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by Joe Ray / Buffalo Sabres

Change is abundant on and off the ice for the Buffalo Jr. Sabres this season. While the Ontario Junior Hockey League team is off to a slow start at 2-9-0-0, the entire organization is optimistic about this season and the future of the program.

The transition began back in April with a change at head coach. After two successful seasons behind the bench, Michael Peca decided to relinquish the role in order to serve as the team’s general manager and director of operations for the entire Buffalo Jr. Sabres organization. In addition, Peca will be the head coach of the Jr. Sabres’ Bantam Major team.

Another Buffalo Sabres alumnus, John Tucker, was named to succeed Peca as head coach. Drafted 31st overall by Buffalo in the 1983 NHL Entry Draft, Tucker played 656 games for the Sabres from 1983 to 1991 before playing and coaching professionally with HC Asiago in Italy.

Tucker and assistant coaches, Cos Polino and Jacob Brozyna, are charged with bringing together a roster which includes 14 players getting their first taste of the OJHL. That youth has been a contributing factor to the team’s early struggles.

“It’s just a work in progress,” Tucker said. “It’s going to come together; they’re working real hard right now. We have a great program, and we’re a dedicated coaching staff with experience.”

With the in-season acquisitions of forwards Josh Gabriel and Daniel LaFontaine, and defenseman Wilson Vershay, the Jr. Sabres now have eight returning players from last year’s team. Along with team captain Nick Smith, forwards Ryan Kuhn, Tim Kielich and Chris Moses, and defenseman Ben Casale, the tight-knit group of returnees are being relied upon heavily by Tucker.

“There’s many options [for playing junior hockey], but we’re happy to have them back,” he said. “Their experience will help us with the younger kids. We’ve got three 16-year-olds that are trying to figure out how to play against 19- and 20-year-olds.”

Slowly but surely, the younger players are finding their roles and making key contributions. Tim Nicksic, an 18-year-old forward from Tomah, Wisc., has been a pleasant surprise with three goals and two assists in 11 games. Another newcomer, forward Zach Evancho, has three points in his first four games.

Defensively, the Jr. Sabres are a much larger squad on the blueline than they were a year ago. Newcomers Aiden Salerno (6’3”), Max McCutcheon (6’5”) and Bray Crowder (6’4”) provide the size, while the “smaller” Aaron Reinig (6’) has been relied upon primarily as puck mover at defense.

Tucker noted that, like many other players on this team, the defensemen are still trying to establish their niche in the young season.

“We have to learn how to play as a team,” Tucker said. “Everyone has to get to their roles. There’s an old saying in hockey, ‘The singers sing, and the dancers dance.’ You’ve got to do what you were brought to the team for.”

After starting the season at the Northtown Center in Amherst, the Jr. Sabres will make a long-awaited transition later this month to HARBORCENTER, the two-rink complex adjacent to First Niagara Center that will sport a number of advanced features for player development.

The benefits of the training facilities at HARBORCENTER will extend to all seven teams in the Buffalo Jr. Sabres organization. Each team will play, practice and grow together in the new building alongside the hockey teams from Canisius College and Erie Community College.

“It’s exciting for everybody. It’s a big step for the entire Jr. Sabres program,” Tucker said. “What our kids are going to be offered training-wise, video-wise, facility-wise; having Canisius’ dressing room adjoined to ours; and having an NHL team 300 feet away where kids can watch how those people act and how they prepare for games. It’s going to be something special for our whole organization.”

  • Wednesday, October 8 vs. Georgetown, 7:30 p.m.
  • Sunday, October 12 @ Whitby, 2 p.m.
  • Tuesday, October 14 vs. Newmarket, 7:30 p.m.
  • Saturday, October 18 @ Orangeville, 7 p.m.
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