Gilbert Perreault is the cornerstone of the Buffalo Sabres’ franchise. As fans we may debate who the greatest player in team history is in terms of skill, but for forty years there has only been one face of the Buffalo Sabres. The man who is often considered the original Sabre. The man who the franchise was built around and who carried it to a Stanley Cup final in just its fifth year of existence. The man who was the ultimate combination of a run away train barreling down the ice and a finely tuned athlete who could turn on a dime and make any defense man or goalie in the NHL look foolish. Gilbert Perreault is the Sabres. Sadly many fans never got to see Bert play. Perreault had skill rarely seen in the NHL. He was the rock Punch Imlach built upon.
Today, fans learned what Perreault means to the Sabres. At today’s press conference, the Buffalo Sabres’ new owner pointed out “the old guys”. He asked where Perreault was and upon seeing Bert was literally reduced to tears. Choking back the tears Pegula stammered out “you are my hero”. That is all younger fans need to know about Gilbert Perreault. It was a nod to the franchise’s tradition and history, things often dismissed or completely ignored. The Sabres have no Cups in their trophy case, but they have a proud and rich history littered with players who can make grown men weep when they think about their playing days.
That is what tradition is, especially with sports teams. It’s recognizing history, embracing it, proving why it matters and handing off the love for the team to the next generation of fans who may not have seen the older players, but who acknowledge their greatness, their place in the team’s tradition. I think back to my childhood and I remember Roger Crozier in net. No Sabre in history ever played in as much pain as Roger Crozier experienced. The man literally played his guts out. As exciting as Bert was, Crozier was the man who made the team respectable in its earliest days. I think of Roger Crozier and I do find the need to tell people I have dust in my eye. I think of Brian Spencer’s demons and that same piece of dust comes into my eye. It’s the same piece of dust that grabs my attention when I see stories of Clint Malarchuk and find myself cheering for him in life as much as I cheered for him when he was in the Sabres’ net. I remember the collective intake of breath when Perreault grabbed the puck behind his own net and tore down the ice with a speed, ferocity and grace that has never reappeared in a Sabres’ jersey.
HSBC’s ice sits on top of Seymour Knox III’s initials. Initials carved while the founder of the franchise was dying. Initials that branded the new arena with the tradition and history of the previous twenty six years. Engraved the memory of Bert, Rico, Robert, Tickets, Luuuuuuuuuce, Ramsay. It’s the memories of playoff wars with the Bruins that resulted in ice tinged red with blood and year after year of disappointment. Say Brad Park to an older Sabres fan and we all shiver in disgust at the memory. What Sabre fan didn’t shout at Rory Fitzpatrick to look down in game seven against Carolina as a plucky, never say die Sabres team finally succumbed to a myriad of injuries? The Earl of Bud, the Peanut Guy in front of the Aud, Lower Gold, Upper Gold, Red, Blue and Orange nosebleeds. Those initials bring back the memory of Punch Imlach pushing Jerry Korab’s button so skillfully that the hulking blue liners smashed the Soviets. Those initials bring back Jim Kelley’s favorite story of my favorite Sabre – Mike Ramsey. As Kelley tells it the Sabres were about to set a franchise record for most losses at home. A badly injured and aging Mike Ramsey played that night. He threw his body in front of shots, he screamed at his team mates on the bench, he showed the leadership, grit and heart that made a kid who saw him win gold at Lake Placid admire him so much. The Sabres won that game. It was a meaningless game in terms of the standings but it was not meaningless to Mike Ramsey. Kelley said when he asked Ramsey about why he played that night, why he hurt himself so badly to win a meaningless game Ramsey looked at him and asked if a loss tonight would have set a Sabres record for losing at home. Kelley confirmed the fact. Ramsey then simply said “we’re not setting that kind of record, not on my watch”. Sadly we’ve lost Jim Kelley and those SHK initials bring back the memories of his stories told on the radio and those he published for decades on the sport we all love so much.
There are those who will snicker at the sappiness of such emotions. Fair enough. If it’s not your thing, it’s not your thing. As a sports fan frankly I live for those sappy moments. Moments when I turn to a stranger next to me and hug them in sheer joy. Moments at a bar when we all shout with joy when the team scores or scream encouragement on the rare occasion a fight breaks out on the ice. Those initials carry the love for the city of Buffalo that Seymour Knox had and his family still has. Those initials carry the love for the team that seems to find more spectacular and heart breaking ways to lose. Those initials carry the appreciation one of the city’s true patriarchs had for fans. So while I do wonder if Terry Pegula will back up his words with actions, I also think about the meaning of tradition and how important it is to anyone, especially to fans of a team.
The Pegula honeymoon period will eventually wear out. In time he’ll hear the usual complaints from fans about general managers, coaches, players, “game presentation”, parking, etc. But today, even more than hope, Pegula gave Sabres fans a rare gift. The man who owns “our” team is “one of us”. He’s a fan. He looks at Perreault and the memories invoked by the man bring him to tears. That was the predominate thought in my head during the press conference and one that has been with me all day since. Terry Pegula paid the ultimate tribute to the team’s tradition. He dug up the franchise’s cornerstone and held it up for all of us to see. This is Gilbert Perreault. He was a great player. He meant something to us, he meant a lot to us. As a Sabres fan isn’t there one player who brings that kind of emotion out of you? The Sabres are truly something only money can buy and money can sustain. But without fans a franchise dies. Without a soul, a franchise merely exists, it doesn’t live. Today Terry Pegula gave the Sabres’ franchise back its soul.