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Memory of Barnes still fresh in Buffalo minds

by Bob Matuszak / Dallas Stars

BUFFALO -- Exactly seven years ago -- on March 10, 2003 -- the Buffalo Sabres bid Stu Barnes farewell, sending their captain to the Stars in a trade that sent shockwaves throughout the Buffalo community. Seven years later, Barnes still remains one of the most beloved Sabres in franchise history.

Barnes in December of 2001
"I was here for four years and loved every minute of it," Dallas' assistant coach said on Tuesday after his current team practiced in preparation for an encounter with his former team on Wednesday night. "It was a blast, and I really enjoyed my time. It was a great experience, and to come back years after and spend some time in the city for a couple of days it's always a lot of fun. I love going down to HSBC Arena. There are still a lot of familiar faces involved in the Sabres organization, and it's always fun to see them and say hello to them."

Barnes may have played for the Sabres for just a handful of campaigns, but his legacy continues to be lasting among both the hockey enthusiasts as well as the casual observers in Buffalo.

"I'll never forget when the Sabres used to have a carnival every year at HSBC, and all the players used to hang around and play games with the kids," longtime Sabres fan Ed Kamela said. "We saw Stu in the hall and asked him to sign my son's jersey, which happened to be a Barnes jersey. He was the nicest guy."

On the ice, Barnes always competed at a high level. Not the swiftest of skaters, or biggest of players, he used his intellect and mental toughness to overcome any obstacles -- and there were plenty of them to navigate through in Buffalo in the early 2000's.

During Barnes' short tenure along the shores of Lake Erie, the Sabres permitted a captain to sit out an entire season because of a contract dispute, were forced into a trade involving the best goalie in the world, and seemed destined to relocate after filing for bankruptcy

Yes, controversy certainly reigned supreme after Y2K in the Sabres organization, and Barnes found himself right in the middle of it.

"There were a lot of things outside of hockey that were going on and swirling around the team at the time, that's for sure," he said. "But looking back at the whole thing, I think the positive part and the silver lining was that we held together and stuck together as a group of players, coaches, and management. The city stuck behind the team and was always supportive of it, and guys went out and worked their hardest and played hard for the team and the city. There were rough roads, but it was nice to see how everybody stuck together and stayed committed to trying to be the best team on the ice."

Barnes went bust before going bang when he arrived in Buffalo at the end of the '98-99 season in a March trade with Pittsburgh. In 17 games with the Sabres, he didn't get a sniff of the back of the net while accumulating just four assists.

But once the postseason started, his net worth climbed. In 21 playoff contests, Barnes had seven goals and 10 points, including the game winning tally against Toronto in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals that gave the Sabres a 2-1 series lead.

But Barnes was denied his Stanley Cup quest when Brett Hull scored the championship winner for the Stars against the Sabres in triple-overtime in Game 6 of the '99 Cup Final, just as he had been rejected in 1996 when Marc Crawford's Colorado Avalanche swept Barnes' Florida Panthers in the Finals.

"The Dallas series was a tremendous series," Barnes said. "We had a chance to win it, and Dallas had a chance to win it. I just try to remember how much fun it was, and how close it was, and how competitive it was."

But the "fun" really began for Barnes when he was named the 12th captain in Sabres history to start the 2001-02 season. The Alberta native took over for the departed Michael Peca, who was traded to the New York Islanders on June 24, 2001 after Peca held out the entire 2000-01 season because of a contract squabble.

One week after Peca was dealt, All-World goaltender Domink Hasek orchestrated his own trade to the Detroit Red Wings, leaving the Sabres without two of their key components that faced the Stars in that '99 Stanley Cup Final series.

Then, in January 2003, the Sabres filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after former owner and CEO of Adelphia Communications, John Rigas, had been accused of embezzling company funds to purchase and operate the team.

During that troubled financial time, the team's ability to pay its players became a hot topic. But Barnes stood tall, and his calm, cool and collective nature proved to be instrumental in soothing his teammates' nerves.

"As players you're job is to be the best you can be on the ice and do whatever you can to win hockey games," Barnes said. "We tried to focus on what we could handle, and that's what we could do on the ice."

The Barnes era in Buffalo ended when the captain was traded to the Stars in exchange for Michael Ryan and Dallas' second-round pick in 2003 (a selection that wound up being Branislav Fabry, who never played in an NHL game).

Despite disappearing after the trade, he never vanished from the hearts of western New Yorkers. At Tuesday's Stars practice, a woman wearing Barnes' No. 41 black and red Sabres jersey stopped him en route to the coach's dressing room for a quick picture. Barnes happily obliged.

"I'll always be thankful for how well the fans treated me," he said. "They were great."

And they're just as thankful for allowing Barnes to touch their lives for a brief moment.

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