By HOWARD BERGER
BUFFALO (Apr. 3) – Happily for me, I walked into the Sabres dressing room at First Niagara Center after the morning skate today with one of my favorite people in the game: broadcaster and ex-Buffalo defenseman Mike Robitaille. I’m old enough to remember Mike, now 64, playing junior hockey for the Kitchener Rangers in 1967-68 and I can still hear the late Danny Gallivan drawing out the name – “Ah-Robeeetiiie” – during Buffalo-Montreal telecasts several years later on Hockey Night In Canada.
Robitaille played 382 NHL games with the Rangers, Detroit, Buffalo and Vancouver between 1969 and 1977. He was part of the memorable Sabres team of 1972-73 that qualified for the playoffs with a victory over St. Louis on the final night of the regular schedule; Buffalo making the Stanley Cup tournament in only its third NHL season. Sabres won their first-ever playoff game, at Montreal (brothers Ken and Dave Dryden the opposing netminders), and extended the champions-to-be to six games before bowing out amid cheers of “Thank you Sabres!” from an appreciative crowd at the old Memorial Auditorium.
SABRES BROADCASTER MIKE ROBITAILLE (ABOVE) THIS MORNING AT FIRST NIAGARA CENTER AND AS HE LOOKED (BELOW) WHILE PLAYING DEFENSE FOR BUFFALO IN THE EARLY-’70s.
What struck me today, however, were a couple of yarns Robitaille spun about his general manager and coach here in Buffalo, George (Punch) Imlach, who had guided the Maple Leafs to their four Stanley Cup titles in the 1960s. A journeyman-type defenseman – and rather outspoken in an era when players were encouraged to keep their mouths shut – Mike was hardly Imlach’s favorite pupil and the two simply never developed a relationship.
“I don’t remember saying two words to Punch in our years together,” Robitaille mentioned this morning. “I just plugged along and did my best and I was lucky to get a dirty look from him every once in awhile. But, Punch did provide me with one of the most incredible surprises of my life. My father, Ernie, died in 1973 and I went back to my family home in Midland, Ont. for the funeral – in the middle of winter. There was a blinding snow-storm that day and right before the funeral service, my wife said, ‘Punch is here.’
“I looked over and there was Imlach getting out of a limousine all covered in snow. I didn’t have a clue that he was coming and he was probably the last person on Earth I’d have expected. It was like God had arrived after all he’d accomplished with the Leafs and, before long, the whole town knew he was there. We had the service and Punch got back into the limo and was driven home to Buffalo.
“When I returned to the team, I figured I would try and end the stand-off between us,” Mike continued. “My wife encouraged me to go up and thank Punch for coming to the funeral and I did just that… I walked into his office at the old Auditorium and told him, ‘You don’t know how much that meant to me and my family; it gave my dad a whole different stature in our home town.’ As long as I live, I’ll never forget what happened next.
“Punch didn’t even acknowledge my words; he just said – very stoically – ‘Alright, everything now is back to normal’, meaning we would resume our complete lack of relationship. It was one of the saddest moments of my life when I walked out of that office. Initially, I felt bad for me but not long afterward it was he that I pitied. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Gosh, where is this guy in life that he has to be so bloody miserable?’
“Ultimately, I was traded to Vancouver.”
A more pleasant Imlach memory had occurred several years earlier, as Robitaille was about to leave the Sabres and join the New York Raiders of the new World Hockey Association.
“I was making $18,000 here in Buffalo and I wanted a raise to $24,000, but Punch would budge,” Mike recalled. “New York was offering me a three-year deal at $70,000, $80,000 and $90,000 so it was really a no-brainer to jump. I made the decision the night before the intra-league waiver draft in the NHL and I knew I had been protected by the Sabres. So, I thought I’d call Punch as a courtesy to let him know I was signing with the Raiders – that way, he didn’t have to waste a protected spot with me.
“If I remember correctly, Punch was in a hotel somewhere – maybe in Montreal – and [Imlach’s assistant] John Andersen answered the telephone. I don’t think I talked to Punch directly – big surprise – but I told John of my decision to jump to the WHA and I learned, a few days later, that Imlach was extremely grateful for the phone-call. ‘It’s the first time any player has done that for me,’ he said.”
PRIME FACES OF THE EARLY BUFFALO NHL TEAMS ARE ON DISPLAY IN A CORRIDOR OF THE FIRST NIAGARA CENTER (ABOVE): THE BOSS (LEFT) AND HIS FRANCHISE PLAYER.
Robitaille never played a game in the WHA.
“Punch had taken ill the previous year with his heart trouble and I got a call from [Sabres owner] Seymour Knox right before the 1972-73 season,” Mike remembered. “Even though I had signed with the Raiders, he asked me to come back to Buffalo if he could get me out of the contract. I told him about the enormous difference in salary and he promised he’d eventually make it up to me. It turned out the Raiders hadn’t paid me some up-front money that was guaranteed and that was the loophole Seymour used to get me back to Buffalo.
“It was a pretty good decision for both of us.”
IT WAS A BEAUTIFUL START TO THE DAY HERE IN BUFFALO THIS MORNING (ABOVE) – INFINITELY NICER THAN DURING THE LEAFS LAST VISIT HERE (BELOW) ON JAN. 13.
THE SABRES HOME ARENA IS LOCATED AT THE FAR-WEST END OF DOWNTOWN BUFFALO, CLOSE TO THE SHORE OF LAKE ERIE.
SABRES COACH LINDY RUFF TALKS WITH REPORTERS (ABOVE AND BELOW) THIS MORNING – ADMITTING IT DOESN’T BOTHER HIM TO GO THROUGH THE LAST-MINUTE PLAYOFF RINGER ONCE AGAIN. “I DON’T MIND BEING IN THIS SPOT AT ALL,” HE SAID. “WE STILL HAVE A CHANCE TO MAKE THE PLAYOFFS AND THAT’S PRETTY EXCITING.”
THE PLAQUES OF FORMER SABRES TIM HORTON, DANNY GARE AND PAT LaFONTAINE ARE DISPLAYED ON A WALL OF MEMORY (ABOVE) OUTSIDE THE SABRES DRESSING ROOM.
BUFFALO’S 1975 STANLEY CUP FINALIST IS COMMEMORATED WITH A BANNER (ABOVE) THAT WAS TRANSFERRED FROM THE MEMORIAL AUDITORIUM WHEN FIRST NIAGARA CENTER OPENED IN 1996. THE GREAT “FRENCH CONNECTION” LINE AND ORIGINAL SABRE OWNERS SEYMOUR H. KNOX III AND NORTHRUP KNOX ARE ALSO HONORED IN THE ARENA (BELOW).
THREE LEVELS OF BLUE SEATS (ABOVE) AT FIRST NIAGARA CENTER.
A CLEVER DISPLAY BENEATH A SUPPORT COLUMN (ABOVE-LEFT) IN A CORRIDOR OF THE ARENA HERE, AND THE TRAGIC MEMORY OF TIM HORTON’S LAST NHL GAME – WITH THE SABRES AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS – IS COMMEMORATED ON A WALL. HORTON DIED IN A SINGLE-CAR MISHAP NEAR ST. CATHARINES WHILE DRIVING BACK TO BUFFALO AFTER THAT GAME ON FEB. 20, 1974.
LEAFS GATHER AT THE BOARDS (ABOVE AND BELOW) PRIOR TO THEIR MORNING SKATE TODAY, WHILE JONAS GUSTAVSSON MULLS OVER WHAT APPEARS TO BE HIS FINAL WEEK IN A TORONTO JERSEY.
AS LEAF PLAYERS BEGIN THEIR SKATE, JAY ROSEHILL SHARES A CHUCKLE WITH LUKE SCHENN (ABOVE-TOP), WHILE EX-SABRE TIM CONNOLLY LOOKS ON AND THEN CHATS WITH ASSISTANT COACH DAVE FARRISH (BOTTOM).
THREE MORE OF THE GOOD GUYS IN HOCKEY TAKE IN LEAFS SKATE TODAY (ABOVE, LEFT-TO-RIGHT): SABRE ASSISTANT COACHES KEVYN ADAMS, JAMES PATRICK AND TEPPO NUMMINEN. ADAMS PLAYED 58 GAMES FOR THE LEAFS BETWEEN 1997 AND 2000.
IT IS ALWAYS TOUCHING TO WALK ALONG THE STRETCH OF ROAD IMMEDIATELY BEYOND THE MAIN ENTRANCE TO FIRST NIAGARA CENTER (ABOVE) NAMED IN MEMORY OF OUR GREAT MEDIA PAL, JIM KELLEY, LONG TIME WRITER AT THE BUFFALO NEWS AND A FREQUENT CO-HOST OF BOB McCOWN’S ON SPORTSNET-590 IN THE YEARS BEFORE HE SUCCUMBED TO PANCREATIC CANCER IN NOVEMBER 2010.
Facebook: Howard Berger [Thornhill ON]