Dave Stahlman and his band of rec hockey league warriors sipped on beers inside a Northtown Center locker room while strategizing for an opponent unlike any they're accustomed to facing.
This was the third matchup of the season between Stahlman's Pool Brite Danes and P22 North, two of the top teams in the Amherst rink's Performax league. It was almost 10 p.m. on a Monday when the Danes stepped onto the ice and glanced toward the other end to see the man they were planning to stop: Jason Pominville.
"It's a totally different level," said Stahlman, the Danes' goalie and a 32-year-old groundskeeper in Wheatfield's recreation department.
Over three 15-minute periods, Pominville reminded his opponents that he is less than 12 months removed from playing in the National Hockey League. The 37-year-old weaved around defenders to score four goals despite spending most of the night deferring to his teammates.
This isn't the hockey Pominville envisioned he would be playing this season. He showed he can still make an impact at the highest level when he scored 16 goals to rank fourth on the Buffalo Sabres in 2018-19. Pominville prioritized watching his children's athletic success over uprooting his family to sign a one-year contract far away from their home.
The trade deadline passed without a contract offer, likely signaling the end to a storied career that spanned 15 seasons and 1,060 regular-season games. Pominville isn't bitter, though. The sense of pride and happiness of being in Buffalo to watch his children succeed trumps the elation of scoring a goal or winning a game.
"That’s a side that I think a lot of people don’t realize it because they see us playing," said Pominville in an excitable tone. "You’re a dad. You want to be there for your kids and you want to be part of it. To be able to be part of their lives a little bit more is definitely fun."
'How is this going to work?'
Kim Pominville's heart would race the first time she glanced at each season's NHL schedule. Long road trips usually meant she would need help from her or Jason's parents.
After-school activities for the couple's two children were difficult to coordinate. Jayden, now 10, practices hockey three days a week with tournaments on the weekends. Kaylee Rose, 8, has gymnastics practice and competitions.
"I would wonder, 'How am I going to do this?' " Kim said. "'How is this going to work?' We made it work, obviously, but the kids are in sports. There’s that and I didn’t want to miss any home games, so I went to almost every home game for Jason and bring the kids. Our schedule was completely packed all the time. That part was tough."
Kim estimates she kept as many as 10 calendars, including one in her cellphone, to keep track of various events. Jason attended when possible – many of his off days in recent years were spent on the ice with his son or watching a gymnastics competition – but the chaotic 82-game schedule meant few free nights or weekends. Kim would text videos of youth hockey games and gymnastics meets when Jason was on the road.
"I can’t even imagine how she was able to do it," Jason said.
Across 15 NHL seasons, including parts of 11 in Buffalo, Pominville had 293 goals and 434 assists for 727 points. He scored 32 goals over his final two seasons with the Sabres and provided leadership to a young roster in need of guidance.
In November 2018, the team commemorated Pominville's 1,000th game by gifting him a silver sabre, and the reception from the crowd inside KeyBank Center confirmed he is one of the city's most beloved sports figures.
Pominville, a second-round draft pick in 2001, scored 20 or more goals in six seasons in Buffalo and authored some of the finest moments in franchise history. He scored 217 regular-season goals and 12 in the playoffs, arguably none bigger than his game-winner in overtime to send the Sabres to the Eastern Conference finals in 2006.
"Obviously, a big impact on us," Sabres winger Kyle Okposo said of Pominville. "A guy that played over a 1,000 games, 700 points – that’s a heck of a run. How he is as a guy, everyone loves Pommer. He brought stability to our group in a bit of a transition time for us and for what we were going through as an organization."
A teary-eyed Pominville excused himself from a post-morning skate interview with reporters last April, as he was confronted with the reality that he could be playing his final home game with the Sabres.
Hours later, in the final moments of a 5-2 win over the Ottawa Senators, Pominville skated to center ice and pumped his right fist in celebration to the familiar soundtrack of a roaring ovation from the announced crowd of 17,988.
His teammates wanted the fans to honor Pominville after he scored what is likely the final goal of his career.
"He’s meant a lot to me, to this organization, to this city, to this team," Jack Eichel said afterward.
Pominville was not ready to walk away. He maintained the same offseason regimen and hoped to receive a phone call from a team, particularly the Sabres.
The call never came.
Behind the bench
Jason Pominville was flanked by children as he threw a baseball on the mound during a sunny day last August. Jayden's hockey team, the Buffalo Junior Sabres 10U, were holding an outing at a local park and Pominville was invited by his former teammate, Matt Ellis, to coach this season.
"It struck me when I saw Jason on the pitching mound with no other grown-ups on the field and a field full of kids and he’s pitching to kids," recalled Ellis, whose son, Hudson, plays on the team. "'He’s enjoying this. This is something that’s up his alley.' And it went from there. ... He was all in."
Ellis knew he could lose Pominville at any point before or during the season. Pominville was skating at LECOM Harborcenter and working out at the Sabres' facilities to keep himself ready in case an NHL team expressed interest.
Pominville attended Jayden's hockey games and practices on off days last season. However, this was an opportunity to be on the ice for practices and behind the bench for games.
Jason learned the sport from his father, Jean-Marie, who was a goalie in the now-defunct International Hockey League. Those lessons, and the positive manner in which they were delivered, inspired Jason to make the same impact on Jayden.
"Honestly, I love everything about it," Pominville said. "I love working with the kids, especially the group of kids we have. They’re pretty receptive. I feel like they’re open to learning and a lot of our kids have followed the Sabres for the last few years. ... Trying to be positive with them and reinforce things I’ve learned throughout my career and years of playing hockey. I wasn’t too sure if I was going to like it or not, but the more I’ve done it, the more I’ve enjoyed it and the more it’s become a passion and something I can definitely see myself doing for a while."
Ellis had to encourage Pominville to share observations or teaching points directly with players. Before long, Pominville was drawing on the whiteboard in the locker room and sharing his ideas with the team. The team's opposing players routinely have asked to have their picture taken with Pominville and his voice carries weight among his son's teammates.
"Having him come in, these kids all watched him on TV last year," said Ellis, who played nine seasons in the NHL and is now director of the Academy of Hockey. "They cheered for him, they’ve seen him score goals, they’ve seen him celebrate, they’ve seen him play his 1,000th game. ... I think at the start it’s a bit surreal where it’s like, ‘Wow.' It was surreal for the kids and then after a while, he becomes coach Jason. The kids remembered that’s coach Jason. That’s Jayden’s dad."
Pominville described experiencing an awkward feeling in September when he realized this was the first time in 19 years he had not attended an NHL training camp. However, there was no bitterness when the season began.
NHL Network's daily highlight show, "On the Fly," is part of Pominville's morning routine, and he watches games, including the Sabres. Pominville skates three times a week and continues to work out. He also game plans for the Junior Sabres. Ellis laughed when recalling a recent midday phone call in which he had to remind Pominville that he was busy at work and could not talk strategy at the moment.
Coaching has filled any void left from not playing professionally this season.
"He’s such a great dad," Kim said. "He’s always been really involved with the kids and even when he was playing, when he was home, he was home. ... When hockey season started, he kept going. We’re just so busy all the time that it keeps him occupied. We never really stop. We’re always on the go. He’s doing so great. He’s happy and he’s had such an amazing career. We’re so fortunate for that and everything happens for a reason.
"If it was not meant to be this year, it was not meant to be. He’s healthy, he can still do a lot of things. ... He’s always there when the kids wake up in the morning and he’s always there to put them to bed at night."
For love of the game
Pominville typically needs to drink a cup of coffee before he arrives at Northtown Center for the late-night league games. His typical Monday begins at 7 a.m., when he and Kim wake the kids and drive them to school. Jason then returns home to eat breakfast and leaves for on- and off-ice workouts. The couple then picks up the children from school at around 2:20 p.m., and everyone prepares for their night of activities.
Kim and Kaylee Rose are off to gymnastics, while Jason and Jayden go to hockey practice. Everyone then returns home for dinner before Jason heads to the rink for what's become a weekly ritual.
Pominville wasn't looking for a competitive outlet when he approached Nick Schmidt, a 39-year-old whose son plays on the team with Jayden, with an offer to fill in at the Northtown Center league. It was an easy way to work up a sweat and provided Pominville with some of the camaraderie he missed from playing professionally.
"Initially, I thought he would just play a game or two, but he fits right in with the group of guys," Schmidt, a Buffalo firefighter, said. "It really doesn’t seem to bother him that he’s much more skilled than playing with regular working men from Western New York and he fits right in. We’re all very excited to have him and I think there’s more of an excitement or spark within the league to play against him, too, knowing he’s going to be there every week on our team."
Pominville says hello to acquaintances on other teams and makes sure to talk to the opposing goalie after every game. His involvement has created an unexpected buzz, though. Fans have started to attend games in hope of getting an autograph or a photo with Pominville.
A screenshot of his stat line recently circulated on social media and led to a number of texts from former teammates: 48 goals with 42 assists for 90 points in 17 games. The image was posted before Pominville scored four times in an 8-6 playoff win over the Danes, though he insists the stats aren't accurate.
"Those stats are legit, 100%," Okposo said between laughter. "I texted him about that. I told him to take it easy on the guys. ... I was actually at the barbershop maybe a month ago and somebody walked in, we started talking about hockey and they were like, ‘Yeah, I played against Pominville last night in men’s league and he’s still got it.’ I just looked at him and said, ‘No [kidding], he’s still got it; he just played in the NHL last year!’ "
Pominville and several former teammates spent almost seven hours recently at a local restaurant, where they shared stories of games, practices, road trips, playoff runs and pranks.
The Sabres' 50th anniversary season has provided alumni and fans an opportunity to relive the franchise's glory days, many of which involved Pominville. His presence at two theme nights, the second of which occurs Friday when the 2010 alumni will be honored, is the extent of his trip down memory lane.
Though he wishes to return to the NHL, he does not envision a scenario in which he's able to play a 16th season.
"I viewed the odds of it happening very, very, very slim," Pominville said. "I was prepared for it. I wasn’t by any means disappointed. Obviously, it would have been nice to get a call from some contender looking for a veteran. But yeah, I was prepared for it to not happen. I can’t see myself playing anywhere next year, especially after not playing for over a year. It would be pretty tough. It’s been completely fine on my side. I’m past it and over it. It’s definitely been a fun ride."
Pominville plans to make a formal retirement announcement at some point. He hasn't given much thought about the content of that message or how he will deliver it. His schedule doesn't allow for much reflection, though Pominville said he plans to one day have a glass of wine and look back at what he's accomplished.
While he will look back fondly on what he did on and off the ice, any personal achievements won't stack up to those he is watching his children earn every day.
"It’s been nice to see it a little more this year: see their improvements, seeing their strides and being able to actually be there," he said. "That’s very satisfying. I would say it’s even more satisfying than your own individual stuff. I’d say it’s more satisfying seeing them succeed at what they love and what their passion is."