Thomas Vanek played 1,029 NHL games over 14 seasons with eight organizations.
All along the way, Vanek’s teammates praised his sharp hockey mind. When he began his career in 2005-06, the Buffalo Sabers’ dressing room spoke his language and molded his perspective.
“The conversations we had about hockey with so many of those guys,” Vanek said, “we would say ‘Yeah, I understand exactly what you mean’ and go out and execute it.”
At first, Vanek believed that’s just the way it was in the NHL, where the best skaters and best competitors and best thinkers assemble atop the hockey world.
He eventually learned otherwise.
“Later in my career,” Vanek said, “I might try to explain that same concept and you could tell they just didn’t get it or see it the way I saw it.
“That Sabers team had a high, high hockey IQ.”
Many consider 2005-06 to be the greatest team in Sabers history. They emerged from the lockout a speedy, relentless fireball seemingly destined for a championship before an obnoxious rash of injuries doused them one cruel period shy of the Stanley Cup Final.
Buffalo’s collection of skill and character was obvious, but what we’re discovering almost two decades later is just how much brainpower congregated inside the dressing room.
The San Jose Sharks this month named Mike Grier general manager, bestowing the same power 2005-06 linemate Chris Drury has with the New York Rangers. The Philadelphia Flyers this year named Daniel Briere special assistant to the GM. Last month, the Chicago Blackhawks promoted Brian Campbell to hockey operations adviser, a role that could increase more with senior adviser Scotty Bowman’s departure two weeks ago.
Jay McKee last month won an OHL championship as the Hamilton Bulldogs’ head coach. Adam Mair is the Sabers’ director of player development.
“That’s the group we had,” said Ryan Miller, the NHL’s 2005-06 breakout goaltender. “We were competitive, and we worked hard. We came to things honestly. That bubbles up. You’ve got to have knowledge of a lot of different aspects of hockey.
“They’re wired that way. All these leaders have taken the next step in their hockey evolution, leading off the ice makes a lot of sense.”
Miller and more of those Sabers might also be on their way to NHL front offices and benches. Former teammates considered Miller, Vanek, Jason Pominville and JP Dumont coaching or front office naturals.
Dumont is the Nashville Junior Predators’ coach and director of hockey operations.
The other three want to wait until their children are older before diving in. Miller attended the NHL Draft as an adviser to old friend Kay Whitmore, the league’s senior director of hockey operations. Pominville coached the Montreal Junior Canadiens, including his son, to a championship at the prestigious Quebec International Pee-Wee Tournament.
“It’s really fun for a friend and former teammate to see all these guys doing well,” said Vanek, who has been emphasizing baseball and other sports as much as hockey for his three sons in Minnesota. “You want those guys in the game. That’s what’s great. It’s new blood, and it’s the right blood.”
With so many 2005-06 Sabers already involved and more willing to jump in, those glory years will remain alive as former teammates try to emulate what worked so well when overflow crowds stood outside HSBC Arena to watch playoff games on projection screens.
Even with Drury and Campbell winning the Stanley Cup and Briere reaching the final on other clubs, the Sabers’ roster built for 2005-06 must be on their minds as one to emulate.
They’ll also have seen first-hand to avoid mistakes such as GM Darcy Regier’s policy of not negotiating contracts during the season, which eliminated crucial leverage and led to heartbreaking departures, most notably Drury and Briere to free agency in 2007.
“You don’t realize how important culture is until you lose it,” Briere said. “We had guys who wanted to be together and play together. That goes a long way. And we had so many guys who always wanted to learn.
“That’s what was so cool about it. We all had our own ways to lead, but we were learning other ways too.”
The suit-and-tie emergence of these Buffalo teammates is even more remarkable when considering they haven’t branched off the tree of any particular coach or executive.
Scores of NFL coaches and executives have been given opportunities around the league simply through working relationships with New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick. San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has had a similar effect in the NBA.
Sabers coach Lindy Ruff’s influence doesn’t quite correspond, but he is viewed as a common denominator.
“With Lindy,” said McKee, “I don’t think it was always about winning and losing as much as it was about doing all you can and leaving it all out there. When that becomes ingrained in you as a person, when you move on from playing, you don’t just turn that off.
“Myself as a coach, and these guys that are GMs now, that whatever-it-takes mindset stays with you, whether it’s putting the extra time in or outworking everyone around you.”
The 2005-06 Sabers featured a slew of former and future captains. The number was somewhat inflated by Ruff, who, the season before, switched Buffalo’s captaincy every month.
But five players in the 2005-06 dressing room were permanent NHL captains at some point in their careers. Drury and Briere were co-captains. Vanek and Pominville would become captains at the start of the Sabers’ record-breaking, 11-season playoff drought. Defenseman Teppo Numminen, who arrived with over 1,200 games, previously served two years as Phoenix Coyotes captain.
Sabers forwards Ales Kotalik and Jochen Hecht and defenseman Dmitri Kalinin became captains in their respective home countries’ pro leagues. Defensemen Rory Fitzpatrick and Nathan Paetsch were AHL captains. Dumont and center Derek Roy captained their junior clubs. Rookie forward Daniel Paille was Team Canada’s captain at the 2004 World Junior Championship.
“That’s a lot of C’s,” said Pominville, “that I wasn’t even aware of until you say them.
“Everybody had an opportunity to lead in their own way. When it’s always the same guy repeating things, sometimes it can get old. But it was always somebody different, stepping up with the right words at the right times.”
The Sabers were so awash in leadership that McKee never was the captain (he was injured half the season of Ruff’s monthly rotation), but McKee was the permanent alternate to Briere and Drury in 2005-06.
Grier never wore a letter in Buffalo and never was a captain anywhere else, although he was an alternate with the Sharks and Edmonton Oilers.
“We didn’t have anyone who thought, ‘I need to be the leader!’ Vanek said. “I viewed eight or nine of those guys as the leaders. It spread through the room that we were one; we were here together.”
Lest we forget the goaltenders, who are not allowed to be NHL captains or alternates.
Buffalo had a pair of starting-caliber goaltenders with complementary leadership personalities.
“Millsie would snap once in a while,” Pominville said with a laugh. “He was not scared to say what he needed to. He would get emotional.”
Then there was Martin Biron, the effervescent raconteur. When the Flyers traded for Biron in February 2007, he ranked third among all Sabers goalies in games, wins and save percentage.
“Of anybody on the team,” Vanek said, “Marty probably deserves the most credit because he could have been a No. 1 goalie in the league for 20 other teams. But he put his ego away, never was in a bad mood and was a fun guy.
“Even though he was competitive, he was there for Ryan, supported Ryan, supported all of us.”
Compared to Vanek’s other stops, he noted the 2005-06 Sabers didn’t have players who would shrug off defeat just because they had a good stat line that night, a common phenomenon in all sports.
Buffalo’s dressing room almost generated its own gravitational pull. McKee explained when an individual attitude didn’t align with the team’s dynamic, that player would eventually yield to the group or need to be traded.
“That group’s leadership and culture was just off the charts,” McKee said, “and we would have won the whole thing without the injuries.”
Although the Sabers reached the Stanley Cup Final in 1975 and 1999, many believe their best chance to win it all was 2006.
The scary-good Sabers tore through the Flyers and gobsmacked the Ottawa Senators before bad luck overcame their immense wisdom and talent.
A concussion for center Tim Connolly, a broken left ankle for Kalinin, a hip injury for Numminen, a broken arm for defenseman Henrik Tallinder, a freak ankle infection for McKee.
“That’s always the team you look back on and think, ‘Ugh!’ Vanek said. “That’s a team that didn’t win, but it was the best team I ever played on because of the guys we had and the feel of wanting to come to the rink and wanting to get better.
“That ’05-06 team provides so many examples of how to create the right culture.”
The 2006-07 Sabers won the President’s Trophy, but the Senators trounced them in the Eastern Conference Final. Briere and Drury were co-captains again, but anybody who played on both teams will say the chemistry just wasn’t the same.
Grier, Dumont, McKee and Fitzpatrick weren’t brought back. Connolly was unable to return from his concussion until the penultimate regular-season game. Tallinder was sidelined half the year. At the trade deadline, Biron went to the Flyers for a second-round draft choice.
As the Sabers’ most recent glory years fizzled into darkness, the competitive fire within those players continued—and their generalship evolved—over the years and into retirement.
“I knew we had a really good leadership group, but we couldn’t have known what it took to be good executives,” Briere said. “So I’d be lying if I told you that I knew we’d have so many future executives.
“We didn’t know what would happen in 20 years. It’s amazing to look back and see how special that room was.”
(Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)