This column will cover topics that may not typically be discussed on this website. My purpose is primarily twofold: to discuss topics in hockey (mainly Buffalo Sabres) history, and for the writer’s own pleasure. If you want to find quality cutting-edge commentary, read Mike Augello’s Maple Leaf blog. The articles that will be found in my column may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Now let’s get to the first article.
Several months ago, WGR 550 radio hosts Mike Schopp and Chris “the Bulldog” Parker devoted a large segment of their show to a discussion of which players would constitute the greatest Sabres team for the length and breadth of their forty year history. The inspiration for the program was a poll of Montreal Canadian fans that selected the greatest Habs team of all time. However, it was not just a selection of the best players, but the players that would fit an actual lineup, consisting of two scoring lines, a checking line, an energy line, three defensive pairings, a starting goalie and a backup goalie. As a result, the third best scoring center might not make the team if he was not a checker or energy player. Likewise the backup goalie would be one who could handle being a backup. Not just the second best goaltender to ever put on pads.
After thinking about that program, I decided to post my own Sabres’ all-time team. Generally speaking, there is a bias in choosing players with more tenure playing in Buffalo than others. For example, although Tim Horton is an all-time great, he did not play for the Sabres long enough to merit selection. Likewise, some would consider Eddie Shack a prototypical energy player, but he falls short for the same reason Horton does. Another factor considered is pairing players who played together for a significant period of time.
First Scoring Line
LW-Rick Martin—The first real sniper in team history. One of only two Sabres with multiple 50 goal season (he also had one with 49).
C-Gilbert Perreault—The face of the franchise for its first 16 years. Perreault may be one of the 10 most entertaining players in NHL history. He is also a member of the Hockey News fifty-year team.
RW-Rene Robert—Some might question this selection, but keeping the French Connection together is naturally obvious.
Second Scoring Line
LW-Dave Andreychuk—Had two stints with the Sabres and later captained the Tampa Bay Lightning to a Stanley Cup Championship. As a young player, he was often victimized by fans who thought of him as an underachiever. Some have stated that he booked cruise tickets for the second round of the playoffs—whether true or not—that rumor reinforced a negative image. Nevertheless, his career totals are too hard to ignore. He will be enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame within the next few years.
C-Pat LaFontaine—No forward in team history (with the possible exception of Perreault) electrified the Buffalo hockey market like Lafontaine. He would have won the NHL scoring title in 1992-93 if not for Mario Lemieux’s heroic return from cancer. The Rick Jennarette call of his goals will always be part of local sports lore. Maybe the most popular player in team history, his one drawback was his frequent injuries. But when he played, he was soooo good.
RW-Alexander Mogilny—An enigmatic player throughout his career. Mogilny made history with his defection in 1989, thus giving him that unusual uniform number. As quick as lightning, he still holds the Sabre single-season record with 76 goals in 1992-93.
LW-Craig Ramsay—The all-time leader in consecutive games played was a perennial Selke candidate, winning the award once. Rammer was an extremely intelligent player, one of the best penalty killers in NHL history and after his playing career concluded, he was a natural as an effective coach.
C-Don Luce—Acquired in 1971 along with Mike Robitaille in exchange of goaltender Joe Daley, the transaction was a coup for Punch Imlach. Luce was in many ways a modern athlete in that he was a health and fitness fanatic, which gave him an advantage over many players in the 1970s. He was terrific two-way center who scored eight shorthanded goals in 1974-75.
RW-Danny Gare—It doesn’t feel right to have this team loaded with 1970’s era Sabres players, but Gare was a former captain and has his number hanging in the rafters at the HSBC arena. Gare lead the NHL in goals in 1979-80(tied with Charlie Simmer and Blaine Stoughton) with 56. Also, along with Martin, Gare is the only Buffalo player to have multiple 50 goal seasons. His first 50 goal campaign occurred very unexpectedly. Entering the last game of the 1975-76 season against Toronto, Martin had 49 goals (after finishing the two previous seasons with 52) and Gare sat at 47. Martin was unable to light the red lamp while Gare did it three times. Although not very big, Gare would drop the gloves with almost anyone. Plain and simple, he was a star that fit the Buffalo mentality.
LW-Lindy Ruff— During his playing days, Ruff demonstrated the smarts and toughness that has made him a successful NHL coach. He had the versatility to play both defense and wing. Ruff was the team practical joker who knew when it was time to be serious.
Ruff is one of three Sabre players drafted in the 2nd round that reached the 100 goal plateau in the non-Imlach years. From 1979 to 2000, only two other Sabre second round choices scored as many or more regular season goals with the club (John Tucker, 1983 and Curtis Brown, 1994). During the Imlach era, (1970-78) this happened three times as well (Craig Ramsay, 1971; Danny Gare 1974; Tony McKegney, 1978).
C-Michael Peca—Obtained in the deal with Vancouver, along with Mike Wilson and Jay Mckee in exchange for Alexander Mogilny, Peca won the Selke Trophy as a Sabre in 1997. His 2000-01 holdout was considered an act of betrayal by many, but when he was here, everyone loved him.
RW-Mike Foligno—Foligno is probably the most underappreciated player in team history. The main prize in the 1981 trade that changed the franchise, his tenure as a Sabre yielded career statistics that placed him amongst the top ten in virtually every statistical category. His famous leap after goals was a memorable trademark.
I did not bother to separate RD and LD. Also, all the pairing were teammates if not actual defensive partners.
Phil Housley—Like Andreychuk, Housley was sometime labeled an underachiever. To add insult to injury, the comments in Rob Ray’s book Razor are less than flattering. As much as many Sabre fans may hate to admit it, “Wowie” is the only defenseman in team history—with a reasonable number of games in a Sabre jersey—to have a legitimate shot at the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Mike Ramsey—I have no idea why it seems true, but Ramsey has not been given nearly as much positive press compared to other 1980 US Olympic heroes. In Wayne Coffey’s Boys of Winter, Ramsey’s biographical section is rather small, even though he was probably the member of the team who had the best NHL career. In the two movies about the American victory (Miracle on Ice and Miracle) he is oddly obscure. My personal theory is that Ramsey being a first round draft choice puts at least a minor dent into the myth that the boys of Lake Placid were unknown quantities. Does anyone see this differently?
Jim Schoenfeld—A fantastic shotblocker, he was the captain of the 74-75 team that lost in the finals to the “Broad Street Bullies.” The big redhead liked to drop the gloves early in his career and had a career highlight being one of the few Sabre defenseman to score a hat trick.
Jerry Korab—“King Kong” was tough and possessed a heavy shot from the point. Also wore a 70’s mustache.
Alexei Zhitnik—Zhitnik could be a very frustrating player to watch. In some ways he was the defensive version of Miroslav Satan. The reason I say this is that both were extremely taleneted Eastern Europeans who would had boatloads of talent, but whose inconsistency made fans want to pull their hair out. Even so, he played in multiple All-Star games and was a stalwart during the 1999 run to the Stanley Cup finals. Zhitnik was occasionally irresponsible defensively, but his body of work as a hard working rearguard who could shutdown the leagues best cannot be ignored.
Jay McKee—Most surveys I have read or heard would pick Bill Hajt instead of McKee, however I chose Jay because he was more physical and his teams enjoyed more playoff success.
Starter-Dominic Hasek—Although many will disagree, he was the best player in Sabre history.
Back Up-Bob Sauve—The fact the Sauve has been so underappreciated, demonstates his status as the ideal foot soldier. Sauve was the first goalie taken by the Sabres in the first round of the NHL draft (1975). In his rookie year, he languished as a backup to Gerry Desjardins, playing only 4 games, while the other goaltender in the Sabres organization, Don Edwards got more playing time in the minors and got his chance to the No. 1 goalie before Sauve. After the injury that ended Desjardins career and the hissy fit of Al Smith that hastened his departure, Edwards assumed the role of No. 1 goalie in the 1977 season and held the job for the next five seasons. There are two slightly divergent accounts of this situation. The account given by Imlach in Heaven and Hell in the NHL suggests that Sauve’s refusal to being sent to the minors slowed his development. However, longtime Sabre PR man and practice goalie Paul Weiland, who almost suited up that night, claims Sauve was playing in the Maritime provinces at this time and could not be reached in time to suit up.
Sauve became a terrific backup who aided both Don Edwards and Tom Barrasso in giving the Sabres the best goals against in the league. His one main chance at being the No 1 guy led to two consecutive playoff shutouts at the Montreal Forum in 1983 and an eventual defeat to the Boston Bruins.
These are valuable role players who could step in when needed.
Stu Barnes—A team captain who could play center and wing and saved his best games for the playoffs.
Rob Ray—Not the most talented, but performed the role of policeman longer than any other player. If this squad went up against the Broad Street Bullies, “Razor” would be a nice gun to have in the holster.
Doug Bodger—He played for Buffalo a long time and could do everything well, a perfect seventh defenseman.
Coach-Lindy Ruff—We have a playing coach.
GM—Punch Imlach—Not only did he build a strong and exciting team from scratch, Imlach also loved the fans of Buffalo. The success of Western New York talent in the NHL is Punch’s legacy. Imlach’s teams brought an excitement that made hockey prominent in the WNY area. People from Toronto might not appreciate what they had, but the folks from Buffalo should celebrate his brilliance.
Play-by-play Man—Rich Jeanneret—Ted Darling deservedly had the press box at the HSBC arena named in his honor. Rick deserves an entire wing.
Color Man—Jim Lorenz—It is refreshing to know that “Batman” will be enshrined in the Sabres Hall of Fame later this season. Maybe I’m exaggerating, but this guy was outstanding. Lorenz would frequently mention his conversations with players. This kept him in tune with the pulse of the team and their opponents. One who dabbled in writing, Lorenz was always articulate yet he never was one to show off. This made him the perfect partner for Jeanneret. I almost chose Batman over Barnes as a healthy scratch since he could play center, wing, defense, and exterminator well. Versatility was his strongest quality, but he wasn’t quite omnipresent.
The Buffalo Sabres have had a fun history even if the Cup has been illusive. All-time teams are enjoyable discussions. “Thank you Sabres.”
COMING SOON: ROCHESTER