vigil earlier this year. He lost his father-in-law Kevin Johnston. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

The Sabres had pulled goalie Ryan Miller for an extra attacker and the puck was in the San Jose zone. The clock ticked under 10 seconds, with Roy and Pominville battling to get it. It was finally pushed to Rivet, all alone at the right point.

"I was thinking, 'I'm wide open at the point. Please get me this puck so I can pound it as hard as I can,' " Rivet said. "I put my head down and let it go."

It was a low shot and Pominville deflected it ever-so-slightly, sending it past goalie Evgeni Nabakov to tie the game with 3.9 seconds left.

"You saw me on the blue line when the puck went in the net. You remember. I exploded," Rivet said. "It was one of the best goals that I was a part of. There wasn't a better feeling. It was magical to be a part of that. That was one of the better moments of my career for what it meant."

"For us to come back and tie the game late like that, you could tell the emotion was so high in the city and the building," Pominville said. "Just that roar. It was a pretty cool comeback for us."

The Sabres won the game as Roy scored the deciding goal in the fifth round of the shootout and Miller made the clinching save on Milan Michalek, tossing the final puck to the side as his teammates poured on the ice and the crowd let out one more massive cheer.

"At first, I was sad we played the game and I wondered why but I'm obviously extremely happy that we did," Rivet said. "That sound of us winning that game was one of two big ones I remember from all the years I played. The fans that night were like they were in Montreal the night Saku Koivu came back from cancer. Those two nights stick out more than anything."

Raw reactions

Like the Sabres, the Sharks were troubled by images of the Continental crash. And they were spooked a little more because they had trouble getting out of Pittsburgh two days earlier. Their flight was canceled and they waited out winds that gusted to 92 mph before finally leaving the day before the game.

"Their community is in mourning right now," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "It was an entertaining game. Anybody who came here probably got their mind off very serious issues."

The Sabres were thrilled by the big win and the crowd's reaction. But the real world awaited and emotions were still raw.

"Once you start to play, you seem to really kind of forget everything if you play and really enjoy something," Rivet said. "You forgot. Then it was over, we won, we went and congratulated all our guys and we all had smiles.

"We're in the dressing room and I remember [Sabres PR official] Chris Bandura coming and saying the media was coming. That's when it hit you again, the loss of people, what had happened in Buffalo. I just remember being in that room feeling like I wanted to cry for the people who had lost their loved ones. Terribly emotional right there."

The players noticed how the crowd responded to the game, as if they needed some place to go have a group yell to unleash their grief.

"We said this morning we're going to play for the City of Buffalo and we came out and put a great effort in," Roy said that night. "In times like these, where people rally behind a local team, we came out strong. Then we had all that emotion at the end, which was great."

Roy was looking straight ahead as he talked. Then he stopped and looked directly at me. There were no cameras around. Just the two of us.

"You're from here, too. You know," Roy said. "There was no way we were not going to tie this game and win it for these people. No way."

As pleased as he was by winning a hockey game, Ruff's voice during his postgame news conference was nearly as somber as it had been in the morning.

"Ever so small as this event was, it turned out to be a positive event," Ruff said. "I know that from a man to man in that room, our prayers and our thoughts were still with our community, which was even more important. ... It really isn't about the game. We'll play it, but we'll leave our thoughts somewhere else. I thought we did a good job of playing it but still being considerate of what went on.

"It was a happy ending. It was what we needed. We needed a fairy-tale ending and I thought we got a little bit of that. Although it was a hockey game, it was a good ending, a positive feeling. It's nice. We needed it. I think our fans needed it."

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