By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Pierre Turgeon might be the most underrated Buffalo Sabre in history. Turgeon joined the team in 1987 as the first overall draft choice. He stayed through for slightly more than four seasons, piling up 323 points in 322 games, before he was traded to the Islanders in a 1991 deal that brought Pat LaFontaine to Buffalo.
Turgeon went on to play 19 NHL seasons, scoring 1,327 points in 1,294 games for Buffalo, the Islanders, Montreal, St. Louis, Dallas and Colorado. The center also averaged almost a point per game in the playoffs (97 games, 109 points). He won the Lady Byng Trophy in 1993.
Turgeon made a rare visit in Buffalo last week when the team celebrated the ‘90s as part of its 50th anniversary celebration. The 50-year-old participated in a group interview. The highlight for me was that I told him a fact about his career that genuinely caught him by surprise. The transcript has been edited slightly for clarity and background information.
Question: Are you enjoying the reunion?
Pierre Turgeon: It’s been great. Friday night I went out with Brad May and his wife and a couple of other players. Today we met with some of the other guys. I had never met a few of them. I had played against them. It’s fun to be back and spending time with them. I’m glad to be part of the Sabres family.
Question: How different does the city of Buffalo look to you?
Turgeon: I was here two years ago when I was working with the Kings. I didn’t have a chance to walk around. This time I did check it out, and it’s incredible. The downtown area has changed in a great way. I’m so glad that I was able to do this.
Question: You started your career here and had four good years before you were traded. Do you have any regrets about leaving here?
Turgeon: It’s part of growing. It’s part of the business. I’m so glad I started with the Knox family (as owners) and Gerry Meehan as the general manager. I grew a lot here. My first year, I was 18 years old and I couldn’t speak a word of English. I’m a little bit better now. I really grew a lot in those first three or four years. I was able to move forward. I loved what I did. But it was a great place to start. I love Buffalo. When I came here, I was so young. I got to play with guys like Lindy Ruff, Clark Gillies, Mark Napier. I remember sitting next to Clark Gillies, who had that huge beard. I was like, “I know who you are, don’t speak to me.” There are great memories here.
Question: Was it scary to start here? You were the No. 1 pick, and you came to a new city with a different language.
Turgeon: I don’t think the on-ice stuff was scary. I think the off-ice stuff was scary. It’s the practice, the coach talking – you go to a spot in drills and hope you are right. I lived with a family here. They only spoke English. I had Jacques Cloutier as a mentor. He really helped me with the language. But it was tough for the first couple of years, for sure.
Question: Most people don’t realize that you had more goals in your career than Gil Perreault (512) and Jean Beliveau (507). It’s got to be amazing for a kid to come out of Rouyn, Quebec, and do that.
Turgeon: I’m learning (about such milestones) even now. You’re right – I grew up seven hours from Montreal. I never thought I’d be able to play in the NHL for 19 seasons. I was able to do something I loved. I was blessed to do it. Getting on the ice, I always felt like I got into a bubble, a zone. You just do what you do, just like you did when you were three years old. But I loved the game. I still play. I still go on the ice, although I don’t feel the same the next morning.
Question: What was it like to be the captain of the Montreal Canadiens?
Turgeon: Incredible. You grow up following the Montreal Canadiens, and then you join the Canadiens. We closed the Forum when I was there and opened the Molson Centre. You might remember that night at the Forum, with all the ceremony and Maurice Richard’s standing ovation. It was incredible, and I was a part of it. I was only there for a year and a half, and for me I was there at the right place at the right time. I couldn’t ask for more. I was proud of it.
Question: After retirement, it seemed like you were enjoying your job as an assistant coach with the Kings. Why aren’t you doing it any more?
Turgeon: I loved being around the boys. I loved the game of hockey. I enjoyed it. But it was 16 hours (of work per day). I wanted to see my son play hockey. My wife and I are in a place where we want to travel now. My last child is 21, so we can enjoy life a little more. That’s what we are doing right now. But the Kings are a great organization. Rob Blake and Luc Robitaille are incredible people. They offered me that job, saying if I didn’t like it, that would be OK. I liked it, but the amount of time it takes is huge.
Question: Have you participated in any alumni events as a Sabre before?
Turgeon: No, this is my first one. I’ve been busy with my kids. I coached them when I retired. Then I was working with the Kings. But my kids are all older now, so I’m in a place where we have some time to enjoy my life. We’re grateful for that. It’s a great time to come back and see the boys back in Buffalo.
Question: You have the statistics that might be worthy of induction into the Hall of Fame. Do you think about that much?
Turgeon: I hear about it. A lot of people talk about it. I feel like my name comes up. It would be an honor obviously. I always tell my wife this. I was blessed to do something I love. I enjoyed the game. That would be the icing on the cake.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)