By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The Buffalo Sabres brought in many of their former captains on Saturday to help celebrate the start of their 50th year in the National Hockey League. You certainly can’t write a history of the team without mentioning one of them, as Gerry Meehan played a key role in a couple of different eras.
For starters, he was an original Sabre. Meehan was taken in the expansion draft from the Philadelphia Flyers. The center earned regular duty here and eventually was named captain for three seasons. Meehan stayed through 1974, when he and Mike Robitaille were traded to Vancouver for Jocelyn Guevremont. After finishing his playing career in 1979, Meehan received a law degree and was hired as the Sabres’ assistant general manager in 1984. He moved up to the general manager’s spot in 1986, and stayed there through 1993. Meehan left the organization in 1996.
Today at 73, he lives in the Toronto area; he teaches sports law at the University at Buffalo and does other legal work. Before Saturday’s game, Meehan spent a few minutes to look back on his career in hockey:
Buffalo Sports Page: You turned pro in 1967, but spent most of the next three seasons in the minor leagues. What was your reaction when the Sabres took you in the 1970 expansion draft?
Gerry Meehan: I’m from Toronto, and this was the start of 10 years in the league for me. So it was a fantastic thing. I hoped it would happen, and it kept me from going to law school for 12 years.
BSP: Buffalo gave you the chance to play every night in the NHL. Was that what you needed to become a regular to play at the game’s highest level?
Meehan: I felt I had the skill level to play in the league. I had to learn a little bit more about how to compete on an every night basis. When you play in the minors, it’s usually for a reason. Either you’re not good enough to play in the NHL, or you’re not ready. It’s one or the other. I wasn’t ready. When I left the Toronto organization, I probably was No. 25 on the roster. So I wasn’t far off playing for an Original Six team. I never felt I didn’t have the ability, but I needed some maturity. I learned to use the assets I had to play here.
BSP: You replaced Floyd Smith as the team’s captain in 1971. What was it like to assume those duties?
Meehan: In those days, we had such a mix of players. We had (Gil) Perreault, we had Tim Horton, we had Don Luce – we had a lot of the leaders. I might have been the most experienced of the young guys, which is why I was chosen. But there was no shortage of leadership in the room. It was a chance to be a key part of the team, and (it was) very much an honor.
BSP: You did some legal work for the team after you graduated from law school, but then you became the first ex-Sabre to join the team’s front office.
Meehan: It was pretty exciting in the sense that it didn’t happen all at once. It happened as a natural progression of going from law school to working for the Sabres’ law firm. Then Scotty Bowman hired me as assistant general manager. I worked with him on the hockey side as well as the legal side. The flow was perfect. When I became general manager, it was a function of being in the right place at the right time. Thankfully, Scotty gave me the chance to learn and grow on the job and be able to move into the chair seamlessly.
BSP: Another Sabres’ general manager, Darcy Regier, said the general manager’s position isn’t the place to go if you are looking for fun. But taking over the Sabres must have been a huge challenge.
Meehan: Certainly. I used to say, I love it when we win, I don’t mind it when we tie, and I hate it when we lose. That’s what a general manager’s job – elation, disappointment, challenges, exciting opportunities, and ways to make a statement about what you believe and how the game should be played. It was a huge honor and huge opportunity for me.
BSP: When you took over as general manager, the team was on its way to a last-place finish in the overall standings. But the Sabres moved above .500 only a year later, and by 1989-90 the team had the third-best record in the NHL. That’s an impressive turnaround, and you probably didn’t get enough credit for that. What went right?
Meehan: We moved up the ladder pretty quickly. It wasn’t so much a matter of lack of talent. It was a matter of team chemistry. Maybe it was the wrong personalities. I don’t know how to define it. Those guys became the basic of us acquiring a lot of good players. There was something that didn’t quite gel. It was a young team that needed to play and to learn and to grow. In those days, it wasn’t like it was when I played. If you were good enough to play in the league, you played right away. Phil Housley, Dave Andreychuk, Paul Cyr, Pierre Turgeon – they played right away and made an impact.
BSP: Unfortunately for the Sabres, they had trouble getting over the hump in the postseason. That was an era where they went 10 years without a playoff series win. Do you think that getting out of the first round in those years might have changed history?
Meehan: Maybe. We were very close in 1992-93. We beat Boston in the first round, but we lost two key guys (Pat LaFontaine and Alexander Mogilny) in the playoffs. We were competing at a high level against the very best, but things change, I guess.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)