BUFFALO, N.Y. – Shortly after Teppo Numminen’s pre-season debut last month, the veteran Buffalo Sabres defenceman was in a rush to leave the locker-room to keep an important commitment.
His two daughters were waiting just outside, and Numminen wanted to re-establish a family tradition by giving them a tour of the locker-room after most everyone had left. As they entered, Numminen’s daughter Bianca held her nose because of the pungent smell of sweat-soaked equipment drying in a corner.
Numminen smiled at the sight and familiar smell. This, finally, was back where he belonged after missing all but one game last season because of a faulty heart valve that was surgically repaired.
“It’s been a long road,” Numminen said. “It’s great to be back doing things you love to do. I lost a big part of my life last year, but now I’m back. And I’m really enjoying it.”
For the 40-year-old, who has been fully cleared to play, this is his second chance at playing the game he loves and to show he hasn’t lost a step entering his 20th NHL campaign, which begins Friday when Buffalo opens at home against Montreal. It’ll mark Numminen’s first regular-season game in Buffalo in 16 months, after he played in the Sabres’ season finale at Boston in April.
“Well, you try not to get too emotional about it,” said Numminen, who had surgery a little over a year ago. “But I sure remember where I was last year when the season started. And I always will.”
For the Sabres, this is a fresh start of sorts, too. They’re coming off a season in which they finished 10th in the Eastern Conference and became only the third team since NHL expansion in 1967-68 to miss the playoffs a year after winning the regular-season title.
Though much of last year’s collapse has been attributed to Buffalo losing co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere to free agency the previous summer, Numminen’s absence can’t be overestimated. Besides his calming influence in the locker-room, his ever-steady and efficient style provided glue to Buffalo’s blue-line corps.
“When I watch him play, it’s just effortless, and it rubs off on all the other players,” goalie Ryan Miller said. “I think we were missing him for a while last year.”
Defenceman Jaroslav Spacek specifically pointed to Buffalo going 14-18 in one-goal games and the 14 times the team lost by squandering a lead after two periods as examples of the difference Numminen could have made.
“Those points were big for us, and I think that’s the main reason we have him back here now,” Spacek said.
The Sabres return a lineup that’s mostly unchanged. Besides Numminen’s return, Buffalo was content in keeping its young core of players together, and made only a few moves this off-season.
Veteran defenceman Craig Rivet, voted by the players as the team’s captain this week, was acquired in a trade with San Jose in July. The Sabres also signed veteran goalie Patrick Lalime to help relieve Miller’s workload after the starter wore down in appearing in a franchise-record 76 games.
Offensively, the Sabres’ return a squad that scored 255 goals, fourth-most in the NHL last season. It’s a group led by Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville and Derek Roy.
Coach Lindy Ruff is confident his players have learned from what happened last year and matured.
“I think you have to learn. Sometimes you’ve got to be able to feel the disappointment and move forward,” Ruff said. “The message this year is, ‘Get ‘er done.”‘
As for Numminen, Ruff has difficulty quantifying the impact his veteran presence will make.
“I’ve never seen a guy so happy,” Ruff said. “He doesn’t take a practice for granted. He doesn’t take a game for granted. It’s refreshing to talk to him, to watch him. He’s a great example for our young players.”
Numminen, who will serve as an assistant captain, sat at his familiar locker on Thursday, recalling how special it was to share his professional life with his daughters last month.
“This is where I’ve been spending most of my life. It’s something that I’m accustomed to,” Numminen said. “It was nice to see the girls be happy.”
It’s fair to say that they weren’t the only ones.