By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
It’s a good year to look back at Buffalo Sabres’ history, what with the team celebrating its 50th year of operation this winter. There is something missing in the celebration, of course – a reunion of the members of a championship team. That’s because the Sabres have never won it all.
They have come close a few times. The 1974-75 and 1998-99 teams both made the NHL Finals, only to lose. That 1974-75 squad was picked as the best in team history in a recent article in The Athletic. The ’75 Sabres were strong everywhere but goal, which turned out to be a fatal weak spot against Philadelphia. The ’99 Sabres were strong in goal but merely OK everywhere else, and took advantage of a flurry of first-round upsets to reach the final. They fell just short of beating Dallas. (No goal!)
The 2005-06 team probably was the only Sabre squad that should have won a Stanley Cup, or at least had the best opportunity to do so. Buffalo had the best team left standing after the first two rounds of the playoffs. But a number of injuries on defense left it too short-handed to beat Carolina in the Eastern Conference finals. The Hurricanes then rolled past a No. 8 seed in Edmonton in the final.
That brings us to one other team that was really good but perhaps a bit overlooked in such discussions. It was the 1979-80 edition, and it came to mind because of the book I’m reading. The season is mentioned somewhat briefly in Ken Dryden’s “authorized” biography of Scotty Bowman, which is one of the best hockey books I’ve ever read even without getting to the last 120 pages. And that discussion brought to mind a quote that’s been floating in my head for more than 30 years.
The 1979-80 Sabres were really good. That team was 47-17-17 for 110 points, second only to Philadelphia. Gil Perreault was still great, scoring 106 points even without the traded Rene Robert. Linemate Rick Martin had 45 goals. Danny Gare was tied for the league lead with 56 goals, teaming with Tony McKegney and Derek Smith to form a dangerous second line. Craig Ramsay, Don Luce and Ric Seiling were a very good checking line. They probably could have used another right winger, but otherwise was very complete up front.
The defense offered a new face in John Van Boxmeer, picked up in the Robert deal. Jim Schoenfeld, Larry Playfair and Bill Hajt were around, and Richie Dunn was a regular. Mike Ramsey joined the squad after the Olympics, and he fit in nicely. In goal, Don Edwards and Bob Sauve both played well, and they split the Vezina Trophy (then a team award for fewest goals-against). The key figure off the ice was Bowman, who had come over from Montreal to be coach and general manager after four straight Stanley Cups as coach of the Canadiens.
The Sabres came into the playoffs hot, going 8-0-6 in their last 14 games. They took care of Vancouver in the first round, three games to one, and did even better against Chicago in the second round with a four-game sweep. That meant the Sabres had to sit around for eight days for the next round to start, and Dryden speculates that the team lost its emotional momentum. The Islanders were waiting. They had been coming on in recent years, but started slowly in 1979-80. Then New York acquired Butch Goring from Los Angeles at the deadline, and he was a perfect fit. The Islanders won the first two games of the semifinal in Buffalo, split two games in Long Island and eventually won the series in six games. As we know, New York went on to down Philadelphia in the final, and won the next three Stanley Cups as well.
The Islanders had underachieved in the previous seasons, but their time apparently had come by 1980. They became one of the great dynasties in hockey history. The Sabres, meanwhile, had given everything they had – even Bowman says that in the book – in 1979-80 under the best coach in the business and it wasn’t good enough. The conventional wisdom was that it would be tough for the team to move up the ladder at that point. Maybe a little rebuilding on the fly was necessary under those circumstances.
And that brings us to 1989. I was writing a book on the history of the Sabres for the team’s 20th anniversary, and was talking to one of the players on that 1979-80 squad. After we finished the formal interview and I turned off the tape recorder, the player changed his tone drastically.
“We were so close to winning it all around that time,” the player said with large amounts of emotion (I’m paraphrasing but remember the sentiment quite clearly.). “We just needed a little help. Why not give up a draft choice in a trade that would have made us better now? The first-round draft pick might help us eventually, but someone might have come in as part of a trade for it and helped us right away.”
For the sake of argument, let’s assume the Sabres beat the Islanders in 1980 and win the Cup. Does New York get discouraged by coming close, and change the lineup with a big move? Does that dynasty ever get going? We’ll never know.
We do know in hindsight how things turned out. Roger Neilson took over behind the bench from Bowman, but the team slipped a bit. Perreault missed more than 20 games to injury, and near the deadline Martin and Luce were sent to the Kings for draft picks. Buffalo still had 99 points that season, but lost to Minnesota in the second round.
In hindsight, it looks as if 1980 was a golden opportunity to go “all in” for a Stanley Cup. The obvious currency would have been to trade draft picks. Remember, the NHL had started drafting 18-year-olds in 1979, so no one taken late in the first round in the summer of 1980 figured to be of immediate help. Steve Patrick went 20th in the first round to Buffalo that year, and Mike Moller was the team’s second-round pick. They didn’t provide much help in the short-term or long-term.
I’m not in the fault-assigning business here, since I’m not privy to the behind-the-scenes conversations. The Sabres were a small-market team, and Bowman points out in the book that ownership was generally unwilling to dig too deep into its pockets in that era. Maybe the Sabres were not going to be good enough in 1980 even with a couple of more players. Maybe a year later Perreault and Martin weren’t going to be able to play up to their old standards because of age and injuries. And maybe Bowman’s loss behind the bench in 1980-81 would have been damaging to Buffalo’s Cup hopes.
Still, it looks like our anonymous player was on to something. The window to win a championship usually isn’t open for very long. If you don’t go through it right away, it tends to slam shut for some time. Quite possibly, the Sabres had a rare chance to win that Cup around 1980 but let it pass. It wouldn’t have started a dynasty, but even one championship would have been nice.
That idea can be a bit haunting, even 40 years later.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)