I couldn’t help but think of the young core of Buffalo Sabres when listening to Mark Messier and other former Edmonton Oiler greats talk about the reasons for their success.
Messier is widely known as perhaps the best leader or captain the game has known. I have spoken with many who have played with Mark and all share the same sentiments when it comes to leadership.
Now success breeds a certain attitude, but it had to start somewhere for those young and old WHA-to-NHL Oilers. From the top down, the Oilers build got it right. Once the ways of then-President, GM and coach Glen Sather crept down to his players, the mantle was in good hands.
Wayne Gretzky mentioned how Sather would make a habit of having the young stars' fathers around the rink on game days. The reason being? Well, if the player wouldn’t have it in him to play for the coach on any given night, Glen knew the player would play for Dad sitting in the Northlands Coliseum.
After the final night of NHL hockey at what is now known as Rexall Place, I hope all the young Sabres star players in the making heard Messier's message as well.
"It's very simple. No individual can win a championship on his own. It's just that simple. You need a lot of support, you need a lot of people thinking the same way, all in alignment. You need the heart and the dedication and the character to make it happen.
"We realized that. Like I said today at City Hall, when you win, the stage is big enough for everybody. You've got to make everybody feel that their contributions are just as important as the next guy's no matter whether it's 30 minutes a game or two minutes a game. Everybody's got to feel that they're important.
"If they don't bring their best every game, you have zero chance of winning there. We were able to convince everybody that came here that they were important and we needed them."
Here in lies the not-so-secret secret to what the Sabres have to accomplish as a group of young men as they take steps towards hopefully being crowned a champion.
Now you can cheer all you want, you can predict playoff positions after back-to-back 30th place finishes in the NHL all you want. I understand being a fan, and I am one with you.
However, what Messier spoke of is not something that happens overnight. The Oilers journey to where they got to took some work and some huge disappointments came along the way. There were star players, supporting cast players and smart hockey people running the hockey ops and back of the bench.
Based on what I have seen this season and how this team has played since the Christmas break, the Sabres, I feel, are on their way now. The Young “Stars” are here or on the horizon: Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Rasmus Ristolainen. Built in and around these players are The NHLers with top-six or top-four credentials: Ryan O'Reilly, Evander Kane, Tyler Ennis, Zach Bogosian, Josh Gorges. There are The Hopefuls, be it due to youth or injury that has hampered their rise to “star”: Robin Lehner, Jake McCabe, Mark Pysyk, Hudson Fasching and Casey Nelson.
That’s just my account of who is here in Sabreland now. Who comes next is up to GM Tim Murray as this is his ship to steer. But whomever Tim Murray decides to add to this current mix of players, it’s now on the guys here today to make sure every new face feels accepted in Buffalo – to ensure every player who wears a Sabres jersey knows they have a role and that they are part of a close knit family.
And to make it a family that will make sure every player – star or rookie – spends his time in the barrel at some point. (Glenn Anderson, another former Oiler, said on that special closing night at Rexall, “You’d better have had thick skin in our room because there were enough darts being thrown daily and nightly.”)
So as your Sabres close out another season, I urge you to spurn the desire to say, “Here we go again, missing the playoffs.” We all have a part in building this franchise.
You are the loyal fans that the players and people who work for the organization count on. We are all grateful for you! Going forward, let’s fill First Niagara Center with as much energy and noise as we can. Let’s be part of this new crop of Sabres players' quest for glory, while empowering them when they are having a sluggish night or adding fuel to the fire when they are taking it to the opposition.
Like Messier said, everybody has a role to play.