By Bill Hoppe
Not even last year, when Cody McCormick appeared 81 times, could the versatile forward enjoy the special feeling of playing in an NHL home opener.
In his first full big league campaign, the 28-year-old turned heads, quickly becoming the Sabres’ most consistent physical presence. The veteran sat once as a healthy scratch, however, way back in October, when hadn’t full proved himself yet.
It was the home opener.
“I’ve been to a lot of them,” McCormick said Friday prior to the Sabres’ 4-3 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes that christened the season at the First Niagara Center. “I’ve had great seats to them, but this’ll be the first one I played in.”
McCormick certainly experienced a memorable first in his 274th NHL game, playing in possibly the most anticipated opening night in the Sabres’ 41-year history. He received a warm ovation from the excited capacity crowd of 18,690 fans during pregame introductions.
Sitting last year helped buoy McCormick, who had been on a yo-yo from the NHL to the minors for seven years, to a career season. He had only stuck one entire year before, playing 55 games with Colorado in 2008-09.
“When you sit out a game, you never want to do it again,” McCormick said. “It’s something that kind of drives you to do something every game. You want to make sure you’re in the lineup, and you got to be noticed every game, I guess.”
McCormick got noticed as the Sabres struggled early, scoring twice and fighting three times by his ninth game. It was a harbinger of the future. He finished with eight goals, 20 points and 142 penalty minutes and 16 fighting majors, both team highs.
He can play center or the wing, and he possesses enough skill to skate on any line and take a regular shift.
“Cody gave us everything he had,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “He gave us a physical presence. He was there for every teammate throughout the year. … I think he probably exceeded what we thought we were going to get.
“He earned a spot. We didn’t give him one, and he didn’t get down after sitting out one game. He came back and played well for us.”
On July 1, McCormick signed a three-year, $3.6 million contract. He made only $550,000 last year, when he had his first one-way contract.
“It’s something I wasn’t too familiar with, a three-year contract,” McCormick said. “I’ve always signed one-year (deals). My family and me were always wondering at the end of the year where I might be. Just packing everything up, it’s a feeling of insecurity a bit.”
What happened last season? How did McCormick suddenly morph from a journeyman into an asset?
“I don’t even know,” McCormick said. “I didn’t change too much from Colorado. I think I matured more as a player in different situations, so I think that helped. … Maybe Colorado saw me as more of a basic player in their system, and it was time to try somewhere else.”
Clearly, McCormick’s 2009-10 season under Kevin Dineen in Portland transformed him. The coach threw McCormick into every situation, finally allowing him showcase his skill. By the postseason, McCormick had forced a recall to the Sabres. He hasn’t left since.
“He had confidence in me for a lot of situations in the games that I probably didn’t play in before,” McCormick said. “That’s something that you grasp as a player and you really want to finish the job for someone that put you in that spot.”
The Sabres used the same lineup for the third time, scratching forward Matt Ellis, defenseman Mike Weber (both healthy) and center Jochen Hecht (concussion).