by Jim Riggs
February 22, 1997
No Longer The NHL's Best-Kept Secret
The Buffalo Sabres are the talk of the hockey world and the sports world in general. Last season the team missed the playoffs and didn't do much in the off-season to improve. So other than new uniforms, a new logo and new arena, not many Buffalo fans thought they had much to look forward to this season. However, the team has put it all together and last week moved into first place in the Northeast Division.
The Sabres have been playing well since the season opened in October, but they weren't getting noticed until last month. Sports Illustrated did a feature story on the team along with The Hockey News and soon ESPN and other sports networks discovered the Sabres. They deserve the publicity, but do they want it?
It can be looked at as a double-edge sword. It's great to get the recognition, but now the team is no longer an unknown. So how do the players feel about it? That question was posed to defenseman Bob Boughner and left wing Brad May at the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame induction dinner Monday
"I think a lot of the guys are happy about the new publicity," Boughner said. "Any time you have that, you're in Sports Illustrated and on ESPN and everyone's doing features on you, it just means you're playing well and you're getting noticed. In the last couple of months we've earned a lot of respect around the NHL and in the media around the United States. I think it's a great thing for
Buffalo and great thing for the guys."
But hasn't all the publicity made opponents take Buffalo a lot more seriously?
"That's one thing we've been noticing," Boughner said. "The games are getting a little harder down the stretch now because of the recognition we've had. Every team that's coming in knows they have to play hard against us, so there's no easy games. Even when you're playing the last-place team in our league,
they're still going to be at their best. These (last) 20, 25 games are going to be hard-fought battles."
May said, "One thing that's special about our team is we're able to deal with those subtle changes like it was the old times (before all the publicity). We're not overconfident. We have the ability in our locker room to keep it at an even keel. We've dealt with it properly."
But he knows there is a downside to the Sabres finally "being discovered."
"A lot of teams might come in to play against us and take us for granted, but now they're coming in, they know we're for real so they're defintely prepared when they come in to play Buffalo," May said. "You've got to be ready because other teams are going to be gunning for you."
When looking back at training camp in September, did either player think the Sabres could do this well?
"To be honest with you, no," Boughner said. "We sat down as a team at the beginning of the year and I think our main goal was to finish in the top eight (in the conference). We thought we'd finish hopefully fifth, sixth, seven, eighth to get those last four playoff spots."
But, of course, those goals have changed.
"In the last two months or so we've sat down and changed our plans, obviously," Boughner said. "We're not only looking for first in our division, but we think the conference title is there. Philly is only four points in front of us and we play them a couple more times."
May said, "I know for a fact we were confident with what we had. We knew everybody doubted us, but in our locker room as a team we were confident we were a good hockey team. A lot of talent, but inexperienced. When someone doubts you, it's good. You can prove them wrong and maybe it fuels you a little bit."
It has certainly fueled the Sabres this season. Some keys to the success are, of course, goaltender Dominik Hasek and the coaching of Ted Nolan. Boughner and May agreed with that, but came up with some other important factors.
"Playing 500 on the road, that's a key to winning in the league," Boughner said. "We go into other teams' rinks and we're ready to play,"
The Sabres started the week with the third-best road record in the league with 12-12-4.
May pointed out, "There's 22 keys there because there's 22 players who come to play every night. The nights when we win, we have a full team going."
He also thought early-season injuries were a blessing in disguise.
"The other players that haven't been around too long had opportunities to step in and accept responsibility," he said. "I think it was great for our team."
Even though they are no longer the NHL's best-kept secret, the Sabres have continued to win. With last night's win over the Islanders, the team's streak without a loss reached 11.
It's also obvious the Sabres have never heard of the Sports Illustrated jinx.