By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Derek Plante might be as down to earth as any player who ever wore a Sabre uniform. Maybe that’s because he always remembered the long odds that he beat just to skate in the National Hockey League. The center was an eighth-round draft choice of Buffalo in 1989. After spending four years at Minnesota-Duluth, he grabbed a roster spot in the Sabres’ training camp in 1993. Plante stayed with the Sabres until 1998-99, when he was traded to the Dallas Stars.
Plante remained in the NHL until 2001, and went to Europe and Asia to play for a few more years. After some time as an assistant coach at his alma mater, where he won a national championship in 2011, he eventually landed a spot in player development for the Chicago Blackhawks’ organization. (“I love the game. It’s been great to be a part of it,” he said.)
Plante returned to his one of hockey homes last weekend as part of the Sabres’ 50th anniversary celebration. He took a few minutes to review some of the highlights of his career:
Buffalo Sports Page: How often do you come to Buffalo these days?
Derek Plante: I get back here once in a while for my job. I also came up for the national championship with UD (the Frozen Four) last year.
BSP: Like the rest of the guys, it looked like you thoroughly enjoyed seeing several of your former teammates.
Plante: It was a good group when I was here, and it was a good group when I see them now. There are great memories. It’s a really good bunch of guys. You go through the battles together, and you always have that connection. It’s easy to throw them together and say, “Yeah, let’s have some more fun.”
BSP: People might have forgotten that you were the leading scorer on a Sabre team that won a division title in 1996-97. That year had a little bit of everything, from moving into a new building to all sorts of controversy. What was it like?
Plante: It was an interesting season the way everything unfolded. We had a young team. Older guys were moving on. We had to stick together and work together. It was fun to build on that.
BSP: You’re always going to be remembered as the player who scored the first – and at this point – only game-winning goal in a Game Seven for the Sabres. You even scored the tying goal off a faceoff in the third period. That’s a pretty tough to act to follow for the rest of your career.
Plante: It was a highlight. It’s something you dream about as a kid – playing in a Game Seven or scoring in a Game Seven. It’s obviously a big deal. It’s all about timing. You score goals at the right time, and it helps. The tying goal wasn’t a great goal, but it was still a goal.
BSP: The overtime goal is a finalist in a fan vote right now for the biggest goal in Sabre history. Mike Wilson just told us how his head was turned away from the play when you scored – and then he heard the noise. What do you remember about it?
Plante: It just seemed like everything slowed down for a second. I took the shot (on Ottawa’s Ron Tugnutt), and it went in slow motion off the glove and into the net. It was almost like a movie. It’s a great memory for sure.
BSP: Some people around here might not remember that you’re one of the select few players in hockey history to be on a Stanley Cup-winning team with Dallas.
Plante: I got a ring out of it. It’s amazing how you realize that it’s such a goal to win a ring and then you don’t wear it much. But it’s just the achievement of winning it. That’s the most fun. The ring stays home, and the memories stay with you.
BSP: You weren’t in the lineup for Game Six against the Sabres in 1999, but you were in the building here. How odd was it to win a championship in Buffalo, of all places, after spending a few years as a player here?
Plante: It was such a surreal feeling. I was really connected to guys on the other team, and I had good friends with the Dallas team too. It was great to be on the side that won it, but to see the sorrow in the eyes of my friends on the other side was surreal.
BSP: Your NHL career was cut short because of back problems. Do you have any regrets about the way things went?
Plante: That’s part of sports – the body has to hold up. When I was growing up, I never went into it thinking I was going to be a pro hockey player. I wanted to play for my high school team first, and then play in college. Suddenly I realized I had a chance to play pro. Then I came in here and had a lot of fun.
BSP: Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about your dog during your time in Buffalo, Ti. His photo sometimes would go up on the scoreboard as part of your charity work here. Sometimes I wondered if Ti was the biggest celebrity in the Plante family.
Plante: For sure. I would go to the mall, the Galleria, and people would come up to me and say, “You’re the guy with the dog” and “How’s your dog?” He was quite popular. It was fun. I haven’t replaced him yet. We never got another dog after Ti died. Our kids wanted one, but it’s hard to do when I’m doing so much traveling.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)