By HOWARD BERGER
BUFFALO (Dec. 16) – Tim Connolly almost escaped.
Friendly and accommodating, though clearly reticent of media, the ex-Buffalo Sabres forward was quietly sneaking out of First Niagara Center today just as a pack of reporters left the seating area at the end of the Leafs morning skate. Talk about timing.
“I wondered where you guys were,” Connolly cracked, knowing – full well – the visitors’ dressing room wouldn’t open to media until after coach Ron Wilson’s daily scrum. Having not participated in the optional work-out, Connolly was almost in the clear. Fifteen yards further and ten seconds earlier, he’d have been out the security entrance and on his way to the team hotel. Instead, he paused and spoke about returning to this city for the first time in a rival uniform.
In various parts of nine seasons after a trade from the New York Islanders on June 24, 2001, Connolly skated for Buffalo – always performing diligently, but never quite to the level expected of him as the fifth overall choice in the 1999 NHL draft. A dreadful concussion along with injuries to his back, ribs and hip severely limited Connolly’s playing time. He missed the entire 2003-04 regular season after sustaining a concussion in an exhibition game against Chicago at Rochester, N.Y. A second head injury in the 2006 Stanley Cup playoffs cost him all but two games of the following season. Other ailments limited Connolly to 48 games in both 2007-08 and 2008-09. What a change it must have been for the Syracuse native after missing only three matches in his first four NHL seasons.
Through it all, Connolly registered 118 goals and 395 points in 627 regular-season games – his high-water mark coming in 2009-10 when he had 17-48-65 totals with Buffalo. A change of scenery was in the best interests of both the club and player this past summer and Connolly inked a two-year, $9.5-million pact with the Leafs as an unrestricted free agent – his salary-cap hit a reasonable $4.75 million. Injury problems followed him to Toronto: a shoulder ailment in the pre-season costing him the first eight games of the regular schedule; another absence of four games followed in November.
The timing of his return to this city, however, could be perfect, as Connolly is coming off his most influential game as a Leaf. He scored both goals, including the overtime winner, in a 2-1 triumph over Carolina at the Air Canada Centre on Tuesday night. In 18 matches so far, he has a respectable six goals and 15 points.
Most are expecting the knowledgeable hockey fans of Buffalo to accord Connolly a warm welcome tonight, mixed with a few jeers.
Connolly’s impromptu media scrum is part of my photo-review of the Leafs morning skate today here in the Queen City:
IT IS COOL AND WINDY TODAY, BUT CONDITIONS COULD BE A HECK OF A LOT WORSE AROUND HERE IN MID-DECEMBER. BUFFALO’S ART-DECO CITY HALL RISES (ABOVE) FROM NIAGARA SQUARE IN THE DOWNTOWN CORE.
THE SABRES HOME (ABOVE AND BELOW) IS ON ITS THIRD NAME SINCE OPENING IN SEPTEMBER 1996. INITIALLY CALLED MARINE MIDLAND ARENA, IT WAS LATER NAMED HSBC ARENA AND RE-CHRISTENED FIRST NIAGARA CENTER PRIOR TO THE CURRENT SEASON.
THE SABRES DID A WONDERFUL JOB RE-MODELLING THEIR RINK-LEVEL CORRIDOR PRIOR TO THIS SEASON – ADDING A WALL OF HONOUR (ABOVE) AND NEW PANELLING OUTSIDE THE DRESSING ROOM ENTRANCE (BELOW).
VIEW FROM THE ZAMBONI ENTRANCE OF FIRST NIAGARA CENTER (ABOVE). THE COLOR-SCHEME OF ARENA SEATING (BELOW) HAS ALWAYS REFLECTED THE SABRES ORIGINAL – AND CURRENT – BLEND OF BLUE AND GOLD, EVEN WHEN THE CLUB SPENT A DECADE WEARING RED AND BLACK.
AS LEAFS TAKE TO THE ICE FOR THEIR MORNING SKATE TODAY (ABOVE), GOALIES JAMES REIMER AND JONAS GUSTAVSSON GO THROUGH THEIR WARM-UP ROUTINE (BELOW). REIMER WILL START TONIGHT AGAINST THE SABRES.
THE SABRES EARLY HISTORY IS DISPLAYED WITH PROMINENCE IN THE RAFTERS OF FIRST NIAGARA CENTER. THE BLUE-AND-GOLD BANNERS (ABOVE) HUNG IN THE OLD BUFFALO MEMORIAL AUDITORIUM (SABRES HOME FROM THEIR 1970 INCEPTION TO THE END OF THE 1995-96 SEASON) BEFORE BEING TRANSFERED TO THE NEW BUILDING. THE BEST FORWARD LINE IN CLUB ANNALS IS CELEBRATED BELOW ALONG WITH ARGUABLY THE GREATEST DEFENSEMAN IN MAPLE LEAFS HISTORY – TIM HORTON – WHO PLAYED PARTS OF TWO SEASONS FOR PUNCH IMLACH HERE IN BUFFALO BEFORE DYING IN A FEBRUARY 1974 SINGLE-CAR ACCIDENT ON THE Q-E-W NEAR ST. CATHARINES.
THE PRESS LOCATION AT FIRST NIAGARA CENTER (ABOVE) IS NAMED IN MEMORY OF THE SABRES LEGENDARY TELEVISION VOICE, TED DARLING, WHO DIED IN 1996 AFTER A LONG STRUGGLE WITH ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE.
LEAF PLAYERS TAKE SHOTS AT JAMES REIMER (ABOVE) DURING SKATE THIS MORNING AND THEN GATHER (BELOW) FOR A GROUP STRETCH BEFORE LEAVING THE ICE.
SECURITY ENTRANCE TO THE ARENA (ABOVE) SHOWS HOW CLOSE EX-SABRE TIM CONNOLLY WAS TO ESCAPING FROM REPORTERS EARLIER TODAY. ALWAYS COOPERATIVE, THOUGH, CONNOLLY PAUSED AND DISCUSSED HIS RETURN TO BUFFALO FOR THE BETTER PART OF FIVE MINUTES (BELOW).
WITH BUFFALO’S TALLEST BUILDING – THE 40-STOREY ONE HSBC CENTER – IN THE BACK-GROUND, WE SEE FORMER SITE OF THE BUFFALO MEMORIAL AUDITORIUM (ABOVE AND BELOW): CURRENTLY BEING RE-DEVELOPED. THE AUD, AS IT WAS KNOWN, STOOD VACANT FOR MORE THAN A DECADE BEFORE ITS GRADUAL DEMOLITION.