Forty-six years ago, the No. 11 had little significance to Gilbert Perreault. It had been assigned to him by his junior team, the Montreal Junior Canadiens, and he had worn it for three years there, winning two Memorial Cups in the process. Other than that, it was just a number.
For the city of Buffalo, that number took on a greater significance at the NHL Draft in Montreal on June 11, 1970. The story is etched in Sabres lore: the No. 1 selection would either go to them or the Vancouver Canucks as both teams were entering the League via expansion. Perreault was the prize.
To determine which team would select first between the Sabres and Canucks, NHL President Clarence Campbell spun a roulette wheel numbered 1-20; Nos. 1-10 were designated to Vancouver and Nos. 11-20 to Buffalo. Campbell spun the wheel.
"The number is one," Campbell proclaimed.
As the Canucks' brass celebrated their victory, Sabres General Manager Punch Imlach noticed that, as Campbell would be forced to admit to the room moments later, the number had been miscalled. The double-digit numbers had been stacked vertically, and what Campbell had perceived to be the No. 1 was actually No. 11.
The Sabres, in fact, had won the lottery. All the while, the man whose entire future hinged on the spin of a wheel wasn’t even in the building to witness the drama.
"What I can remember is I was not there right away," Perreault said. "I came late. I didn’t see that spin of the wheel. I met with Punch Imlach and Seymour Knox and Northrup Knox. We took a few pictures together, and that was it."
As a 19-year-old native of Victoriaville, Quebec, the choice between Buffalo and Vancouver meant little to Perreault at the time. He didn’t know anything about either city. He did know that playing for an expansion franchise would give him a better chance to make the team right away, which was a priority.
He also didn’t know whether he'd be the top pick at all. Coming off of an outstanding career with the Junior Canadiens, Perreault was a highly-touted prospect, but he wasn’t 100-percent confident he'd go No. 1 until the day he was drafted.
"I was not sure about it because all year round they were talking about Dale Tallon, Rick MacLeish and [Reggie] Leach," he said. "The thing is, from Christmas until the end of the season, they talked about who were going to be the first five guys, who was going to be first. Nobody knew."
Once he was selected by Buffalo, he got used to his new home – and his new League – rather quickly. Perreault led the team with 72 points (38+34) as a rookie, which tied him for 15th in the League. The city had a new team with its own superstar, and it welcomed both with open arms.
"It was great," he said. "Buffalo has great fans, and they'd been waiting so long to have a franchise. It was great. The first game in Buffalo was unbelievable. I remember, at the end of the year, the fans were saying 'thank you, thank you Sabres.' It's a great franchise, a great city. We just need a Cup now."
Perreault thinks the modern-day Sabres are in good hands. It was another dynamic young rookie, Jack Eichel, who led the team in goals last season, and Perreault's seen his skill first-hand. He recalls watching Eichel play for Team USA in the 2013 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, a tournament that also included future NHL forwards Connor McDavid and Dylan Larkin, among others.
"I heard a lot about Jack and McDavid and I was watching them. During that tournament, Jack was the best player on the ice," Perreault said. "He's got a great vision of the game. He's got a great shot, great speed … He's going to be a very good hockey player in this League."
Perreault will be in town when another moment is etched into Sabres history at the 2016 NHL Draft, which will be held at First Niagara Center on June 24 and 25. The Sabres are slated to pick at No. 8, and another player will follow in the footsteps of Perreault and Eichel and everyone in-between.
All the while, the No. 11 will hang from the rafters above, a reminder not only of Gilbert Perreault's Hall of Fame career in Buffalo, but also of the spin of a wheel that got him here.