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  • Budd Bailey

Farewell to a local legend

Updated: Sep 27, 2023

By Budd Bailey

Rick Jeanneret, the voice of Buffalo Sabres’ hockey for more than 50 years, made hockey games better.

No, hold on for a minute. That’s an incomplete sentence. Let’s try something.

Rick Jeanneret, the voice of Buffalo Sabres’ hockey for more than 50 years, made hockey games better than they really were.

That little distinction might be one of the keys to his popularity. Jeanneret died on Thursday at the age of 81, drawing tributes throughout the hockey world.

I made a small discovery when the broadcaster moved over to do a simulcast on both radio and television in the early 1990s, right after Ted Darling had to step down because of illness. The transition from Darling’s time on television had some awkward moments, and the team eventually decided to just have Rick do both at once.

I’m not sure the play-by-play call was any different when the television duties were added. He still brought plenty of enthusiasm to the game. The descriptions sounded similar, at least to me. Rick still used the same colorful language along the way, making up phrases as he went. That’s more difficult than it looks.

But sometimes Jeanneret would raise his voice level a notch or two when the play didn’t really call for it. It was almost as if he wanted to make sure everyone was paying attention after a dull stretch, which was entirely possible. The voice went up and got louder occasionally on a harmless-looking shot on goal. He could command attention, and the people tuning in loved him for it. Then there were the fights, which often sounded like they were Ali-Frazier IV. Again, he knew what a good-sized segment of his audience wanted. Rick knew how to entertain. That helped make him the outstanding announcer he was.

It’s not well remembered the Rick wasn’t with the Sabres in the beginning in 1970. Darling was hired as the radio play-by-play man, and Dave Hodge – Ron MacLean’s predecessor as host of Hockey Night in Canada – had the same job on television. But in Year Two, Darling’s television work was starting to increase, and the team wanted its employee to be in the spotlight. Jeanneret came across the border to do an increasing number of radio broadcasts. While the team improved quickly, I’m convinced that Darling and Jeanneret’s professionalism behind the microphone was a factor in the team’s growing popularity.

When Rick moved over to television, he eventually gained legendary status locally. His calls became repeated by fans throughout Western New York. “Top shelf, where mamma hides the cookies.” “Oh brother, we are not worthy.”  “Now do you believe? These guys are good! Scary good!” And of course in 1993, “May Day! May Day! May Day!”

Of a professional level, Jeanneret’s actions were well known and beloved. On a personal level, Rick always was a bit of a puzzle to me. Even though we saw each other a lot from 1986 to 2001 in professional capacities, including seven years of my following the Sabres around the continent at times, I don’t recall any long conversations. I never felt comfortable calling him RJ. He was professional with me and good natured, but it didn’t go any further than that. Some of that was that we had different responsibilities that meant we were busy at different times. And let’s just say we had contrasting ways of keeping occupied during down time on the road with the team.

Even so, I never did break through the wall with him, and I’ve heard others make the same comment. I once relayed a request from a publisher to see if he was interesting in writing a book on his hockey life. He thanked me and told me he wasn’t interested – which was the answer I expected. It was difficult to know if he was surprisingly shy, somewhat distant by nature, or simply didn’t let many people in – or some combination. So I can’t come up stories here about him that reveal the aspects of his personality.

But I do remember this. This last time I saw Rick was at Paul Wieland’s funeral in Olean some months ago. He had traveled all the way from Niagara Falls, Ontario, to St. Bonaventure University for the service. When it was over, he turned around immediately and went home. To be fair, I have no idea what his health situation was at that point. But at least from my point of view, that seemed strangely in character.

Jeanneret did, of course, have a strong relationship with thousands of people – his listeners. His final years as the Sabres’ broadcaster was a lovefest of sorts, and deservedly so.

Let’s sum up his legacy this way. If you were asked to come up with the Mount Rushmore monument for the four most important people in Sabres history (non-owners) division, you’d probably pick Punch Imlach, Gil Perreault, Dominik Hasek … and Rick Jeanneret.

And how many other sports broadcasters around the world would pop up on a team’s list like that?

(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)

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