The reaction around the league when the star centre of the Buffalo Sabres was handed a US$5-million arbitration award last August was universally negative. Too much money they said, citing it as an example why arbitration doesn’t work.
Or so they thought.
“It’s definitely a source of motivation,” Briere admitted Wednesday. “All of my life that’s what I’ve been thriving on. There have been lots of comments: that I wouldn’t make it to the next level; that I wouldn’t be drafted to the NHL; that I wouldn’t make the NHL; that I would only be a power-play specialist.
“Those comments after my arbitration award were in the back of my mind coming into this season. I know what people were thinking. At the same time you want to prove to your own team they didn’t make a mistake picking up the award.”
Sabres GM Darcy Regier says it wasn’t that difficult a decision to accept the award.
“There really wasn’t any hesitation,” he said Wednesday.
The GM has also seen a bit of a tough side from Briere this season.
The five-foot-10 centre was hit from behind by Capitals forward Alexander Ovechkin on Saturday night and crashed head-first into the boards. Briere rebounded the next game and had a hat trick against Tampa.
The tough part for Regier is still to come. Briere qualifies for unrestricted free agency July 1, as does fellow co-captain Chris Drury.
“I really don’t know what their plan is,” said Briere, whose 33 points ties him for the team scoring lead. “I know in the past and last year for sure, they refused to negotiate with players during the season. So I really don’t know.”
The Sabres can’t talk contract with Briere until January, as the CBA stipulates for players on one-year deals. In the meantime Regier must decide whether to bend on last year’s no-negotiation rule during the season.
“We made a determination last year that we wouldn’t open discussions during the season,” said Regier. “We haven’t made that determination this year. We haven’t decided what we’re going to do.”
Briere insists he’s not sweating it.
“It’ll resolve itself when it’s time,” he said. “I’m not worried about that but obviously my first choice is to stay in Buffalo. I’ve been treated really well by the organization and the fans.
“Just the fact since I’ve been here they gave me a chance to prove myself and gave me the kind of responsibilities, both on and off the ice, that a players craves.”
The Sabres acquired Briere and a third-round pick from the Phoenix Coyotes on March 10, 2003, in one of the greatest trades in franchise history, sending checking centre Chris Gratton and a fourth-round choice the other way. Briere has since piled up 168 points in 171 games with the Sabres.
“Sometimes you get lucky,” Regier said humbly. “He’s been a great fit for us. Not just a great player but a fit for our team and in the community.”
Briere vividly remembers the day he got traded.
“It was right after we had played a game against Colorado. I came off the ice and they called me in Bobby Francis’s office,” Briere said of the former Coyotes coach. “He told me I was going to Buffalo. At first it was tough to take, I didn’t see it coming. I was blind-sided.
“I had no clue I was in trade talks. But looking back it was the best thing that ever happened in my career.”
Of course, Regier could have picked him up for nothing. But like every other GM in the league, he passed over plucking Briere off waivers in 2001.
“I remember when he was on waivers because we thought about it,” said Regier. “But I think he was going through a concussion or something like that. It would have been a good pickup for somebody.”
It was the darkest time in Briere’s career. Nobody wanted him.
“That was kind of a wake-up call, I was surprised,” he said. “I thought for sure somebody would take a chance. But it woke me up, I realized I had to change my work ethic, my attitude, it was a good thing.”
What hurt the most is that the Montreal Canadiens, the team he rooted for growing up, didn’t bother grabbing him on waivers, either.
“To be honest with you I thought they would, being French Canadian and all, I thought they might be interested,” said Briere. “I played junior an hour from the Bell Centre so they knew about me. “I was shocked, it was tough on my ego.”
That’s the past, however.
He’s got his eye on the present as he leads the high-flying club. Briere is having a blast.
“One of the reasons we’re having success and scoring goals is because the production doesn’t come from one guy or one line,” he said. “We’ve got three lines that can score and a fourth line that makes it hard on the other team.
“It’s tough on the other team, if they focus on my line, then the Drury line can pounce. Or Derek Roy’s line. We’re tough to stop. Especially when you look at how well Thomas Vanek and Maxim Afinogenov have played. We have a lot of depth.”
And Tuesday night in Tampa, he finally achieved something that had eluded him.
“That was my first hat trick, it only took 429 games in the NHL,” Briere said with a laugh. “I had lots of two-goal games but I finally got the third one. I have to admit I enjoyed it.”
What’s not to enjoy if you’re Daniel Briere these days.