Before the Sabres season started, I was offered a job to call the World Cup of Hockey on Rogers Sportsnet Radio across Canada. The flagship station and point of origin for that job came from The FAN590 in Toronto, a station I spent 19 years working at before joining Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. From there, the Sabres asked me to sign here to work with and share games with RJ until his retirement.
So needless to say with the FAN calling on me for another international event, I jumped at the chance to call the best players in the world (who were not injured), compete against one another.
I had a wonderful eight-year run calling the World Juniors at the FAN and across Canada as well as the World Cup held in Halifax and Quebec City, and the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. So I had a sense of what top-notch international tournament play could be, but I was, like many, curious as to what this edition of the World Cup of Hockey was going to become and the city of Toronto did a wonderful job of hosting the event.
The one game I will always recall from that tournament was North America vs. Sweden.
Jack Eichel, Auston Mathews and their flashy, talented teammates took control right from the start of the game. Not to be outdone, the comeback by the veteran Swedish side was equally as impressive, and set up the overtime that rocked Air Canada Centre. The winning goal by Nathan MacKinnon was jaw dropping as he took on Henrik Lundqvist and beat "The King."
Ryan O'Reilly and Canada's comeback way of winning against Team Europe in Game 2 of the Final was another great story and moment to remember. On the play that set up the game-winning goal, I could see Brad Marchand come firing off the Canada bench out of the corner of my eye. He would be the trailer into the offensive zone on a shorthanded rush. I made the call, "If they see Marchand coming off the bench, this could be trouble for Europe."
Sure enough, Marchand scores what was the tournament winner for Canada and showed everyone in hockey who thought he was just a pest you wanted on your team but hated on the Bruins that he is also one heck of a talented and clutch player.
The tournament also marked the return to hockey of Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price and did he ever impress! If anyone out there doubted who the best goalie in the game today was before the World Cup, Price should have convinced them otherwise.
During the World Cup, I had a Sabres preseason game sandwiched in on a day off so I was off to Penn State University and Pegula Arena to call the action.
What a great facility it is, and I must say the people of Penn State's hockey community were very welcoming to the Pegula family and their extended Sabre hockey family as well. The game ended not so well for the Sabres, falling 2-1 to the Wild, who scored the winner late on the power play.
My Sabres preseason journey would continue with a back-to-back series against Carolina. The first stop was Marquette, Mich. for Kraft Hockeyville USA.
Unexpected (by me anyway) was the reception that awaited the team outside the rink as we arrived. The team bus pulled up for a morning skate right from the flight into Michigan. As we turned the corner onto the street where the renovated rink sat, there were hundreds of people lined up and waiting to greet the team.
The day and night was well received and hosted by the people of Marquette. And the Sabres left feeling good about a 2-0 win.
From there it was off to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario for a rematch the next night with Carolina.
During my 10-plus year run calling games in the Canadian Hockey league with the Majors organization, I had never made the trek to Northern Ontario and always felt I missed out on something I shouldn't have. So I was excited to get this chance now.
Funny story or two here:
When we landed and got on our buses - the players on theirs and the rest of the staff on ours - we all thought we had taken off in Michigan and landed in Ontario.
Well, quickly I noticed interstate signs and thought, "Canada does not have interstates." But then I thought, "Well I have never been this far north by car anyway, what did I not know?" We did indeed land in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and had yet to cross the border into Canada. Later that night by the team room,
I heard players with the same story: "Thought we landed in Canada."
It was a special night for Carolina GM Ron Francis, who was back home amongst family and friends. He had a street named after him and a little pregame party thrown for him at the rink. Now I mention this part of the day because you see, before most games in most rinks, there is a pregame meal available to buy for us non-player types who are there to work for the evening pretty much from 4:30 on until we land back home or in another city.
Well, there was no pregame meal and you can only imagine me walking in with Rob Ray and not finding a meal for the big man to sink his teeth into before faceoff. We walked the lower concourse of the arena and, sure enough, we came upon the latter stages of the Ron Francis reception.
Ron was talking with friends and there sat behind him a nice spread of food.
Rob was a gentleman and said he could not crash Ron's party. I said "Why not?" We are hockey family!
Sure, enough the ladies who were in charge of the food that night called us over and we dug in, met Ron's brother and others, and even had some of Ron Francis' cake! It was the best white-iced cake I think I have ever had!
Rayzor did eventually give in and have some eats himself. I'm glad he did because if Rob is ornery when we go to air, I prepare myself for at least one good shot to the right shoulder as he fires himself up if he's in the booth next to me.
One more preseason date was on my slate and it took the shape of a same-day stop into Ottawa.
The Senators iced what was pretty much their opening night line up versus Buffalo. The Sabres finished the exhibition season on a good note with a 4-2 win, with goals from Evander Kane, Sam Reinhart, Marcus Foligno and Derek Grant, while Robin Lehner made 30 saves.
I really do get a sense from what I have seen from Robin that when he is healthy and focused, he can be THAT guy Sabres fans are waiting for to emerge as the No. 1 goalie the team has been search for since Ryan Miller's departure.
Other thoughts early into the regular season, a season hindered by injuries to key players already:
1. This team, in my opinion, is deep enough that it should be OK until Kane and Jack Eichel return to full health. It will take a commitment from every single player to playing the right way and not cheating themselves or their teammates. I am not saying there won't be nights you curse them, but overall I would not panic, as long as goaltending keeps them in games.
2. Give Dmitry Kulikov some time to find his way. Dimitry's play is already noticeable on the back end and it will only get better as he sees more ice time with his new teammates. Recall that he was at World Cup and had NO preseason to get to know or play with these guys. We may seen some flashes of this last night when he played a season-high 27:40.
3. Brian Gionta is the captain of this team in so many ways. You would have to ask players in the room why he is the leader when that door is closed, but on the ice, nobody on this team plays every shift harder, as honestly and smart as Brian. He is already chipping in with offense while Jack and Evander wait out their injuries. Brian is stepping up and showing the younger players by example that they have to do the same.
We are just underway this season but I have to say I am looking forward to another year of growth in the right direction with these Sabres. Also looking forward to saying hello to you at the rink this season. If you see me walking the hallways please say hello, Buffalo, and share your Sabres stories with me!