Commemorative t-shirts were draped over each of the seats inside KeyBank Center, large banners featuring past Sabres hung from the ceiling in the arena's atrium and 15 former captains were serenaded by fans during a blue-carpet ceremony to celebrate the franchise's 50 years in the National Hockey League before puck drop Saturday night.
On the first night of the Sabres' season-long celebration, former captain Stu Barnes and his fellow former captains spoke glowingly of their time in Buffalo and the fans who packed KeyBank Center or Memorial Auditorium. The Sabres have become a model of success for expansion in the NHL. Their fans are regarded as some of the most passionate around the league, and they quickly became contenders upon drafting Gilbert Perreault first overall in 1970.
Some expansion teams that followed weren't as fortunate, yet the NHL is expanding to 32 teams following the 2020-21 season. Barnes is among the men and women helping build a foundation for Seattle to thrive once it begins play. The team does not have a nickname or any players, however, Barnes and another former Sabres captain familiar with hockey in the Pacific Northwest expressed confidence in its long-term viability.
"They have a long history there with the Thunderbirds and the Everett Silvertips just north of there," Barnes, who was hired as a pro scout by Seattle's expansion team last month, said. "It’s a good hockey state. Not one that probably pops to mind when you talk about hockey nationwide, but it is. There’s an interest there. They love their Seahawks, love their sports teams. I think once it gets up and running and by the looks of everything it’s going to be a first-class operation. They’re going to do things right. Hopefully they have a lot of success and long-term they’re very successful there."
Barnes, who played for the Sabres from 1998-2003, spent the past two seasons as an assistant coach with the Dallas Stars and will begin his duties with the Seattle franchise this season. He was attracted to the opportunity because his friend and former teammate, Ron Francis, was named the team's first general manager, and Barnes' wife, Julie, is from Washington state. The couple spends time in the area each offseason.
Barnes was also a member of the Florida Panthers during their expansion season in 1993-94, when he scored 18 goals among 39 points in 59 games. He was one of five scouts named to Seattle's staff last month, joining former NHL defenseman Ulf Samuelsson, Olympian Cammi Granato, longtime scout Dave Hunter and former Ontario Hockey League coach John Goodwin.
Seattle won't have the benefit of entering the league with low expectations in 2021-22. Vegas was an instant success by reaching the Stanley Cup final during its expansion season in 2017-18. There will be pressure on Francis to build a roster that can at least contend.
"I know the state and the city well," Barnes, 48, said of what attracted him to the job. "Of course, when Ronnie’s name surfaced and came up that was really interesting to me. Having played with him and knowing him, I know what a tremendous leader he is. I know what a good person he is. What a first-class guy he is. To be part of something as it builds is really intriguing and hopefully we can all do our little part to help that franchise be successful."
Gerry Meehan didn't want to go to Seattle in 1969. The left winger had already played 37 games in the National Hockey League, spending most of the previous season with the Phoenix Roadrunners. Meehan thought he was ready to make an impact at the highest level.
Yet, Meehan joined the Seattle Totems of the semiprofessional Western Hockey League for the 1969-70 season. The then-23-year-old forward scored 23 goals among 53 points in 67 games that season, which ended with the Totems having a 30-35-8 record.
"I think there was a good, solid hockey core," Meehan, who played for the Sabres from 1970-75, recalled. "That was a good league. There were a lot of veteran players in it. Very few young guys. It was a fan-based league. It was entertaining hockey. Skilled hockey. I played in the minors the year before in the central league, but that was mostly young guys. This was a combination of youth and veterans. It was a good learning process."
The Totems folded following the 1975 season because the NHL awarded the city with an expansion franchise, though the offer was later pulled by the league. Meehan was selected by the Sabres in the 1970 expansion draft and scored 24 goals among 55 points during his first season in Buffalo. He served as team captain from 1971-74 and later returned to the franchise as an assistant general manager and general manager.
Meehan witnessed the Sabres become a part of the fabric of the Buffalo community. Though he did not spend much time in Seattle, he was impressed with the city's fan base.
"It’s meant to be," Meehan said of Seattle receiving an NHL expansion team. "It should be. It fits. Geographically it fits. It’s the right population base. It has lots of money. Why not? People came to the games. They were enthusiastic. They liked the game and were knowledgeable. It was a big, west coast city."
Story topics: Buffalo Sabres