By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The Buffalo Sabres have had plenty of “what ifs?” in their history since they started playing in the NHL in 1970. One that is overlooked came in 1999.
Rhett Warrener came in a deal with Florida on March 23 of that year with a draft choice (one that was later used to select Ryan Miller) for Mike Wilson. He quickly became one of the team’s top defensive defenseman, and was part of the run that took the Sabres to the Stanley Cup finals.
But Warrener missed the famous “No Goal” game, which was Game Six of the finals, because of an injury suffered in Game Five. He had to sit and watch his team lose that series.
Rhett was in town for 2000’s Night at the KeyBank Center, and discussed his time with the Sabres. Some editing of the group interview has been done for clarity.
Question: What was your reaction to joining the Sabres in 1999?
Rhett Warrener: I got here in March, and when people ask me about that team, I say that I remember the first game in Ottawa. I remember looking around the dressing room, and I’m thinking, “slug … slug … slug … slug.” Then I got to Dominik (Hasek), and I thought, “Oh, there’s our chance. That’s the guy who might change things.”
James Patrick and I were talking a few months ago about those days, and he brought up something interesting. We were fast. In today’s world, everybody’s fast. Fast, fast, fast – that’s what everything’s based on. But that ’99 team, we may not have been that skilled, but we had a lot of fast players like Brian Holzinger, Curtis Brown, Geoff Sanderson. We could really skate. That was a big piece of it.
Question: Martin Rucinsky of the Canadiens once said that the Sabres had an average team with a great goaltender. How did they all come together?
Warrener: You weren’t good enough to complain about your role. You were told to do something, and you were like, “O.K., that’s fine. Welcome to the NHL. I’ll do it.” That was one of the big things. There weren’t a lot of egos around. You weren’t good enough to have an ego.
Any time you play on a winning team, that’s a key. I think it gets lost in today’s world. You saw who won the Cup last year. Those guys in St. Louis all came together and played for each other. They bought in. That’s how the team here in ’99 was. Dom was special, but the rest of us were guys just trying to do anything to help us win. We really rallied around that.
Question: What happened on your injury in Game Five?
Warrener: Stupid Rammer (Mike Ramsey, Sabres assistant coach) sent me out to fight Derian Hatcher, which is never a good idea, especially when you’re tired and beat up. I snapped my ankle.
Question: That meant you had to watch Game Six from the sidelines. Where were you that night when Brett Hull scored his famous Cup-winning goal while in the crease?
Warrener: I was in the dressing room. I had just had surgery, and I was on crutches. I was hobbling around. I wish I had gone out and thrown one of my crutches at the refs or somebody. It was disheartening, to say the least.
Question: Sounds like you’re still a little upset about it.
Warrener: Whether you agreed with it or not – and I thought it was a goofy rule to begin with – it was called so strictly all year. One of the guys from the Calgary media was at the game, and he said to me, “Everyone knew it wasn’t a goal, but everyone was on the ice. It was too late.”
You live with it. But I wouldn’t mind an apology. We’d all like that.
Question: You were traded to Calgary in 2003 in the deal that brought Chris Drury here, and retired in 2008. What are you doing these days?
Warrener: I did eight or nine years of morning radio in Calgary. I just retired. The mornings were too early. I didn’t feel like going to bed at 6 o’clock at night. I went to the Flames, and I’m doing a little bit of player development work for them.
Question: What was the reunion with your ex-teammates like?
Warrener: I was driving down here, and the music was very loud, and I was very excited. I don’t know what the song was, but I was very excited. There were lots of emotions, lots of thoughts – even in the weeks leading up to it. There were guys I had good times with, and memories with. Whenever we get together, they bring up things that you had forgotten about. It’s lot of fun.
Question: You played for three teams, and they all reached the Stanley Cup Finals. What’s your biggest connection to Buffalo?
Warrener: The thing about Buffalo for me is the city – the way that people treat you and how they take care of you. That’s what I remember about Buffalo. I still come back here. My wife is from here. Everyone loves the town.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)