Wayback When (LGS) -- In May 1971, a few weeks after the end of the Buffalo Sabres' first season in the National Hockey League, Rick Jeanneret could have saved the franchise -- not to mention several governmental bodies -- a nice chunk of change.
The roof of Memorial Auditorium needed to be raised by 24 feet to make room for about 6,000 nosebleed seats in time for the team's second season. The price tag for construction would be high. Only four months later, when Jeanneret called his first regular-season NHL game at the enlarged Aud from what he later described as a "little cubbyhole" over center ice, he could have single-handedly blown the roof off on lung power alone.
Jeanneret's jacked-up volume and stir-crazy energy levels have been tearing up buildings, both the antiquated barns and the modern palaces, the Auds and the HSBC Arenas alike, ever since. The longest-tenured play-by-play man in the league reaches a milestone this season: the 35th anniversary of his first radio call of a Sabres game, on October 10, 1971.
RJ has survived long enough to see old-fashioned rotary phone rings become musical ring tones on cell phones, and sure enough, you can download "May Day" to go off when someone calls you at the game. Or someplace a little quieter. "I just ask them to remember to turn off their phone when they go to a funeral," Jeanneret jokes. "I don't really want 'May Day! May Day! May Day!' going off in the middle of the service."
As the Sabres defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins that night 35 years ago, a broadcasting legend was being born, and so was a love affair between play-by-play man and fan that still burns red-hot, like Jeanneret calling an overtime game in the Stanley Cup playoffs. In the spring of 2006, in the midst of the team's magical run to the brink of the finals, Jeanneret disappointed those fans with a cryptic comment that he would retire "sooner rather than later."
The 64-year-old is approaching the age when most people are thinking of taking it easy, but the revitalization of the franchise, with the team seemingly on the verge of a serious shot at the Stanley Cup, argues for the guy being around at least a little while longer. You know he wants to call that Cup-winning game in the worst way. Get a ring -- the kind you put on your finger -- and retire, like Raymond Bourque.
An Unsung Broadcaster
"LaLaLaLaLaFontaine!" and "May Day," calls that lasted just a few seconds, were just the icing on a body of work that took decades to create. Jeanneret worked in the shadow of the popular Ted Darling for years, even sharing air time with him when the games were on radio only. Darling described the first and third periods, and Jeanneret was left with crumbs, the second. Like his evil twin, Rodney Dangerfield, Jeanneret got little respect. Whenever anyone mentioned him, it was always Jeanneret the maniac, Jeanneret the lunatic, Jeanneret the screamer. Lost was Jeanneret the consummate professional, Jeanneret the for-the-most-part objective observer, Jeanneret the lover of the game.
That infernal air horn didn't respect him either. In the fall of 1987, the thundering blast started muffling his legendary, no-holds-barred descriptions of Sabres' goals at the Aud. The original blast of wind that immediately followed Sabres' goals, Jeanneret, had been downsized, like many others in Western New York. The horn was needed only because the team had fallen so far from its glory days in the 1970s that many of the fans no longer even bothered to cheer a goal. The joint had become Memorial Mausoleum.
You can say this much about Jeanneret: unlike some of the fans, whether the Sabres made the Stanley Cup finals or missed the playoffs entirely, as they did the two years before the introduction of the horn, he never lost his passion, although he once lost his voice.
Simply put, Jeanneret is the last surviving symbol of the franchise. Seymour and Norty Knox, the original owners, and Darling, the original Voice of the Sabres (and only person who deserves that title, ever, according to Jeanneret), are gone. So is the original building, which appears to be headed for demolition to make way for a Bass Pro store. The original logo is back, but only with a glancing, grudging respect.
The old crest will appear in 15 games this season, but Jeanneret, if he still has a pulse, will show up for all of them, just like he's been showing up game after game, season after season, decade after decade since Richard Nixon was president and the Vietnam War was still being fought. His nights off have been as rare as a Bill Hajt goal. He was sick as a proverbial dog for the first two periods of a game in January 1983 against the Canadiens but didn't go home until it was clear a 7-1 Sabres' lead would hold up.
It's possible he didn't miss another game until laryngitis struck in the early 90s. Many seasons, Jeanneret easily could have been the Sabres' Unsung Hero.
He was certainly mine.
My Hockey Picasso
Like a lot of other thirty-something Sabres' followers, I'm the original fair-weather fan. I jumped on the bandwagon when the team went all the way to the Stanley Cup finals in 1975. Hockey was new to a lot of us, and Darling, the easy going, low-energy broadcaster, the anti-Jeanneret, was the voice who took us on that wild ride.
But the following winter things changed. Games weren't on TV as much where I lived. I got a little transistor radio for Christmas, and I fired it up the next day when the Sabres hosted the Bruins. Crackling across the airwaves came this live wire of a voice screaming "right on!" almost every time someone took a shot on goal. Being the mid-70s, I assumed the guy was just being groovy. Until I realized that "right on!" meant the goalie had just made a save.
When the games were on WGR-55, which boomed through the southern tier and into northern Pennsylvania, I was happy. When WBEN had the games, and the signal barely reached Olean, I was miserable. I still kept listening, usually in vain, only an occasional word or two making its way through the static. Either way, I had no choice but to see the game in my mind's eye, and Jeanneret was the artist who used bold, brash colors to paint my hockey landscape.
I always wanted to thank Jeanneret for being my Picasso. I got my chance after a Sabres-Flyers playoff game at the Aud in 1995. I sat in the upper blues directly below the press box, and after the depressing loss to the Flyers that buried the Sabres in a 3-1 hole in the series, I was surprised to see him waltz through the crowded corridor.
By the time I realized who it was, he was 20 feet in the lead. Half trotting, though, I quickly gained ground and was only seconds away from being face to face with my childhood hero. Then it happened. Perhaps sensing a stalker on his ample tail, the portly play-by-play man showed surprising speed, turning on the afterburners like Alexander Mogilny on a breakaway and leaving me in his vapor trail. He disappeared down a narrow set of stairs and slipped through a door marked "EMPLOYEES ONLY." He was gone.
I've been asked many times by those who witnessed the bizarre chase what I was going to say to Rick Jeanneret if I had caught him. Simply put, "Thanks, Rick."
Thanks, Rick. Thanks for being my eyes for 35 years, and let me tell you something else: It's been a blast!
"It's not tomorrow," Jeanneret said of his impending retirement. But, he added, "Pretty soon, it's going to come." They say the sun'll come out tomorrow, but when the tomorrow comes that sees Rick Jeanneret climb down from that cubbyhole and put down his paint brush, it'll be one dark day for Sabres' fans. And don't think we don't know it.
Find out more about Rick Jeanneret, and contribute what you know, at Rick Jeanneret's entry on Wikipedia.org.