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100 Things Sabres Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die
By Sal Maiorana
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2012 Sal Maiorana
All rights reserved.
Gilbert Perreault — The Original Sabre
Elvis Presley shook his hips. Frank Sinatra crooned. Bruce Springsteen sang his working class anthems. Barnum and Bailey pitched their big tops. Olympic gold medalists Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill performed their figure skating artistry and basketball Hall of Famers Bob McAdoo, Bob Lanier, and Calvin Murphy buried jump shots at Memorial Auditorium. But for those who saw Gilbert Perreault play night after night for more than 16 years as a member of the Buffalo Sabres, he was possibly the greatest act to ever perform in the old downtown arena.
Perreault was the original Sabre, the very first player drafted in 1970 when the NHL granted Buffalo an expansion franchise. From the moment he jumped over the boards, you got the feeling that something remarkable might happen — a sentiment that was shared by his teammates, opponents, and fans alike.
"Gilbert Perreault, when he went behind the net and took that puck, we stood up on the bench half the time, this guy was so thrilling," said Craig Ramsay, Perreault's teammate for 14 years and his coach for about two weeks in November of 1986.
It would begin with Perreault wheeling through the Sabres zone, gathering speed with every mighty stride as his skates cut into the ice like miniature chain saws. It was usually in the neutral zone where he'd meet his first resistance. At that point the level of excitement jumped a few notches and fans' rear ends crept closer to the edge of their seats as he maneuvered his way through the opposition like a skier negotiating a slalom course.
With the first wave of defenders drowning in his wake, Perreault would cross the enemy blue line with the puck seemingly glued to his stick, his hair blowing in a gusty breeze of his own creation, and the muscles of those watching got tense with anticipation. One defenseman would try to make a play, and Perreault would zoom past him the way Jimmie Johnson dusts his NASCAR pursuers. As another defender approached, Perreault would corkscrew him into the ice, and the fans would rise to their feet, thinking the same thing as the panicked goaltender: he had no chance. A deke to the left, another to the right, maybe a third just for the hell of it, and when the carnage was over, the puck was in the net, Perreault was being hugged by his teammates, the fans' eyes were bulging from their sockets, and you couldn't wait to get home and watch the replay on the 11:00 news.
"To this day, there isn't anybody that I talk about — even Bobby Orr, with the great speed he had — there's nobody who gave me more trouble than Gilbert," said Denis Potvin, former Islander defenseman and Perreault's fellow Hockey Hall of Famer. "He was an outstanding athlete and with that wide stride and the way he handled the puck, he was the toughest one-on-one player I ever had to deal with."
The late Rick Martin, Perreault's longtime linemate in what was known as the French Connection (the Perreault, Martin, and Rene Robert line), admitted there were times when he was guilty of getting caught up watching Perreault work his magic. "He'd come down and make a move and you'd say, 'How the hell did he do that?'" Martin said. "The toughest part about playing with Gilbert is that you had to guard against just standing there watching him. But you had to keep in motion and make sure you were in position because eventually he'd decide that he was tired enough and now he was going to make a play."
Perreault was born in Victoriaville, Quebec, the town where Victoriaville hockey sticks are made, and he had one of those sticks in his hands at a very early age. He was a child prodigy; in fact, by the time he joined the Montreal Junior Canadiens, he was a can't-miss NHL prospect. During his last season as a junior, 1969–1970, Perreault was named MVP of the Ontario Hockey Association with 51 goals and 70 assists for 121 points in 54 games. Combined with his output of 37–60–97 in 54 games the year before, that added up to 88–130–218 in 108 games.
When a carnival-style wheel spin gave Buffalo the first pick in the 1970 NHL Draft, Perreault was set in place as the franchise cornerstone. "I wanted Gilbert Perreault as I had never wanted a hockey player before," Punch Imlach once said. "The hair just stood up on my neck at what he could do. He was a superstar in the making, the man the Buffalo franchise could be built around."
Perreault was the NHL's rookie of the year when he scored a then-record 38 goals; he also led the Sabres to the playoffs in just their third year of existence and into the Stanley Cup Finals in their fifth year. By the time he retired, he had recorded 512 goals and 814 assists for 1,326 points, seventh-most in league history at the time.
Perreault played in All-Star Games and Canada Cup tournaments, was inducted into the Sabres Hall of Fame, had his No. 11 retired by the team, and received the ultimate individual honor in 1990: enshrinement into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
But all the accolades do not make up for the one thing Perreault lacks, the only thing he ever wanted for himself, the Sabres, and their loyal fans. "My vision was to win the Cup," he said. "I won on every team I was on from the pee wees to bantam to midget to junior. I won two Memorial cups as a junior, and the only thing I didn't win was the Stanley Cup. That was the only sad part — that in Buffalo we didn't win the Cup.
"Through the '70s we were building up to it, so we thought we would be back even when we didn't win in 1975. I really thought we would be there for the next four or five years after that and we'd win one or two, but it didn't happen. I don't know why. We had a lot of good teams, we were close, maybe a player or two players away from winning. You look back at a long career and there's no Cup, and that's something that's missing."CHAPTER 2
The beautiful thing about hindsight is that it's always a crystal-clear 20/20. But seriously, did the Chicago Blackhawks really need much foresight when it came to evaluating Dominik Hasek's future in the National Hockey League?
True, when Hasek and fellow rookie goaltender Ed Belfour were both on the Chicago roster in 1990–1991, Belfour earned the No. 1 job in training camp, and it did turn out to be a wise choice by coach Mike Keenan. Belfour won the Vezina Trophy (for best goaltender) and the Calder Trophy (for NHL rookie of the year) that season, and followed it up the next year — with Hasek as his primary backup and seeing action in 20 games — by guiding the Blackhawks into the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in nearly 20 years.
Still, in his brief playing time during that second season, Hasek proved that he was a sure-fire NHL talent, and further cemented his status with a solid performance in relief of Belfour in Game 4 of the Finals against Pittsburgh (even though Chicago ended up losing the game and the series that night).
Which brings us back to foresight: what were the Blackhawks thinking a few months later when they decided Jimmy Waite would work out just fine as Belfour's backup, and that it would therefore be a good idea to trade Hasek to the Sabres for goalie Stephane Beauregard?
Whatever Chicago's reasons were, Sabres fans are just happy the Blackhawks felt Hasek was replaceable. This trade, put together by general manager Gerry Meehan, was the greatest trade in Sabres history, bar none.
Beauregard was a middling player who'd spent parts of three seasons with the Winnipeg Jets before coming to the Sabres in June 1992 in exchange for winger Christian Ruutu. Beauregard never even went to training camp with Buffalo because the trade for Hasek went through in August. And get this: Beauregard was only in Chicago for three days before being shipped off to Winnipeg in exchange for — drum roll please — Ruutu. You can't make this stuff up.
So, if you want to say that in the end, the Sabres basically traded Ruutu for Hasek, that's fine. It was still the greatest trade in franchise history.
During his nine years in Buffalo, Hasek was widely considered to be the greatest goaltender in the NHL — and, really, the whole world. He won the Vezina Trophy six times and captured the Hart Trophy — presented to the NHL's most valuable player — in back-to-back seasons. That achievement was particularly impressive because he was the first goalie to win the Hart since Jacques Plante 35 years earlier; in fact, he's still the only goalie to win it twice. He also backstopped his native Czechoslovakia to the gold medal in the 1998 Winter Olympics, and lifted a mediocre 1999 Sabres team to the Stanley Cup Finals.
"He really changed the style and influence of what goaltenders do," Wayne Gretzky once said of the man who became known as "the Dominator." "It used to be that that guy was just in the net. He [Hasek] changed all that. He made himself a part of a hockey club and a hockey team's success. He's a unique athlete, one of the best goaltenders to ever play the game."
Hasek had what many described as a "slinky" for a spine, and was able to contort his body into unthinkable positions to make saves. "I was born with very flexible legs," he told author Randy Schultz. "I can remember when I was nine or 10 years old, I could do almost a 180-degree split. And even as I got older, I didn't really lose much of that flexibility."
Hasek said he never truly learned how to play the goalie position properly as a youth in Czechoslovakia, which is how he came by his unique style. Playing tennis helped to quicken his hands and reflexes, while playing soccer developed his leg strength. Along with his unusual, Gumby-like body, the other keys to his brilliance were his positioning and the unpredictability of his reactions when shooters approached, which threw them off. Watching Hasek when he was playing for the Detroit Red Wings, all-time Wings great and Hockey Hall of Famer Gordie Howe once remarked, "He looks like he's guessing, but he guesses right a lot."
"They say I am unorthodox, I flop around the ice like some kind of fish," Hasek once said. "I say who cares, as long as I stop the puck?"
By the time Hasek was 16, he was playing at the first-division level in his homeland. He made the Czech national team at 18, and by 21 he had earned a place as a starter. He ultimately won five Czech goaltender of the year awards and three Czech player of the year awards.
Although he was drafted by the Blackhawks in 1983 when he was 18, Hasek was unable to leave his home due to the potential trouble a defection to the United States would have created for his parents, brother, and sister in their Communist homeland. But when Communism crumbled in 1990, Hasek was able to leave and, following two frustrating years serving as Belfour's caddie and then another year backing up Grant Fuhr in Buffalo, he burst into stardom during the 1993–1994 season. He won his first Vezina Trophy and became the first goaltender since Bernie Parent of the Flyers in 1973–1974 to post a goals- against average below 2.00 — his 1.95 mark and .930 save percentage led the NHL.
Hasek would go on to lead the league in save percentage for six years in a row. His 2.11 GAA in 1994–1995 was No. 1, and on four occasions he was tops in shutouts, including a Sabres-record 13 in 1997–1998. He owns eight of the nine best single-season save percentage marks in Sabres history, the top six goals-against averages, and is the team's career goaltending leader in GAA (2.20), shutouts (55), minutes played (28,664), and games (491).
Throughout his tenure in Buffalo, Hasek was, to say the least, enigmatic. He was prone to fits of anger, which were rooted mainly in his desire to be perfect. He also endured a trying period during 1997 when he and coach Ted Nolan were at odds, and Hasek was accused of quitting on the team during the playoffs that year, citing a sprained knee. When Buffalo News columnist Jim Kelley questioned Hasek's commitment, Hasek angrily confronted the writer and ripped his shirt during a brief scuffle — an incident that Hasek has regretted ever since.
At the same time, Hasek could be philanthropic with his time and money, most notably when he spent $1 million to found Hasek's Heroes, a youth hockey program for inner-city kids in Buffalo that is still thriving long after his 2001 departure from the Sabres.
Hasek went to Detroit in 2002 and won a Stanley Cup in his first season with the Red Wings. After retiring and sitting out 2003, he returned to the NHL and played for four more years (with the Red Wings and the Ottawa Senators), then for a year in the Russian league at the age of 46, before finally retiring once and for all in 2011.
"He's the Wayne Gretzky of his position," said former Sabres coach and general manager John Muckler. Hasek's crowning achievement will be his forthcoming induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible in 2014.
The Dominator Era Begins
Before Dominik Hasek came to the Sabres in a trade from Chicago, there wasn't a whole lot to know about him except for the fact that he was a native of Czechoslovakia who had a rather unorthodox goaltending style.
Hasek left the Czech Republic national team to play for the Blackhawks, but with Ed Belfour firmly entrenched in goal, there was no room for Hasek, who spent much of his first year in North America playing in the minor leagues.
But when Belfour was sidelined by a hamstring injury, Hasek was recalled in March 1991. In only his second NHL start, at the Aud against the Sabres, Hasek made 29 saves and earned his first career victory as Chicago topped Buffalo 5–3.
"I have waited for this game almost six months," Hasek said that evening.
In that same game, Sabres center and future Hockey Hall of Famer Dale Hawerchuk registered his 1,000th NHL point on a second-period goal against Hasek.CHAPTER 3
Welcome to the Stanley Cup Finals
On the bus ride back from Toronto following a 1974–1975 preseason loss to the Maple Leafs, new Sabres coach Floyd Smith was incensed by the way his team had played — and he didn't much care that the game meant nothing in the standings. Smith was Buffalo's original captain in 1970, and then took over as coach from Joe Crozier.
"If I had some other way of getting home, I wouldn't ride on the bus with them," Smith spat, sounding every bit like general manager Punch Imlach, who was never afraid to share his criticisms. "I saw things out there I couldn't believe of NHL players making the kind of money these guys are making. I don't mind losing, but you have to give an effort."
Thankfully, there weren't too many nights when Smith felt like that during what was to become a magnificent season. The once-laughable expansionist Sabres took the NHL by storm in only their fifth year of existence, advancing all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Excerpted from 100 Things Sabres Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die by Sal Maiorana. Copyright © 2012 Sal Maiorana. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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