The last 50 49 years of Sabres hockey have been filled with thrilling games, agonizing defeats and a few extremely weird occurrences. In line with some of the work The Buffalo News and The Athletic has done in celebrating the team’s anniversary, I wanted to take a look at some of the most seminal moments in franchise history.
This isn’t a ranking but an attempt to touch on the big benchmarks and memorable moments from the last 50 (49) years. Here is part one of the two-part list.
Birth of the Franchise
December 2, 1969 was the day the Knox brothers were awarded their NHL expansion franchise. John Vogl chronicled how close Buffalo came to getting the Golden Seals in 1969, as opposed to an expansion franchise a year later. Missing on purchasing and moving the Seals opened the door for the Sabres to be born and begin play in 1970.
The First Sabre
It wasn’t Bill Daly flipping oversized team cards but the 1970 draft lottery could have drastically altered the Sabres’ first 15 years. The league used a fairly straightforward system for determining if the Sabres or Canucks would pick first as expansion clubs. A roulette wheel was numbered from 1-13, with the Sabres holding numbers 8-13 and the Canucks 1-6. Number seven would result in a re-spin.
The spin wasn’t without drama, however. The layout of the wheel required double digit numbers to be formatted vertically, with one digit sitting on top of the other. So when the wheel stopped on 11, Colin Campbell thought it was number one, due to how it looked on first glance. The Sabres pointed out the error, won the right to select Gilbert Perreault and the rest is history.
Jim Watson tallied the first goal in franchise history with a point shot at 5:01 of the second period in the club’s first game on October, 10, 1970.
Watson’s goal broke the ice and Gil Perreault’s first NHL goal would go down as the winner in a 2-1 victory over Pittsburgh in the franchise’s first game.
The Sabres have known their fair share of pugilists and Jim Schoenfeld dropped the gloves 25 times during his time in Buffalo. None of his fights were quite as memorable as the tilt with Wayne Cashman in 1972 that saw the pair barrel through the Zamboni doors after a big hit from Schoenfeld. Rather than get back on the ice, they just fought right there on The Aud’s concrete floor.
Thank You Sabres
The Sabres only needed three seasons to climb into the playoffs after an 88-point campaign in 1972-73. For their trouble, they drew the eventual Stanley Cup Champion, Montreal Canadiens. The Habs took the series in six games but it was the fan reaction in the deciding game where the Sabres faithful saluted the team with a chant of “Thank You Sabres” as time ticked down at The Aud.
Exasperated with the league’s drawn out draft process, general manager Punch Imlach decided to play a trick on Clarence Campbell and the league. With their 11th round selection, 183rd overall, the Sabres selected an unknown center from the Tokyo Katanas named Taro Tsjuimoto. Imlach, along with help from other front office staff had cooked up the fake player by adopting the Japanese sword for the team and finding a local family’s name to use. The pick would be an official record for some time before the league caught on to the ruse. It’s no longer listed in any official league documents although the Sabres still list the selection in their media guide as a reminder of one of the more unusual pieces of Sabres lore.
Gare’s OT Winner
You might think a game one OT winner isn’t quite as important as others that have been scored over the past 49 years. But Gare’s goal was the first domino to fall on the way to Buffalo’s berth in the 1975 Cup Final. His goal wrapped up a 6-5 win after the Canadiens had tied the game with just under 30 seconds remaining. Gare scored about five minutes into OT and put the Habs into an early 1-0 hole in the series.
Clinching the Cup Berth
Gare’s goal helped send the Sabres to the Forum with a 2-0 series lead before crawling home on the heels of 7-0 and 8-2 losses in games three and four. Buffalo would close out the series with Rene Robert’s OT winner in game five and a 4-3 win at the Forum in game six, knocking off one of the league’s blue bloods and punching their ticket to the club’s first Cup Final.
The Fog Game
The Sabres dropped the first two games of the Cup final and faced a difficult task in getting back into the series as they returned to The Aud. Warm weather the day of game three caused a thick fog to rise from the ice surface, shrouding much of the game and creating one of the most memorable moments in franchise history. Rene Robert’s game winner surprising Bernie Parent from the left circle still leads highlight reels thanks to its status as one of the most iconic goals in franchise history.
1975 Cup Loss
The Sabres were unable to build upon the Fog Game as Bernie Parent turned in a Conn Smythe winning performance and the Flyers locked up their second-straight Stanley Cup with a 2-0 win at The Aud in game six.
Sabres 12, Soviet Wings 6
The 72 Summit Series kicked off a lengthy run of competition between the USSR and NHL that included the Super Series 76 that saw the Red Army and Soviet Wings arrive for a North American tour. Though the Sabres didn’t see the star studded Red Army club that boasted the likes of Kharlamov, Mikhailov and Tretiak, they hung 12 on a team that was unbeaten in their other three NHL contests. The Wings had beaten Pittsburgh 7-4 a few nights prior and went on to beat the Blackhawks 4-2 and the Islanders 2-1.
Buffalo never trailed in the 12-6 dismantling of the Wings, leading 4-2 after the first and 9-4 after the second. The dominant win was one of only two suffered by the two Russian teams on the 76 tour as the USSR was at the height of their international hockey dominance. The Sabres went on to play Soviet teams five more times, topping the Red Army in 1980 and 1989, hosting Dynamo Moscow in 1986 (loss) and 1989 (win) and falling to Khimik Voskresensk 5-4 in 1991.
1978 All Star Game
Buffalo’s quick rise to the league’s elite not only earned them a showdown with some of the USSR’s best, but the 1978 All Star Game as well. Memorable not only because it remains the only time the league has hosted the All Star Game in Buffalo, but for the influence the Sabres had on the final score of the game.
As is often referenced around today’s All Star festivities, there was a time the game was taken quite seriously, with the scores reflecting the level at which the participants played. The ’78 edition was no exception, as the Wales Conference eked out a 3-2 overtime win. It was Rick Martin who scored the tying goal late in the third and Gil Perreault who scored the game winner in overtime to lock up the win for the host team’s conference.
1979-80 Prince of Wales
Prior to being awarded to the Eastern Conference playoff champion, the Prince of Wales trophy went to the Wales Conference regular season champion. The Sabres captured the trophy twice prior to the league changing the format to award it to the conference playoff champion beginning in 1981-82.
After first wining it in 74-75, the Sabres ran up 47 wins and 110 points in 1979-80 to capture the Prince of Wales Trophy for the second time. The Sabres lost only two of their final 25 games, a run that included a 14-game unbeaten streak to close the season. Unfortunately the Sabres ran into the Islanders buzz saw in the semifinals, falling in six games to the eventual Cup champions, a win that was the first of four-straight for the Isles.
It’s worth noting that the league used a 1-16 seeding system for the playoffs in 1980 (and the first round series were only best of five). Had they used the conference format we’re all so familiar with, the Islanders and Flyers (the Cup Finalists) would have faced each other in one of the first three rounds, possibly giving the Sabres an easier route to that year’s Cup Final.
Sabres Acquire Mike Foligno
It seems reasonable to suggest the Sabres’ inaugural era came to an end on December 2, 1981 when Danny Gare and Jim Schoenfeld were packaged in a trade to acquire Mike Foligno from the Red Wings.
The key pieces to the teams of the 1970s had begun to be stripped away as Rene Robert, Jerry Korab, Don Luce and Rick Martin had all been moved prior to the 1981 season. In dealing Gare and Schoenfeld, the Sabres really wrapped up the first chapter in franchise history while welcoming a player who would become a star for the Sabres during the 80s.
Perreault Scores #500
In what would be the final full season of his career, Gilbert Perreault notched his milestone 500th goal on March 9, 1986 on a centering feed from Mike Foligno. Perreault remains the only Sabre to reach 500 goals or 1000 points in blue and gold. For some added context, as he races up the franchise ranks in goals and points, Jack Eichel remains nearly 400 goals and 1000 points behind Perreault’s career totals of 512 and 1,326.
Clint Malarchuk Incident
The frightening nature of Malarchuk’s injury remains as an indelible moment in franchise history that seems to resurface every few years.
Knowing that it was highly unlikely that they’d ever see him play in Buffalo, the Sabres threw a 5th round selection at Alex Mogilny with the hopes that the political climate might shift in the coming years. As it turned out, they wouldn’t have to wait too long. With actions you’d sooner see in a spy novel than in the NHL, Don Luce and Gerry Meehan managed to assist Mogilny in defecting from the Soviet Union in 1989.
A star at the World Juniors and for the Red Army, Mogilny provided the Sabres with a shot in the arm in the early 90s. He’d score 30 goals for four-straight years, adding 19 in the lockout shortened 1994-95 season. He combined with Pat LaFontaine for some of the most dominant offensive hockey in franchise history that included a franchise record 76 goals in 1992-93.
Unfortunately, Mogilny’s time in Buffalo was short. He was traded to Vancouver after six seasons and he’d pot 308 points in 312 games for the Canucks. It’s a shame he wasn’t around to help drive the team through the peak of Domink Hasek’s career, but trading him brought the Sabres Jay McKee and Michael Peca, key contributors to Buffalo’s success later in the decade.
When you have some time, watch this feature on what Luce and Meehan went through to get Mogilny to North America.
The Lindros Draft
The Sabres have played host to the NHL Draft on three separate occasions; 1991, 1998 and 2016. Each year featured a dynamic prospect slated to go number one overall and Eric Lindros brought some added drama to the draft floor.
“The Next One” made headlines by stating he wouldn’t play for Quebec if they drafted him first overall and the Nordiques called his bluff. Lindros wouldn’t be traded for a full year, but it was Buffalo that played host to the first act of that soap opera.
Turgeon for LaFontaine
Despite a star-studded roster, the Sabres of the late 80s and early 90s couldn’t get out of the first round. The club earned a reputation in losing seven-straight first-round series and those playoff failures came to define the era. The core of those teams ultimately paid the price for failing to advance for nearly a decade. Funny given where the team is now, no?
Buffalo shipped out many of their stars between 1988 and 1993 as Tom Barrasso, Phil Housley, Mike Foligno, Dave Andreychuk and Pierre Turgeon all found new homes. Turgeon was particularly notable as a former first overall pick who was moved in a deal that brought back a future captain and player whose number hangs in the KeyBank Center rafters.
LaFontaine was already a point-machine when the Sabres acquired him and he wasted no time getting comfortable with his new environs. He posted 46 goals and 93 points in his first year and eventually set the single-season franchise record for assists (95) and points (148) the following year. Even as an all-time fan favorite, I can’t help but wonder what his impact on the franchise would have been had injuries and the 1994 lockout not limited him to 268 games in blue and gold.
In the middle of the blockbusters that saw much of Buffalo’s core moved out, it was a set of minor trades in the summer of 1992 that would truly shape the rest of the decade.
A month after sending Christian Ruuttu to Winnipeg in exchange for Stephane Beauregard, the Sabres flipped their new goalie and a draft pick to the Blackhawks for an unorthodox, 28-year old backup who had become excess goods thanks to the emergence of Ed Belfour and rising prospect Jimmy Waite.
That goalie was Dominik Hasek and he’d go on to win six Vezinas a two Harts, two Pearsons and redefine the position over the next nine years. It’s hard to debate whether he or Gil Perreault is the greatest Sabre ever, but given Hasek is the greatest player ever to play his position, I think he gets the edge in the debate over the franchise’s best.
Nearly a decade of playoff failures, a series sweep of a rival, dusting one of the best defensemen in the league adds up to the most memorable goal in franchise history.
It’s hard to appropriately catalog all of the incredible things Dominik Hasek did. Somewhere in there is his 70-save, four-overtime shutout of New Jersey. The Sabres went 0-9(!!!) on the powerplay and Hasek kept them alive until Dave Hannan could chip a backhand over Martin Brodeur and spark Rick Jeanneret’s Jimmy Hoffa goal call, forging yet another unforgettable playoff triumph.
Farewell Old Friend
Ask any Sabres fan of a certain age their thoughts about the Sabres original home and they’ll bend your ear about the pitch of the oranges, the character of the building and all of the little quirks that came with the old, non-standard buildings that were commonplace until the building boom of the 90s.
Home to hockey long before the inception of the Sabres and played host to the franchise for 26 years prior to the construction of a new, modern building. The Sabres won their final game against Hartford and Pat LaFontaine scored the final, symbolic goal before the lights were turned out.
In true Buffalo fashion, it took 13 years for the building to come down, and half of the site where The Aud stood is still a barren dirt pit. When Canalside is set up for skating, a red line marks the former spot of center ice in the old building, a small reminder of the stage that the first 26 years of Sabres hockey played out on.