Regardless of the sport or the level of play, to keep a team focused, determined, and motivated enough to win every game over a period of 63 days is a testament to strong coaching and a tightly-knit group of players. That is exactly what the 18U Buffalo Jr. Sabres have created this season, and head coach Jamie Bird has been the reason behind much of that success.
“Once we got past 17 or 18 games, we realized that we have to address the elephant in the room,” Bird said. “We addressed it as coaches, and just told the guys that we will think of the streak when the season is over. Then you can look back on it. But now there’s no reason we have to sit on 17 games – why not go for 18?”
The driving force that began the 25-game winning streak (from Oct.18-Dec. 27) – the nation’s longest this season at the 18U level – was opening up the team’s new home at HARBORCENTER with seven consecutive wins on First Niagara Rink.
After sweeping a two-game weekend series with the Boston Generals in mid-October, the Jr. Sabres entered the HARBORCENTER Cup 18U tournament as the host team. Winning five straight games to take home the championship trophy was no small feat. Buffalo posted shutouts in three straight games to start the tournament, one of which was a 3-0 blanking of a Chicago Mission team that was ranked top five nationally entering the event.
The Jr. Sabres defeated the Buffalo Saints in a hard-fought 4-3 win in the semifinals before facing off with a strong Victory Honda (Michigan) club in the championship game. An early 2-0 lead for Buffalo kept them ahead on the way to capping a 4-2 championship victory.
Throughout the entire tournament, Bird said his team felt a quiet confidence hosting the tournament in their new home rink. The win streak reached nine games at the end of the HARBORCENTER Cup, and the Jr. Sabres never looked back.
“Once we moved in there and we had that tournament the first weekend, it was a whole different attitude and way that we looked at ourselves that weekend,” Bird said. “We played some really good teams and we beat them. It just took us to a whole separate level.”
Following the HARBORCENTER Cup win, the Jr. Sabres moved on to the New York State sectional tournament, winning all six of their contests at the Northtown Center in Amherst. In those six games, the Jr. Sabres outscored their opponents 29-6 and dominated the best local competition to earn the top seed in the state tournament.
The final 10 games of the winning streak saw Buffalo defeat a number of top-ranked teams at two showcase tournaments in Michigan, in addition to victories over teams from across the northeastern United States.
The key to the team’s success came down to how the team was constructed in the preseason. Bird lauds the talents of every player on his team, noting that the ability to run all four lines in any situation was a huge asset for his team.
“The four-line philosophy is advantageous because you’re playing against a lot of teams that don’t have that luxury,” Bird said. “Those 25 games [in the winning streak], I think half of them we just pulverized teams in the third period. The players saw how that was contributing to our success.
“It was evidence after a while that the players realized the coaches knew what we were doing; that we were beating teams up in the third period and they had nothing. It’s hard to escape that kind of proof when it’s right in front of your eyes.”
The team-wide success has created recognition for the players from outside programs. Bird says at least six players have received offers for next season, and defenseman Michael Bevilacqua was promoted to Buffalo Jr. Sabres Junior ‘A’ (OJHL) team at the start of January.
Creating a team where every player has a defined role and a chance to succeed is no small feat. In order to accomplish this, Bird brought in Ric Seiling and Geoff Peters as assistant coaches.
Seiling was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in 1977 and played for the team for nine seasons. As a savvy, two-way forward playing under legendary coaches like Scotty Bowman and Roger Neilson, Seiling brought the ability to train players to the point where they can play in any game situation.
“I’ve learned one thing, that there is no right way. There’s only the way that works with your style,” Seiling said reflecting on his time in the NHL. “What we have to do with these kids is assess where their strengths and weaknesses are, build their weaknesses up, and play to their strengths.”
Peters joined the coaching staff with the 18U Jr. Sabres after a lengthy career in the American Hockey League. A veteran of 351 AHL games, and a member of the Rochester Americans from 2003 to 2005, Peters brings a little more edge to the table and has the ability to light a fire in his players’ bellies.
“For me, I like to think that I’m the energy guy,” he said. “I like to get the kids fired up and just get them going. To me, it’s about hard work and preparation and dedication and the will to win.”
At the center of the coaching equation is Bird, who joined the Jr. Sabres organization with nearly a decade of experience coaching players at the midget minor (16U) and major (18U) levels with the Rochester Monarchs. As a player, Bird had a five-year professional career which included stints in the AHL, ECHL, United Hockey League and Central Hockey League
Prior to his professional years, Bird had the chance to play under a number of influential coaches in four years in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. With the Hull Olympiques, Bird played for head coach Bob Mongrain, who was a member of the Rochester Americans and Buffalo Sabres from 1979 to 1985. One of Mongrain’s assistants was Claude Julien, current head coach of the Boston Bruins, and the NHL’s Coach of the Year in 2009.
Bird was a mobile, offensive defenseman in his playing days, and that continues to be one of his main philosophies while teaching youngsters from behind the bench.
“We have a really active defense, and I think that’s just a holdover from when I was playing,” Bird said. “I think over the years I’ve recognized that I favor those kinds of defensemen. The way the game’s played today, you really have to have good skating defensemen.”
Bird has drawn high praise from his assistant coaches for his work with the team throughout the season.
“Jamie’s been coaching at a high level, and he’s a very knowledgeable hockey guy,” Peters said. “You can tell how much he loves the game of hockey. He’s very good at the X’s and O’s; he can adjust what we do in-game. He reads the game very well.”
The Jr. Sabres have five games left on their schedule before entering postseason play, beginning with the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League playoffs in February. Currently eighth in the Tier 1 EHL standings (with a record of 16-10-2), the Jr. Sabres have defeated four of the seven teams slotted ahead of them in regular season play this season.
On a national level, Buffalo’s overall record of 37-13-0 has them ranked 15th overall by MyHockeyRankings.com, positioned behind teams like the St. Louis Blues and Michigan’s Belle Tire.
Following the T1 EHL playoffs, the Jr. Sabres will head into the New York State Tier 1 18U championships from March 6-8 at the Northtown Center. How the team fares at that tournament will determine whether they’ll advance to the national championship, which also takes place at the Northtown Center from March 26-30.
“If they have an opportunity to walk away with a championship, whether that’s a national championship or a league championship, there’s an opportunity there and that stays with you forever,” Peters said.
This year has been a success by any measure for Bird and the Jr. Sabres. Capping off the season with another long win streak in the state and national tournaments would be the perfect ending.
“State championship tournaments are an objective right from the start, and the ultimate goal is to win that and go to Nationals,” Bird said. “We’ve played against a lot of the teams that would be at nationals, so it’s just making sure that we do what we’re supposed to do when it matters.”