The season seems to be cruelly winding down for the Sabres.
Unless by act of miracle by our hockey gods, Sabres fans are looking at three more games with the Blue and Gold this season. It’s been a heroic run at the playoffs, and that’s been fun, but now the playoffs are a longshot at best.
But the anxiety and hope over this team isn’t disappearing for me. Instead, it’s switching over from the ice to the broadcast booth – to Rick Jeanneret, and the hope that he signs on for another season.
Before I go on, I should add that this post is not to alarm anyone. Rather, I’m putting these thoughts to print so that we savor every call in these last three games. Don’t take these three games for granted, not with RJ in the booth. (I’m assuming that he’ll be calling the away games in Philly and Boston that wrap up the season.)
I don’t need to tell any Sabres fan about how much it means to have his talent and personality with us along the way. If you do need a refresher, watch his Sabres Hall of Fame induction from earlier this season. It points out a lot of fond memories.
One other thing was pointed out to me when I first saw that clip – that little shake in his left hand. I can’t and will not speculate on what that might possibly mean, but I’ve noticed it throughout the season, and it’s been a subtle reminder to me that RJ is simply no spring chicken. Of course, that’s no secret.
Jeanneret has been shortening his play-calling schedule since the 2006-07 season. Between then and the 2010-11 season, he elected to take vacation time when the Sabres went on those long, arduous west coast roadies. Before then, he had notably only ever missed two games due to illness.
Before this season started, he sat down with Terry Pegula and Ted Black and worked out a part time schedule. As RJ himself put it, the idea is to lengthen his career by giving himself the rest he needs every now and then. We all would like for him to lengthen it for one more year – heck, we’d like another 40+ years.
This season, we’ve gotten a taste of what life will be when RJ inevitably hangs up his mike. Kevin Sylvester has been calling the play on those nights when RJ takes a break. There’s been a mixed reaction to his performance throughout the fan base, but that’s to be expected. Slyvester recently spoke to the WNY Hockey Report about it:
“I feel a greater responsibility to the fans, there is pressure here, you’re filling in for Rick Jeanneret.”
“I think I went through that in the previous seasons when I filled in,” said Sylvester. “I realize that not everybody is going to like my call, particularly when compared to Rick. But I think most people are respectful of it.”
“I don’t pay attention to it because I’m a positive person and I like to stick with the positive things in life. If someone doesn’t like the way I call a game, I can’t change that for that person. That’s their choice.”
“There are probably people who don’t like how I host a show, I’m OK with that, I get that. It’s like going to a movie. Not everybody is going to like the movie they went to see, that is what it is.”
“I think the greater challenge for me is to be accurate, be entertaining and continue to build and improve in my call. That’s what my goal has been.”
Many fans watching and listening have a strong connection to the work and the sound of Rick Jeanneret; but for Sylvester, it remains about doing the best job that he can.
“I’m here to call the Buffalo Sabres game,” said Sylvester. “I’m here to announce the hockey game the best way I know how. I inject some of my personality into it. I’m doing that more now than perhaps at the beginning of the season.”
“I’ve looked to establish a base and then build from there. If I look at it as I’m filling in for Rick, I would feel like I had to be like him. I don’t look at it that way nor should I try to be like him.”
Like many people in Buffalo, Sylvester is a fan of Rick Jeanneret.
“Everybody likes Rick including me,” confirmed Sylvester. “He’s one of a kind, he’s a gem and we’re lucky to have him and I hope he continues on for as long as he wants to and is able to.”
Some wonder why Sylvester would put himself in the position of substituting for Jeanneret, but clearly he enjoys calling a National Hockey League Game.
“There are plenty of people who have asked ‘Why would you want to do that’? The comment is always, you never want to be the guy who replaces a legend.”
“My response is, A: I’m not replacing him, no one can replace him. B: someone has to do it, and C: who knows I might just be good. I look at a guy like John Murphy and what he’s been able to do on Buffalo Bills radio stepping in for Van (Miller) when he retired and Murph does a great job. There are plenty of people, who certainly can’t do it, but Rick is one of a kind and most people recognize that, understand and appreciate that.”
I’ve been lucky to have been raised on Rick Jeanneret hockey, but just how good he is never really hit me until I was living out of town, and catching Sabres games through other teams’ broadcasts. I lived long enough south of the Mason Dixon line to know all too well the frustration of missing out on his play by play. I was part of a rowdy bunch of displaced Sabres fans down there, a hearty group that was never shy to shout at the big screens at the local BW3’s, and always prouder than ever over our goal celebrations when the Trivia Night announcer sighed into his microphone and said “Looks like the Sabres scored again.”
Then, there were those rare nights at that sports bar when we actually got to listen to the Sabres feed – usually about three times a year – those nights were completely different. The conversation was kept low and brief, until the commercial breaks when all the jokes and conversational bits my buddies and I had been trying to say would all spill out at once. Then, as soon as the game came back on, hands would raise up, and the attention would shift back to RJ. And of course, there was always that sudden rush of self-control when the Sabres scored a goal – despite how much we wanted to yell and whoop, we had to hold it all in, hold our breath really, until RJ’s goal call was complete.
After his call, we let all those whoops out in gushing streams. Anyone who talked over the call was in trouble, and had to pony up for the next round of drinks and wings.
This season, all Sabres fans have been given a healthy dose of life without RJ. He’s taken more nights off than ever before, and listening to Sylvester has been quite an adjustment for many – and one that none of us are ready for. Just like the boys and I held our breath at that BW3’s down South, we’ve all now learned what it feels to be waiting on RJ’s call.
Again, none of this is to alarm you – heck, not one bit of this notion should carry the slightest surprise to any Sabres fan. Still, at least for now, what we are looking at is just three more games with Jeanneret in the booth. That’s it, until he announces his intentions for next season.
We all know he’d like nothing else to be there with us in 2012-13, and the feeling is mutual.
Still, when the final whistle blows on the 2011-12 campaign, resigning Jeanneret will quickly become one of the biggest offseason questions.
Will he retire, or won’t he?
RJ, as always: we’re waiting on your call.