By Bill Hoppe
On Thursday, in a hotel meeting room more than 4,000 miles away in Helsinki, Finland, coach Lindy Ruff addressed the Sabres on the eve of the season opener. A hockey bag filled with jerseys was beside him.
He called up five Sabres, and with the firm handshake and special sweater he gave each of them, the homegrown players received a not-so-subtle message: it’s now your time.
Ruff awarded Paul Gaustad, Derek Roy, Drew Stafford and Thomas Vanek jerseys with an “A” for assistant captain. Finally, he pulled out a Jason Pominville jersey featuring the prestigious captain’s “C.”
In the recent past, the Sabres had been led by outsiders — Daniel Briere, Chris Drury and Craig Rivet — as the core group of youngsters endured adversity, triumphs and became veterans.
Now, as they enter their late 20s and early 30s, it’s their team. The Sabres will sink or swim with them.
“I really feel as an organization it’s time,” Ruff said Tuesday after the Sabres practiced inside the First Niagara Center. “If we’re going to push through, it needs to be that group of players that leads the way for us. (Goalie Ryan Miller is) part of that group. They played together in Rochester. They’ve been here a good period of time.”
Gaustad and Pominville started with Miller in Rochester in 2002-03. Roy joined them a year later, and then Vanek came in 2004-05. They all graduated to the Sabres in 2005-06 following the lockout. Stafford made his Sabres debut five years ago next month.
“We’re five guys that have grown in the system, grown up together and had success together, had some tough times together,” Pominville said. “I think we’re all guys that hold each other accountable, want to push each other to be better.”
Miller said Ruff’s faith in his own players “means we’re the ones who really know how we’re trying to do things around here.”
“When you haven’t won a Stanley Cup, you’re always searching a little bit, kind of figure out what can work,” he said. “I think we’ve had good success here. I think the guys that Lindy picked are representative of that.”
Ruff added: “We believe the core is strong and they like playing for each other. And the message that they send to the young guys is, ‘You work together, you play together, good things could happen.’”
The players’ tightness makes them unique. Barely out of their teens, they formed lifelong bonds in Rochester as they scrapped to make the NHL.
“It’s weird that we’ve grown up together and not only are we teammates, we’re tremendous friends, all of us,” Gaustad said. “I think on teams, the closer they are, the harder they play for each other. We’ve had some good times. We’ve had some rough times. We’ve had to go through them together. All of us have had to make our path to the NHL.”
The unflappable Pominville, despite being a second-round pick, had arguably the most arduous path to the big leagues.
The 28-year-old winger spent almost four years in Rochester, even clearing waivers in 2005. Gaustad remembered him skating on the fourth line as an AHL rookie. He also recalled Pominville fearlessly jumping into a pile of players once. An opponent got him good, too.
“The guy was 6-foot-8,” Gaustad said. “He just tossed Jason.”
It didn’t matter.
Today, to a man, Ruff and Pominville’s teammates who know him best say he hasn’t changed one bit.
“That’s one of his best attributes,” Miller said. “You see him on the ice, whether it’s game one or the playoffs, it’s the same game. It’s the kind of person he is. … He’s definitely evolved, but he’s been pretty much the same type of person.
“He’s with the same girl, married his sweetheart. You know what you’re going to get from Pommer. I think consistency is a good thing, too.”
Pominville added: “A letter on my jersey’s not going to change the way I react in the room or on the ice or in my everyday life.”
Ruff called Pominville “one of the most prepared players,” someone who arrives early and pays attention to details. Gaustad said he’s an “extreme professional.”
“He’s a guy that I think everybody looks to on how professional he is,” Ruff said. “He’s been probably our most consistent player in all areas of the ice – from penalty killing … to top defensive situations. …
“He just seems to be the right guy at this time.”
Ruff excited by Bills’ success
Count Sabres coach Lindy Ruff among those energized by the Bills’ surprising 4-1 start.
“I hope they keep winning and we keep winning because it makes this a fun city to live in,” said Ruff, whose Sabres are 2-0.
Ruff, a big Bills fan, said the dramatic fashion in which they’ve been triumphing makes it even better.
“They’ve had a never-say-die (attitude),” he said. “They’ve been resilient. They’ve got some players now, if you look at Fred Jackson and those guys, he’s got MVP status right now if you’re watching the games. I like the fact they were kind of wrote off by everybody and most of (the media), probably.
“It’s fun carrying that underdog role. We’ve been there. I think they’re surprising the heck out of a lot of us. It’s great for the city.”
Sabres center Jochen Hecht (possible concussion) had his first contact practice Tuesday. Ruff won’t rule him out for Friday’s home opener against Carolina.