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This Saturday, June 8 marks the 25th anniversary of the 1999 Stanley Cup Final, which saw the Sabres fall to the Dallas Stars following a long and memorable 1998-99 season. 

The Sabres were backstopped by legendary goaltender Dominik Hasek, who won his fifth Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender after posting a league-best .939 save percentage.

Behind Hasek, Buffalo allowed just 175 goals, the second fewest in the league behind the Stars.

But the Sabres weren’t just an “OK team with a great goaltender" - they were a young and motivated group that had earned the moniker as “the hardest working team in hockey" in the years prior. 

Led offensively by Miroslav Satan and 25-year-old captain Michael Peca, the Sabres developed their hard-nosed reputation by playing as one.

Players like Michal Grosek, Curtis Brown, and Dixon Ward stabilized the Sabres’ offense while Jason Woolley and Alexei Zhitnik helped anchor the defense. 

Enforcers Rob Ray, Matthew Barnaby, and Paul Kruse brought the physicality and Stu Barnes and Joe Juneau – both acquired at the trade deadline – added a veteran presence to the lineup ahead of the playoff run.

Using conversations and interviews with the 1998-99 team from Buffalo’s 50th anniversary season, compiled an oral history of the players’ recollections of one of the most memorable seasons in Sabres history.

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“The hardest working team in hockey”

After making it to the second round of the playoffs in 1997 and falling to Washington in the Eastern Conference Final in 1998, the Sabres entered 1998-99 determined to make another long run.

Dixon Ward, Forward: We all wanted to play hard, play for each other. We all felt that we had something to prove. Even our coach felt he had something to prove.

Curtis Brown, Forward: I just think we had a very workmanlike attitude. I think it started right from the top – Lindy Ruff expected a lot out of us, obviously. … And I thought we really came together at the right time. I think everybody had their role, which is so critical.

Ward: We had started that years before – that mentality that we’re the Buffalo Sabres, we’re gonna have to outwork teams. We had a group of guys that had the ability to work very hard. And the systems that they put in place and taught us were very, very valuable for us. Everybody was accountable to those systems.

Michael Peca, Forward: Everybody was so in-tune with what we were doing. It just created a lot of chemistry.

Brown: Everybody really truly played for the logo on the front. Nobody cared who got the recognition when the puck was dropped, and I think that was the key.

Peca: We put a lot of pressure on each other to play the right way – to possess the puck, focus on offense. We believed in doing it as a group. I think our main focus was to just literally outwork the other team, possess the puck, and just be physical.

Dwayne Roloson, Goaltender: Everyone chipped in. And just about every playoff team you can ask, the reason why they had success is because everyone bought in. From the black aces to the spare guys that are coming up from the minors. Give the coaching staff a lot of credit too – Lindy, Ramer (Mike Ramsey) and Donny (Don Lever) – they were prepared for every team.

Ward: We were as prepared that year as we ever had been going into each game. People ask me all the time, who are the best coaches I’ve ever played for over the course of my career? But Lindy by far for me was the best bench coach I ever played for. He could make adjustments mid-game in our structure and our style to counteract what the other team was doing. Those coaches were always prepared in having a game plan for us. They built a game plan around what we were capable of. They weren’t asking us to do anything that we couldn’t do. They were just trying to get the best out of what we could offer at that time. Obviously, with a system that revolved around the best goalie in the world, it proved to be successful for us.

Brown: Ultimately, if I’m telling the truth, we also had a guy that was spectacular to get us through a lot of the games – I think his last name was Hasek.

Stu Barnes, Forward: I remember right from Day 1 in practice and warmup in games how competitive he was. That was the thing that really kind of surprised me. I didn’t realize that he was as good as he was and competitive as he was. Couldn’t score on him in practice, so that seemed like a complete waste of time going down and taking shots on him because they were never going in.

Roloson: That’s why he was so good – he was two steps ahead of everybody. I learned a lot from him, and I really enjoyed playing behind him.

Ward: Besides Dominik, we didn’t have somebody that was head and shoulders better than the next guy. We were all just a group of guys. And certainly, we had guys that performed well in certain situations, but everybody felt important, and everyone respected one another. And that was the best part about that group.

Peca: If you define what a great team is, it’s a group of guys that are really focused on the same thing regardless of their own success or intentions. We may not have had all of the high-end talent in all the positions like other teams, but I think the true thing that makes a great team, which we had, is we got along so well off the ice. Sometimes more than we did on the ice. That is such a powerful thing for any team in any sport.

Ward: The biggest takeaway I had was none of us really took any of ourselves very seriously. We were just dudes showing up to play hockey. That’s the kind of memory that I have. When we played, we played hard. But what a goofy bunch of guys and what a bunch of characters in one locker room.

Peca: We felt we continued to gain experience and put ourselves in a position to ultimately play and compete for a Stanley Cup. I think as we went through the trade deadline period, adding a Stu Barnes and a Joe Juneau seemed to add a lot of character and selflessness to the hockey team.

The Sabres went on to earn 91 points during the regular season to secure their fourth straight playoff berth.

1999 Finals Gm 3 Sea of Red

Playoff hockey

With veteran leadership in-hand and one goal in mind, the Sabres opened the 1999 playoffs against the Ottawa Senators, who had won the Northeast Division with 103 points. The Sabres secured wins in Games 1 and 2 in Ottawa before coming home to Buffalo to complete the series sweep.

Jason Woolley, Defenseman: I didn't feel like we were intimidated by Ottawa at all. I don't remember how the season went, but I do remember that they had some big-time players. I felt we matched up well. But like every series, we felt like we outmatched them on the back end with the goaltending.

Rob Ray, Forward: Guys stepped up to finish that series off in four games: Brian Holzinger, Dixon Ward, Vaclav Varada. We carried that confidence right through the following series against Boston and into the rest of the playoffs. Everything came together. Our power play worked great after being mediocre all year. Penalty killing was fabulous.

Following their first-round sweep of Ottawa, the Sabres had to take on another division rival in the Boston Bruins. The Bruins took Game 1, but Buffalo bounced back with wins in Games 2, 3, and 4 to take a commanding 3-1 series lead into Boston. Despite dropping Game 5 by a score of 5-3, the Sabres returned home to finish off the series with a 3-2 win over the Bruins to clinch a trip to the Eastern Conference Final for the second straight season.

Peca: If you go through the entire playoffs - Ottawa, Boston, Toronto, Dallas - in retrospect, I thought Boston would've been the easiest team. But they just played a great team game, they really did. Playing at the TD Garden (then FleetCenter) was never an easy place to play in Boston.

Woolley: For us as players, we knew it was going to be a battle. It was a dogfight. They had a lot of similar players to us. Once again, how was special teams going to match up? Who was going to play better in the nets? And we won both of those battles.

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Rivalry meets playoffs

Buffalo’s Eastern Conference Final opponent was a very familiar foe: the Toronto Maple Leafs. The rivals met for the first time ever in the playoffs with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final on the line. With several Ontario natives on the roster, the Sabres felt the stakes were even higher.

Woolley: The border battle was going on all season. I felt like we were in their heads. That series was huge for a lot of Ontario guys we had on our team. Me, personally, all my buddies back home, my parents, my family. I did not want to hear about us losing this friggin’ series.

Barnes: I mean, they were a very good hockey team, and we were kind of these guys that nobody really gave a bunch of credit to. But we all knew that we had a good hockey team and if we stuck to our game plan that we could have some success.

Ward: It was bananas. That was one series that I really remember quite a bit. Those were fun times, those games.

Ray: For us looking back now, that was almost our Stanley Cup because of the environment around the building, the environment around town, the build up to the games.

The Sabres received unfortunate news ahead of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final in Toronto, learning that Hasek would be unavailable for the game due to a groin injury. Roloson, the team’s backup, earned the first postseason start of his career and led the Sabres to a thrilling 5-4 victory to take a 1-0 series lead.

Peca: It was pretty special. I still remember after the first game that we won, obviously we were elated because at our team meal the night before we had just learned that Rolly (Roloson) was going to start the series and not Dom due to an injury.

Roloson: Lindy came to me Friday after practice and said, ‘There might be a chance that you might be starting Sunday, but I’ll let you know tomorrow.’ He told me Saturday night that I was playing, and he said, ‘Tell the media that you’re not playing.’ So, we just went in, and no one knew that I was playing except for, I think, five or six of us. We went out and I think everyone was surprised in Toronto that Dom wasn’t playing. We surprised them, and we ended up getting a win.

Ward: The media was going crazy, wondering what was happening with Dominik. And we found a way to get it done and get back to Buffalo and really settle in there.

The Maple Leafs scored five goals on Roloson and added an empty netter in Game 2 as the Sabres went home to Buffalo with the series tied at 1-1. Hasek made his return in Game 3 along with Satan, who had been out since the first round against Ottawa with a foot injury, to lead the Sabres in a 4-2 victory and steal the momentum. Buffalo won the next two games to secure its second trip to the Stanley Cup Final.

Woolley: Every night, every game, we brought it. We didn’t take any shifts off. The coaches had us going. They made you want to play for them. We played for them, and they coached for us.

Ray: After winning those games at home, going back to Toronto for Game 5 felt like a formality. They were broken down.

Ward: I remember the biggest [memory] for me was the empty-net goal in Game 5 in Toronto. That’s the one goal I remember the most because we were killing the penalty and I turned around and winged the puck on edge. It was rolling toward the net, and I just remember racing down the ice, following this puck, just praying to God that that thing would find its way into the net. And as soon as it went in the net, we all just realized, ‘We’re going to the Cup.’ And that was pretty exciting.

Ray: It was almost like as soon as you beat them, you had a good time, and then it got real all of the sudden.

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The bus ride home from Toronto

The Sabres enjoyed a memorable bus ride back to Buffalo from Toronto after clinching their spot in the Stanley Cup Final.

Peca: The bus ride back is a story all in itself.

Darryl Shannon, Defenseman: It was just lots of fun.

Lindy Ruff, Head Coach: Probably that’s the thing I remember the most was hitting the border.

Jay McKee, Defenseman: There may have been some shenanigans at the border.

Dominik Hasek, Goaltender: I’ll let the guys talk.

Peca: We were on the bus and then Jay McKee was calling the radio stations to request certain songs. And then we got to the border and our goalie who’s really good – I’m not going to mention his name, but he wore 39 – proceeded to pour a bottle of beer on the head of the border security guy that came on our bus.

George Babcock, Equipment Manager: That may or may not have happened. There’s no video proof.

McKee: But I don’t think any of the agents at the border had a problem with it that night.

Shannon: We were fortunate enough that he knew who we were.

Peca: Thank God he was a Sabres fan, so everything was smooth.

Ruff: He just gave everybody a high-five. Walked up and down the aisle – he said, ‘I don’t need to see anything.’ I wanted everybody to embrace it and enjoy it, and they did.

Ray: It was the best two-and-a-half hours of my hockey career because we were all together on that bus, accomplished what we accomplished. Guys crying, having a few beers, calling our parents and families. It was just something you’ll never forget. It was a short thing. It was a simple thing. But it meant so much.

1999 Finals GWG Woolley gm 1

“The shot heard ‘round the hockey world”

The Sabres had a tough series ahead against a talented and experienced Dallas team in the Stanley Cup Final but were able to take Game 1 with a 3-2 overtime win in Dallas. Woolley scored with 4:30 remaining in the extra period in what Rick Jeanneret dubbed as “the shot heard ‘round the hockey world.”

Ray: That was June 8, 1999 – my birthday, first game of the Finals. It was one of the greatest days.

Peca: You could just feel an energetic wave building on our side. Obviously, we were a much younger team than Dallas was at that time. We definitely seemed to have a little bit of momentum and positive energy going our way.

Woolley: It was the biggest goal of my career. It was phenomenal. I’ll never forget it. It’s always fun going back to Buffalo – that’s one of the things that the fans like to bring up is where they were when we won Game 1.

1999 Finals Hasek Hull

Sabres fall in Stanley Cup Final

Buffalo saw its unforgettable run end in Game 6 of the Final after Brett Hull scored the game winner in triple overtime to take the Stanley Cup back home to Dallas. The goal remains a point of contention as video replay showed Hull’s skate was in the crease prior to the goal. Twenty-five years later, members of the team remain proud of their run despite the contentious conclusion.

Woolley: You’re so sore. You’re injured. Everybody’s injured, everybody’s exhausted. It ends, and then of course we start walking down the hallway and then there’s that, ‘Is his foot in the crease?’ Just from what I recall, Pecs was pretty fired up. Lindy was pretty fired up. I had no idea what was going on. I don’t think many guys did.

Ray: I don’t think many guys walk away from it – are they bitter? Yes. Are they disappointed? Yes. But we don’t sit there and dwell on it. I don’t like talking about it, but I don’t look back and go, ‘Oh, that was the worst thing that had ever happened to me.’

Ward: We look back, and I’m sure I can speak for most of the guys, we’re super proud of what we accomplished. And we understand the fine line between winning and losing. We took it right to the fine line. Looking back after all these years, I have no bitterness toward any of it at all. I’d feel the same way today if we won or if we lost. We had a great run, had great experiences, and we got to do it with a great bunch of guys.

Woolley: It says something to not be bitter and so proud and just know that those are going to be your brothers for a long time. I can’t even imagine winning the Cup and imagine what that feels like, but I’ll take what we did. I’m very proud of that.

Ray: I can honestly sit back and say our team did make the most of it. We did what we could do. I don’t think there’s any part of your game you could look back and say, ‘We should have done this differently.’ What was put in front of us and the way our team played was exactly what we needed to be successful. And we just didn’t get it done in the end.

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Support from Buffalo

Brown: We had so many great years in Buffalo. I’ll go on the record and say it’s an awesome place. The people there just treated us so well. I loved the fact that it’s a true sports town. I loved that pressure and opportunity to go out and play in front of those wonderful people.

Peca: The advantage on our side as far as home-ice advantage goes – we wanted to take advantage of that. I still get chills when I think of the national anthems. It was an amazing environment, there’s no doubt.

Ray: Our building was electric in those days. I think we just had that blue-collar style that people could relate to. They respected how we worked, and we could feel it. Our guys would run through a wall because we knew our fans appreciated it.

Ward: The whole group in Buffalo – I think everybody took so much pride in playing for not only each other as players but playing for our coaches, playing for our ownership, playing for the people of Buffalo. It was a big inspiration for all of us.

Although the Sabres saw their unforgettable playoff run end, more than 20,000 people gathered in Niagara Square outside City Hall for a rally on June 22, 1999 to celebrate the team’s run.

Peca: It was mixed emotions. I felt like it was a great tribute to the fans because they were so good to us throughout the entire run, but it was also bittersweet because we didn’t win. I felt like it was more of a celebration of how great our fans were. Because it truly was special. It was a special run. It was like a culmination of emotions wrapping up with this bitterness on how it ended.

Woolley: It’s amazing, the support the Sabres fans gave us. And they only asked for one thing: work your tail off. That rally shows you what Buffalo is all about. It’s Buffalo sports. I’ll never forget it as long as I live.