How Acquired: 1983 NHL Entry Draft, 31st overall by Buffalo
Buffalo Stats: (1983-89, 1990-91): 345 games, 116-154-270, 142 PIMs
Career NHL Stats: (1983-1996): 656 games, 177-259-436, 285 PIMs
For many Buffalo Sabres fans, their most vivid memories of John Tucker may be from April 9-10, 1988, in Games Three and Four of the Adams Division semifinal between the Sabres and Boston Bruins.
Down two games to none, Tucker became the only player in franchise history to score four goals in a playoff game as Buffalo won 6-2. The very next night, Tucker scored the overtime game-winner as part of a five-point (2+3) effort in a 6-5 victory.
Tucker remembers that captivating weekend not just for his accomplishments on the ice, but for who was in the stands watching.
“I lost my dad when he was only 58, and he was at that game,” Tucker said. “That’s a memory of mine that’s pretty fond in my heart; that he was able to see the best weekend of hockey in my career.
“Parents put so much time and effort in, and you have so many accolades along the way, but to have my parents at that game was probably my best memory in hockey.”
Now head coach of the Buffalo Jr. Sabres, a Junior ‘A’ team of 16- to 20-year-olds in the Ontario Junior Hockey League that plays at HARBORCENTER, the 50-year-old Tucker is sharing his world of hockey experience accumulated throughout a 17-year professional career that spanned three continents.
Tucker’s NHL career began with the Sabres as an 18-year-old after being selected in the second round of the 1983 NHL Entry Draft. The 1983-84 Sabres featured five other players under 20 years old, all first-round selections from the 1982 and 1983 drafts: forwards Dave Andreychuk, Paul Cyr and Adam Creighton; defenseman Phil Housley, and goaltender Tom Barrasso.
“My rookie year and the year before my draft year, the Sabres had six first-round picks,” Tucker said. “That time with the Sabres was a rebuilding period, and we all got a chance to play. It really benefitted us, luckily they were in a rebuilding stage and we got to start our careers together early on.”
Tucker and his younger teammates continued to grow under the tutelage of some of Buffalo’s key veterans such as Gilbert Perreault, Mike Foligno and Lindy Ruff. Playing on a team coached by the legendary Scotty Bowman also taught Tucker many things that he has retained throughout his career and into his current coaching opportunity.
“Now that I’m coaching, I understand how smart he was,” Tucker said. “He was great with matchups, great at keeping their best guys off the ice and getting our right guys on the ice. We learned a lot. We were young and it was a lot different back then, but we learned a ton. I was very lucky to be able to do that.”
After his first six seasons in Buffalo, Tucker was traded to the Washington Capitals just eight games into the 1989-90 season. The following offseason, Tucker returned to Buffalo only to be dealt to the New York Islanders after 18 games.
Over the next decade, Tucker traveled great distances to continue playing hockey. After a season with HC Asiago in Italy, Tucker joined the expansion Tampa Bay Lightning and played four more years in the NHL.
In 1996, Tucker’s NHL career came to an end, but he still had the desire to play professional hockey. Along with his wife Lynn, a Williamsville native, Tucker went on to play four more years of hockey internationally, including three seasons with Kokudo, a professional club located in Tokyo, Japan.
“My wife loves to travel, and we kind of just decided that I’d try and play hockey a little longer,” Tucker said. “In 2000 when my son was born, my wife didn’t want to take our newborn over to Tokyo, so we settled down and set up base camp down in Tampa.”
While living in Tampa, Tucker made great strides in providing opportunities for kids to play the game of hockey, taking leadership roles with hockey rinks around the area. Tucker says there are now about 1,000 kids playing ice hockey in the Tampa region.
One of his most recent projects, the Xtra Ice facility, is a smaller rink that was influenced by designs used in three rinks throughout the greater Toronto region by a teammate of Tucker’s from his lone season in Washington, Mike Gartner.
“They’re 140 by 65 feet. In Tampa, with the cost of electricity, the big rinks down there spend thousands in electric in the hot months,” he said. “With USA Hockey and the American Development Model, working on skills in a small area where the game is really resorted to, a lot of it is small area games. It’s just a perfect facility to work on individual skills and shooting. It’s really taking off in Tampa.”
Tucker’s hockey focus has now shifted north from Tampa. Last April, Tucker was named head coach of the Buffalo Jr. Sabres after Michael Peca relinquished the role to focus on his duties as general manager while also becoming the director of hockey operations for the entire Jr. Sabres organization.
With his first season as head coach winding down, Tucker is amazed at the changes in the youth hockey scenery throughout Buffalo. Not only are young players opting to play for local organizations like the Jr. Sabres, but they are also staying nearby to play junior or college hockey.
“This program is going to just build really good hockey players: the facility, the coaching, the entire package that the kids get,” he said. “We’re seeing it now just one year in with the junior team, the calls and the emails and the interest with the kids in this organization playing in the U-20, it’s just going to filter down.”
The future of junior hockey in Buffalo excites Tucker as he looks ahead with the Jr. Sabres. Five players from his team have made commitments to play college hockey next season, and all five are playing throughout the Western New York region. That is a trend Tucker expects to see continue to develop into the future.
“At the junior level, what I’m seeing is that kids that are [thinking of] leaving home at 15 or 16 to play in better leagues, they’re seeing that with what this program is offering, they’re not going to have to leave,” he said. “With a great program and great hockey to play at home in Buffalo, they can stay home and develop and then go on when they’re older to their careers or schools, wherever they end up.”