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Inside the Sabres: Trying to prevent phones, games from impinging on team bonding

One of the Buffalo Sabres' player-enforced, unwritten rules does not need to be repeated during team meals in KeyBank Center or on the road: Put the phone away. The same applies for pregame stretch or afternoon workouts.

As the NHL gets younger, veterans across the league are concerned that devices, specifically cellphones and gaming consoles, are encroaching on team bonding. Rather than chatting on the bus ride to the airport, many use the downtime to check social media or text. Instead of going out for dinner on the road as a team, some are staying in to play video games and order room service.

The Sabres expressed confidence in the team chemistry forged since training camp began and insisted no one has isolated themselves by staring at a screen. However, they remain weary of technology's pitfalls.

"It’s something we talked about," Jason Pominville, 36, told The News following a recent practice. "I don’t think it was a problem for us last year, but it’s the way the world is right now. Everyone is on their phone. You want to make sure you keep the conversations going within the group. You’re eating for 20 minutes. You can wait to answer your calls or whatever."

Last season, some Sabres players would have their phone by them during pregame stretch or in the gym. Time between reps or workouts was spent with the phone, as opposed to chatting with teammates about hockey or life.

Pominville laughed when broached with the topic. A second-round draft pick of the Sabres in 2001, he did not own a cellphone until he signed his first professional contract. In those days, veterans were more concerned about who spent too much time at the bar or missed curfew.

Now many junior or college hockey players entertain themselves with devices during long bus rides, and they have trouble breaking the habit upon reaching the NHL.

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Neither Snapchat nor Instagram was around when Sabres goalie Carter Hutton played his first AHL game with the Adirondack Phantoms in 2010. Hutton prefers to stay off social media and encourages his teammates to do the same since negative comments or tweets can be a "bad influence." He also pushes them to use blue-light glasses when on a device at night.

After all, in addition to the added stress devices can cause, cellphones and video games can cause sleepless nights.

"It’s weird, these guys come to the rink sometimes and they’ll be tired in the morning," the 33-year-old Hutton said. "I guess the old guy in me is hoping they have a good story of going out or something, but they were up late playing video games. It’s bad. It’s weird problems you deal with nowadays.

"The older generation of players were in the bar drinking beers and chasing girls, where now you really don’t deal with that. It’s a different thing. It’s something you have to be careful with."

Hutton added he would prefer to have a device problem in the locker room than teammates out partying and missing curfew. However, there is a growing concern around professional sports that devices, particularly gaming consoles, are preventing young athletes from getting adequate sleep.

In October, the Vancouver Canucks barred players from bringing video games, particularly Fortnite, on the road. The Sabres have no such policy. Rookies Rasmus Dahlin and Casey Mittelstadt, roommates and avid Fortnite gamers, stopped bringing their consoles on the road recently because hauling a PlayStation from city to city became a burden, Dahlin said.

"Obviously, electronics are a big part of our lives, everyone’s lives," defenseman Nathan Beaulieu, 26, added. "It’s really easy to get caught up in it, I think. It’s really easy to get addicted to it. Guys who do it don’t even realize they’re doing it. I’m a big believer in shutting your phone off and kind of just living in the moment."

The Sabres currently have 15 players under the age of 27, but youth is not the only reason why life on the road and at the rink has changed.

While social media can help players market themselves, it also limits their ability to go out for dinner or a couple of drinks since there is fear their team bonding could end up on Twitter or Instagram. The ever-growing focus on nutrition has also caused some to think twice about eating out on the road.

The Sabres still carve out time to have group dinners in road cities, most recently Columbus and Vancouver. Even those who dislike cellphones – Beaulieu said he wished they weren't invented – understand their importance.

Players need to communicate with their families, particularly on the road. Pominville uses his to message or FaceTime his wife and children. All involved have made a conscious effort to not isolate themselves by staring at a device.

While several Sabres acknowledged they were guilty of pulling out their phones on bus rides to the airport, they insist their bonds have not been broken and those precious conversations off the ice are what could help them through the highs and lows of a playoff push.

"You might not be talking hockey," Hutton said. "It might be just building a relationship, which in the long run, the tighter we get as a team the better it’s going to help us when we’re in those tight situations. Now we’re playing meaningful hockey in mid-February, which is something new in the last few years here. We’re going to need everybody and everybody needs to be on board. That little communication is a big part of it."

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