From a poster with the words THOU SHALL PROTECT streaming
underneath it, the images of Matthew Barnaby, Rob Ray and Brad
May, fists raised in their best John L. Sullivan bare-knuckle
poses, glower over the treatment tables in the Buffalo Sabres'
training room. With their history of running up penalty minutes,
they have been compared with the infamous brawling Hanson
brothers in Slapshot, although they don't beat up soda machines,
as their cinematic counterparts did. This season Barnaby, May
and Ray have suppressed their predatory nature a tad--these are
not quite the lock-up-the-women-and-children Sabres who led the
NHL in penalty minutes last season--but sometimes these guys
still seem a couple of floats short of a parade.
Off the ice they are engaging, thoughtful and well-behaved,
except for the time a few years ago when Ray almost threw
Barnaby out a window of their apartment. That never would have
happened if Barnaby had given MTV a rest and clicked to the
Nature Channel or CNN or something else Ray wanted to watch.
At week's end the rollicking Sabres trailed the first-place
Pittsburgh Penguins by only one point in the Northeast Division,
but don't look for Buffalo to win the Stanley Cup. The Sabres
don't have a scorer in the top 50, as of Sunday their power play
ranked a dismal 18th in the league, and they had outshot
opponents just seven times in 52 games. Yet Buffalo is
pugnacious proof that entertainment value can't be measured
simply by statistics.
The Sabres are hockey's Barnaby & Bailey circus. Their coach,
Ted Nolan, and their general manager, John Muckler, snarl at
each other like big cats. The death-defying Jumbotron scoreboard
at the new Marine Midland Arena, working without a net, plunges
to earth. Watch the Elastic Man, goaltender Dominik Hasek, and
see the three roustabouts wrestle Bruins, Panthers or other
fierce creatures on a nightly basis. "We're in the entertainment
business," Nolan says. "Sometimes I think, If I were sitting in
the stands, what would I like to see? You feel good about
yourself when you see someone blocking shots, diving for the
puck, sticking up for a teammate. People misunderstand--we're
not a big, goon-type team."
True. Although the Sabres have taken half a Prozac since last
season when Barnaby, May and Ray were ranked first, fourth and
fifth, respectively, in the NHL in penalty minutes, they can be
a small, goon-type team whenever the need arises. In fact,
Buffalo is among the more diminutive teams in the league.
"People call us the Broad Street Bullies of the '90s," says
Nolan, referring to the fighting Philadelphia Flyers of 20 years
ago, "but we're just a hardworking team. We defend ourselves."
The defense starts with Hasek, the human Gumby. When he was a
10-year-old in Pardubice, Czechoslovakia, Hasek was so flexible
that doctors thought something was wrong with his knees. "I
could do the butterfly 180 degrees," says Hasek, describing a
perfect split. "Now I can't make it 180 degrees, but my
butterfly is still very good."
The butterfly is only part of Hasek's act. In his most
intriguing trick, he will drop his stick to the ice and cover
the puck with his blocker. There's compelling logic in the
maneuver, especially when the puck is to his right, or stick
side. Unlike the clumsy catching glove, the blocker has fingers
that allow him to snatch a puck easily--as long as those fingers
aren't occupied holding on to the stick. The 32-year-old Hasek
picked up the move about 10 years ago and admits that he uses it
more than he should, but the risk of playing without his stick
is minimal because of his superb reflexes. When he is groping
for the puck on all fours, Hasek looks like a man searching for
a contact lens rather than the premier goalie in the world.
Muckler says Hasek is the most important element in Buffalo's
player-development program because he gives the Sabres, who are
the fifth-youngest team in the league, a chance to learn without
their mistakes winding up in the Buffalo net. Hasek saves shots
and face, a priceless parlay on a team that is beginning to
sense how formidable it can be. Like the New York Rangers' Wayne
Gretzky, Hasek sees the game spin at 33 1/3 while everyone is
playing at 45. The sprawling kick saves, the flailing glove
saves, that memorable save against the Toronto Maple Leafs last
season when, flat on his back, he stopped a shot by raising both
legs in the air. Those are grace notes to a style that is unique
Hasek is tested more than any other goaltender in the league
because Buffalo, for all its feistiness, often allows its
opponents a conspicuous amount of open ice. Through Sunday,
Hasek had faced a league-high 1,525 shots, which made his 2.49
goals-against average and .923 save percentage stand out even
more. "Twenty shots or 40 shots a game, I don't think about it
at all," says Hasek, who led the NHL in save percentage the past
three years. "In practice I face 300, 400 shots, so I don't
care. I just like to play on a winning team."
The Sabres, 27-19-6 at week's end, have a remarkable record
considering they finished 33-42-7 in 1995-96 and were rattled at
the start of this season. All-Star center Pat LaFontaine
suffered a career-threatening concussion on Oct. 17, and then on
Nov. 16 the Jumbotron crashed to the ice as it was being lowered
for routine maintenance after a visiting team practice. A new $4
million scoreboard will be up in March, but LaFontaine's wiring
is more problematical. Some symptoms of his postconcussion
syndrome are abating, but he still suffers from headaches and
depression. The prolonged absence of LaFontaine, while hastening
the development of young centers Derek Plante, Brian Holzinger
and Michael Peca, has deprived Buffalo of its only 40-goal
scorer, a power-play threat and its classiest hockey ambassador.
In about a week LaFontaine will return to the Mayo Clinic in
Rochester, Minn., for further evaluation.
The calamitous start to the Sabres' season extended into their
front office, where several officials were dismissed in
November, including team president Doug Moss, who lost a power
struggle with Marine Midland Arena president Larry Quinn. Even
though it ended with a stunning knockout--Quinn became the
Sabres' president--Moss versus Quinn was merely the undercard.
The main event, Muckler versus Nolan, looks as if it will go the
distance. The question that now haunts the Buffalo organization
is, are you a Muckler man or a Nolan man?
With the retirement of Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, the
38-year-old Nolan is the most popular sports figure in Buffalo.
When Nolan crossed the Peace Bridge from Ontario to Buffalo
after Muckler hired him in July 1995, a U.S. customs agent asked
him to open the trunk of his car. "I'm looking for some blood
and guts," the agent explained. "I hope you can bring some to
Nolan erased the remnants of the sissified identity the Sabres
had in the early 1990s and unleashed their toughness. He's a
proud, stubborn man who is almost as good at his job as the
proud, stubborn Muckler is at his. Muckler, 62, has pared the
Buffalo payroll from $30 million to $21 million and improved the
Sabres in the process, a feat as impressive in its flinty way as
the five Stanley Cups he helped win as the coach or as an
assistant with the Edmonton Oilers from 1983-84 through 1989-90.
But Nolan and Muckler have clashed over player
development--Nolan sometimes has to do as much teaching as
coaching with the young team--and a frost has settled in. The
Buffalo News reported that Quinn offered Nolan a three-year
contract extension but that Nolan hasn't signed it because he is
looking for professional guarantees, which is a fancy way of
saying a reduced role for Muckler. "Right now the team's been
winning, we're ahead of schedule in our development plan, things
should be great," one Sabres executive says. "But this
Muckler-Nolan thing has been tearing the organization apart."
This internecine war is not as crowd-pleasing as the interteam
battles the Sabres provide for their black-and-blue-collar city.
After Stephane Quintal of the Montreal Canadiens elbowed
defenseman Mike Wilson with 8.8 seconds remaining in Buffalo's
6-1 win on Jan. 22, the Marine Midland mob responded by
chanting, "We want Ray!" Nolan was happy to oblige after the
Canadiens sent out Brad Brown, who, at 6'3" and 220 pounds, is
physically imposing but not overly disputatious.
Nolan: "Keep things calmed down."
Ray: "You mean that?"
Nolan: "Do whatever you think is necessary."
The teams lined up for the face-off in the Montreal zone, but
Brown kept circling. Ray growled, "Quit skating away. I've only
got eight seconds to catch you."
Referee Don Koharski: "You two going to fight?"
Ray: "I can't fight him. He can't even grow a beard."
The puck and the two players' gloves hit the ice simultaneously,
a few seconds before Brown did.
But the Buffalo player who members of other NHL teams would vote
most worthy of a good whipping is Barnaby, a cruiserweight at
six feet, 170 pounds. Barnaby's nickname is Killer, which he
acquired in junior hockey after he fought 13 times over three
days to make the team his first season. He weighed 146 pounds
then. "We all have a job to do," says Barnaby, who has nearly
started pregame brawls twice this season. "If someone wants to
take my head off, if they got to do it, they got to do it." He
smiles. He ranked a mere third in the NHL in penalty minutes at
week's end because he was using his hands more often to score.
He had 12 goals and thinks he can get 20. Ray, too, was on a
personal-record goal-scoring pace, with seven, one short of his
As for the 6'1", 210-pound May, he broke his right hand on the
face of the Los Angeles Kings' Brent Grieve on Dec. 20. He's
back playing but will remain hors de combat for about another
month. Earlier this season he required surgery after another
industrial accident, throwing out his right shoulder while
uncorking a haymaker that Ronnie Stern of the Calgary Flames
slipped. "If it's not an entertaining game," May says, "we'll
make it one." His words are thick with import.
What's also of import in Buffalo is the Robe. In a nod to the
dress of boxers entering the ring, trainer Jim Pizzutelli began
a tradition of awarding a robe in Sabres colors to any Buffalo
player who displays extraordinary merit, not necessarily of the
pugilistic variety. Ray, May and Hasek have theirs. Barnaby
eagerly awaits his, naked aggression apparently being the best
way to get robed.