By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Daniel Briere came to Buffalo in one of the most one-sided transactions in the city’s sports history.
The Sabres acquired him from Phoenix on March 10, 2003 for Chris Gratton; a draft choice also traveled in each direction. Briere was a first-round draft pick in 1996 who wasn’t given a chance to play regularly with the Coyotes until the 2001-02 season, when he was 24. The center checked in at 5-foot-9, 174 pounds, and that was small for a forward. Gratton was 6-4 and 226 pounds, an answer for a Phoenix team that wanted to get bigger up front.
While Gratton didn’t do much for the Coyotes, Briere was an immediate hit in Buffalo. The Quebec native scored 12 points in 14 games at the end of the 2002-03 season. The next season he set a career high with 65 points. Then the NHL took a year off due to labor problems, and when it returned it had changed the rules to emphasize speed and scoring. It was a perfect fit for Briere.
He became a leader of the Sabres with 58 points in 48 games in 2005-06, and led the team to the conference finals. A year later, Briere led Buffalo in scoring with 95 points, as the team had the best regular season record in the league.
And then he was gone. He and fellow center Chris Drury both left the team via free agency, and everything changed for the Sabres. Briere played until he was 37, but he was never better than he was here.
Daniel, still a fan favorite of Western New York fans, was delighted to return to Buffalo for 2000s Night earlier this month. Here is the transcript of his group interview, edited for clarity:
Question: What’s it like to come back to Buffalo?
Daniel Briere: I always felt a little special from the first day I stepped off the plane here. There’s a special feeling around it. I had some great years and a special team for the two years after the lockout. We were so close to winning it all. Those are the things that stay with you. We had a close-knit team. We’re seeing each other now, and it feels like we never left each other. Coming back here, seeing all the guys, seeing the fans – it’s a special feeling.
Question: The Sabres more or less exploded as a contender after the lockout. Why was that team so good?
Briere: We had a lot of guys who were coming into their own at the same time. That was part of our strength. We had a lot of guys who were about the same age. That made us tighter as a team, but we also had quality character veterans that could keep us together – guys like James Patrick and Teppo Numminen. A guy like Jay McKee was our age, but he had so much experience because he got into the NHL at 18. Those guys kept us together with their leadership. Everybody else grew together and made the team better.
Question: You were first closely linked with Chris Drury when you were the top scorers and leaders of those excellent Sabre teams. What was your relationship with Chris, who was considered one of the best “winners” of his era?
Briere: To me, I felt honored to share a captaincy with Chris Drury. We all know his background, what he did at a young age – winning a Stanley Cup in Colorado. It was a huge honor to share that with him. We had a special bond because of it. We shared a lot of things. It will always be something that will be between us.
Question: The team quickly got on a role in the 2006 playoffs, winning the first round against Philadelphia in six games. Tim Connolly was playing well at that time, but he suffered a concussion in the next round in Ottawa. How much did that hurt the team?
Briere: He was the wild card for us. We had different lines. We had the Drury line, we had my line, and Derek Roy’s line. Tim came out of nowhere, and he was a force. He didn’t have a specific line, but he could do so much. He was so talented, so skilled. You could plug him in anywhere. He was so smart, and a special talent.
Question: The area really got caught up with that 2006 playoff run. What was it like to be a part of it?
Briere: That’s part of the reason why I was so moved playing here. They care about their team. That side of it was really special – the bond that we created with the fans. We came out of nowhere after the lockout, and the fans didn’t expect it. They just ran with it. I’ll never forget Game Six, the overtime win (against Carolina) to take it to Game Seven. (Briere scored the winning goal that day.) Fans were hanging out in the Atrium. Nobody wanted to leave. That’s one of my greatest memories of the Sabres’ fan base.
Question: Do you think about that team and believe it should have won the Stanley Cup?
Briere: When I look back, still to this day I felt we were the best team of the last four. To win a Stanley Cup, you need more than a good team. You need some breaks to go your way. It didn’t happen. I wish we could have had a few more cracks together at it. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen. That’s definitely the year that I felt it was really close.
Question: A year later, the Sabres had a great regular season and made it back to the conference finals. But Ottawa won that series in five games, and in the summer you and Drury both left as free agents.
Briere: It wasn’t my decision. I had to move on, unfortunately. That’s the way it was. It happened. There are no hard feelings. I thought I was going to be a Sabre for the rest of my career, honestly. Things happen for a reason, and I’m not trying to throw anyone under the bus. It’s done. We can’t change anything about it.
Question: You played for the Philadelphia team that beat the Sabres in the playoffs in 2011 – the last time Buffalo qualified for the postseason.
Briere: I knew the last few years were tough. I didn’t realize it was the last time (that Buffalo was in the playoffs). It’s almost hard to imagine. I look at their team and there’s a great base there to have a special team. I don’t want to speculate on what needs to be done. That’s not my job. You look at the top-end players they have, and there’s definitely a recipe to have a great team here.
Question: You are working for the Flyers now, running the operations of the ECHL’s Maine Mariners. How has that worked out for you?
Briere: It’s my third year in the front office and second with the team. Honestly, I’m having a blast – gaining some experience. One day I hope to have the chance to do the same thing at a higher level. I didn’t think I’d have as much fun doing it off the ice as I have. It’s a great experience.
At that level, I have the chance to do everything. I oversee the business side. I’m involved with ticket sales, corporate partnerships, marketing – all that stuff. On the hockey side, I act as the GM. I find the players, the coaches. We have a salary cap to follow. We don’t have a big, big staff, so everyone has to do many jobs. That’s what minor hockey is. It’s a great experience.
Question: What do Sabre fans say to you when they see you now?
Briere: “We miss you, sorry you had to move on.” I know it’s not an easy time for the Sabres, so there’s a lot of “Wish you were still playing.” Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be able to keep up any more. I might be able to give them a shift, and then give up. It’s much safer to watch at this point.
Question: If a player from the current team asked you what it was like around here when the Sabres were winners, what would you tell him?
Briere: I’d say one of the best places to play and have everyone behind you. I hope they get to feel it, with what’s going on with the Bills, and to see how passionate the fans are about their team. Let’s face it – it’s mostly about the Bills and the Sabres. If they get to be a team that contends again, the fan base will be ecstatic, and they will be there for the players. That relationship is extremely special.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)