Under-appreciated. Unsung. Overlooked. Incognito. Sometimes unremarkable.
Love them or hate them, the star players are the ones who get all the accolades, all the glory and all the press. Quick, who scored the winning goal in game 7 of this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs? Time’s up. I had to look it up, too. Patrice Bergeron tallied the winner in a 4-0 Bruins victory, but often it’s the 3rd line grinder or some obscure player who hadn’t scored in 6 weeks. Now, don’t get me wrong. Patrice is a great player, and I would take him on my team any day of the week, but he isn’t exactly a household name the way Sid, Ilya, Ovie and Zdeno are. There have been hundreds of players in this great league who have been just as important as the superstars. I’m not just talking about securing a championship with a timely goal either. I’m referring to the glue players, the ones who do the little things. The guys who work the trenches, lay out the big hit or keep the big time players off the score sheet. Players who come to the rink, work their a$$es off, punch out and go home.
For every Wayne Gretzky, there was a Esa Tikkanen. For every Mario Lemieux, there was a Joey Mullen. For every Joe Thornton, there is a Ryane Clowe, and for every Gilbert Perreault, Alexander Mogilny, Dale Hawerchuk and Pat LaFontaine there are these guys:
THE BUFFALO SABRES ALL-TIME UNSUNG TEAM
(I have omitted goaltenders, because they are constantly in the spotlight)
- John Van Boxmeer…”Boxy” was a former draft pick of the Montreal Canadiens who was reluctantly traded by the Habs to the Colorado Rockies because there really wasn’t room for the talented kid on a deep Canadiens roster. When Scotty Bowman left Montreal for Buffalo, a team clearly in need of a power-play quarterback, he traded Rene Robert to the Rockies for Van Boxmeer. The trade immediately paid dividends, as JVB netted 11 goals and 51 points his first year in Buffalo, while posting a remarkable +40 rating. Boxy had 69 and 68 points the following two years, thanks in part to his low, hard shot from the point (obviously, Alexei Zhitnik never saw Van Boxmeer play). Number 4 was a fixture on the Sabres power play, where his easy-to-tip shot resulted in many a power play goal. JVB is an unfairly forgotten player when former Sabres defensemen are mentioned.
- Jason Woolley…Remember game 1 of the 1999 Stanley Cup finals? I’m sure Jason Woolley does. It was at 15:30 of first overtime period when Woolley took “the shot heard ’round the hockey world”, giving Buffalo a 1-0 lead in the series. In fact, Woolley had an outstanding ’99 playoffs, with 15 points in 21 games. Woolley was a slick skating, offensive rearguard on a team with such defensemen as Alexei Zhitnik, Richard Smehlik, Jay McKee, which means he was often a 3rd pairing rearguard. Not overly big or physical, Woolley survived 15 years in the NHL due in part to his deft puck handling skills, elusive wheels and hockey smarts. A poor-man’s Brian Rafalski.
- Rhett Warrener…The 1999 trade that sent defenseman Mike Wilson to the Florida Panthers for Warrener has to be considered highway robbery. “Retro” is one of the most beloved players in more recent Sabres history, but it wasn’t for his scoring. “Meat and potatoes” is how this writer would describe the former #4’s style. Warrener kept opposing players honest, and wouldn’t hesitate to let the fists fly when the situation presented itself. A very simplistic, physical D-man with a very strong, underrated skating style, Rhett was the “salt” to Jay McKee’s “pepper”. Those two were the closest any Sabres team in memeory came to having a true shutdown pairing and, when both were healthy at the same times, McKee and Warrener were inseparable. Warrener didn’t garner any headlines, but the Sabres blueline core wasn’t the same when he wasn’t in the lineup. His type of player is one in which every team in the league could use one of, and the current Sabres team may have two, in Robyn Regehr and Mike Weber.
- Darryl Shannon…Hands down, one of the most under-appreciated blueliners in franchise history, “Shanny” (hockey nicknames leave a lot to be desired) was a stay-at-home, shutdown type who sported no less than a +23 rating in three out of his four seasons in the Queen city. Never fleet-of-foot, he chose rather to use his 6’2″ frame to guard the castle with his steady, heady play. Although he had some obvious offensive skills, as his 83 points during his last year of junior hockey shows, Shannon would rather use his calm demeanor to chip the puck out of trouble. He always seemed to make that smart play or subtle pass that the casual fan could A.) never identify and B.) never appreciate as being borderline genius. Considered a “glue guy”, he is the brother of former Sabres forward Darrin Shannon.
- Hannu Virta…A former 2nd round pick in 1981, Hannu Virta played parts of five seasons with the Sabres, and could have had a long, successful career with the club had it not been for a couple of reasons. First, his home country of Finland has a mandatory military service that, in 1986, touched upon Virta even though he was 4,700 miles away from home. Secondly, he reportedly disliked coach Scotty Bowman so much, that he would return to Buffalo after his military obligations were met only if there was a coaching change. Virta, however, decided to stay home and went on to play out the rest of his career split between the Finnish elite league and the Swiss league. “Hantta” was masterful at puck possession and passing, and racked up his share of points, despite playing in the shadow of Phil Housley. Yet another in a long line of Scandinavian players who play(ed) with smarts and puck control, despite lack of physical attributes.
- Bill Hajt…Awkward. Steady. Quiet. CONSISTENT. This was Bill Hajt. Chosen in the 3rd round back in 1971, Mr. Hajt did what a defenseman was supposed to do. He kept the opposition from scoring, quietly, from his little section of ice. Only a minus player once in his 13 full seasons in Buffalo, Mr. Hajt amassed an amazing +321 during his career with Buffalo, the only NHL team he has ever played for. During his rookie season, which coincidently (or not) was the 1974-75 Stanley Cup finals team, he racked up 29 points and a stellar +47 rating. In 1981 and 1984, he was selected to play in those mid-season all-star games, finally garnering the respect many ignorant Sabres fans were unwilling to send his way. I was guilty of not recognizing his contributions and importance, and that explains why I will forever refer to Hajt as “Mister”.
- Christian Ruuttu…is undeniably one of the finest European hockey players to ever don the blue and gold. When the great centermen in Buffalo Sabres history, such as Perreault, LaFontaine, Hawerchuk and Briere are mentioned, Ruuttu’s name is unjustly shoved aside. Prompted to recall their memories of Ruuttu, fans of that era remember his playmaking, strong skating, and great defensive awareness. What many forget, however, was his gritty, all-out play. Ruuttu would never quit on a hockey play, as evidenced by his penalty-killing prowess, and had a little bit of a mean streak as a foil to his slick skills with the puck. Forever a favorite of this writer, the former # 21 is currently Phoenix’s head European scout, and his son Alexander was a 2nd round pick of the Coyotes in the 2011 entry draft.
- Andre Savard…Andre Savard was signed as a free agent by the Sabres in June of 1976 after a few pedestrian seasons with the Boston Bruins. Number 12 immediately fit right in with a talent rich Sabres roster, by netting 25 goals and 35 assists and adding 6 power-play goals his first year in Buffalo. The native of Quebec was a crafty playmaker with a decent scoring touch who’s best seasons came in a Buffalo uniform, playing in the shadow of fellow centermen Gil Perreault and Don Luce. Much like Ruuttu, Savard is rarely mentioned when it comes to top centermen in Sabres lore, but his 1980-81 season, in which he netted 31 goals and 43 assists, along with a +32 rating, ranks as one of the better years for a Sabre centerman not named Perreault, LaFontaine or Hawerchuk.
- Dave Hannan…scored one of the biggest goals in Sabres playoff history. On April 27, 1994, he roofed a backhand over an outstretched Martin Brodeur in the fourth overtime period in game 6 of round number 1, to give the Sabres a 1-0 win over the New Jersey Devils, and force a game seven. The Sudbury, Ontario native, who wore #14, was a scrappy defensive centerman with blazing speed, and played a key role as a Sabres penalty killer, scoring 7 short-handed goals during his time in Buffalo. When he came to the Sabres in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs, he provided a hard working attitude on the ice, and a veteran presence in the dressing room. But he will forever be remembered for that quick swoop towards that loose puck, his “hail-mary” backhand, and European Soccer celebration on that April night in ’94.
- Matt Ellis…in Buffalonian, means “hustle”. If Sabre fans have witnessed a harder working player on the ice in recent memory, someone will have to enlighten me as to who that is. “Shorty” makes the most of his limited ice-time, and limited talent, night in and night out. A guy who always puts the team first, number 37 can play any forward position, and quietly goes out and does his job, in whatever circumstances coach Lindy Ruff puts him in. He is a leader by example who, when not with the Sabres, will be down with AHL Rochester this coming season. The Sabres could do a lot worse in finding someone to show rookies Kassian, Foligno and McNabb the ropes. However, were it me making the personnel decisions for the Sabres, Matt Ellis would play on my 4th line every night and, if there isn’t one already, let mine be the first membership into the Matt Ellis “fan-crush” club!
- Randy Burridge…For all of my trumpeting and championing of guys like Matt Ellis, there may have been one Sabre who worked almost as hard to hold onto his spot on an NHL roster. Lovingly referred to as “Stump”, Burridge only spent 2 1/2 seasons in a Sabre uniform, but every ounce of blood and sweat that spilled out of his 5’9″ frame was left on Memorial Auditorium ice. Signed as a free agent mere days before the 1995 season began, Burridge was quickly slotted along side Pat LaFontaine and Alex Mogilny on the Sabres’ top line. He potted 25 goals that first year, in part to his linemates, but also due to his relentness puck pursuit and overall hard work. A grinder with soft hands, his playing style contributed to his share of injuries, yet also allowed Stump to leave the NHL with 199 career goals and 450 points.
- Randy Wood…“Woody” (I told you hockey nicknames were lame) came over to the Sabres in the trade that brought us Pat LaFontaine, but he was hardly a throw in. He spent 3 solidly consistent seasons in Buffalo, averaging 20 goals and 40 points a year, contributing at both ends of the ice. A Yale graduate, Wood was a grinder at heart, but could be slotted on any of the top 3 lines and with a seamless fit. A theme is forming here, but Woody could be counted on for his hard work and dependable, persistent play, thus becoming an important piece in helping those Sabres teams reach the postseason in all three seasons he donned the Sabres crest.
- Wayne Presley…came to the Sabres in a trade with the San Jose Sharks in exchange for Dave Snuggerud, another short-lived, underrated Sabre. A Detroit native, “Elvis” started his career with the Blackhawks as an offensive player (32 goals and 61 points in his first full season), but quickly reinvented himself as a gritty, hard hitting defensive forward capable of shutting down the opposition’s top scorers. He could also let the fists fly, despite his average frame, and never backed down from such a challenge. Presley was a master of the penalty kill, and often made the opposition pay in that regard, netting 11 shorthanded goals as a Sabre, including 5 in consecutive seasons. Buffalo also made the playoffs in each of the 4 seasons he brought his lunch-pail manner to NHL rinks across North America.
- Vaclav Varada…Tank. Bulldog. Cool name. No player has shed more blood and been stitched back up more times in a Sabre uniform than the Czech winger. In short, Varada was the NHL’s version of Frankenstein on skates. Number 25 would steam from point A to point B, with a blank, expressionless glare, and destroyed anyone who dared get in his way. He hit like a ten-ton missile, played the game the way it was supposed to be played and, although he flirted with it, never crossed the line when it came to exerting his punishing wrath. He was Michael Peca’s right-hand-man on a physical, shut-down line, and was a feared and hated man during his 7 full seasons in the league. He scored 5 goals during the Sabres 1999 Cup run, and put up seasons of 31, 37 and 31 points as a Sabre. He will be remembered fondly not for his goal scoring, though, but for the fierce competitiveness than was his driving force night in and night out.
- Mike Hartman…was one tough hombre. He concluded his Sabres career with just under 900 minutes in penalties in just 225 games. Hartman fought whenever and wherever he could. But, he could contribute with a few goals as well, and Winnipeg thought enough of him to ask for his inclusion in a trade that sent Phil Housley to the Jets in exchange for the great Dale Hawerchuk. His time in Buffalo was spent patrolling the ice, making room for the more skilled players during an era of pugilism, and his devotion to his teammates was rewarded with some time on the power-play, where he chipped in with a few goals. Not overly big, Hartman nevertheless took on all comers, standing toe-to-toe with NHL heavyweights in an era where fighting meant holding your ground, taking as many punches as you delivered.
Would your team win the Stanley Cup with this lineup? Probably not. Would your team win the silver chalice with a smattering of these types of players, to compliment the more skilled players? You’ve got one helluva chance. When building a team, you need players like the ones above. Some of them make life difficult for opposing teams. Others make that great first pass. Some hurt you with their fists. Some hurt you with their awareness and hockey smarts. Most of them are good, character guys that keep your dressing room honest…and loose. Any of these guys could play on my team any day, any year and in any era.
Whew! Did I forget anybody? I’m sure I did. I’m positive in my choices, but very aware that there were many more of these types of guys in Buffalo Sabres history, and very hopeful and encouraged that there are many more of these guys in a Sabres uniform now. Currently we would have to talk about guys like Ellis (who I mentioned), Gaustad, Regehr, McCormick, Weber and possibly Kaleta. Hopefully, in the next few years, we’ll be talking about guys like Foligno, Pysyk and who knows who else. They’re not the star players, the guys who get the headlines, the guys who get the accolades, or the guys who get the pretty gir….(yeah, right. Have you ever seen a professional athlete with an unattractive spouse?). Anyway, you should win with a few of these guys, and be able to ice a hardworking team every single night. Besides that ever elusive championship trophy, isn’t that all we ask and expect of our teams here in Buffalo?
Who would you put on this list?
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