BUFFALO – The KeyBank Center on the morning of a game day is, like a lot of arenas, normally an invigorating place to be. NHL rinks just hours before an event are usually alive with anticipation and possibilities. A big reason for that is it’s almost always about the hockey.
But on Wednesday morning in Buffalo, there was a pall over the place. First, there were two struggling teams, both mired in funks, neither living up to the expectations that were placed on them prior to the season. Prior to their meeting, the Buffalo Sabres and Calgary Flames had the 10th and sixth worst points percentages in the NHL, respectively. That’s a downer. But the underachieving win-loss records for both teams were not even close to being the topic of conversation.
Bob Johnson, who once coached the Flames, uttered the famous words, “It’s a great day for hockey.” Well, Wednesday in Buffalo was not a great day for hockey. And it most certainly was not a great day for the NHL.
Over the past 48 hours, the Flames have been in the middle of a chaotic storm, with racism accusations surrounding coach Bill Peters that go back to his days in the AHL followed by more accusations of player abuse – that were backed up by Rod Brind’Amour – in Carolina. The Flames are investigating everything and Peters was nowhere to be found. He won’t be behind the bench for the game tonight and while the Flames and associate coach Geoff Ward kept preaching an insistence on concentrating on hockey, the reality is there was nothing normal about Game No. 28 on their schedule.
The Sabres, meanwhile, are reeling. Thanks to an Erik Cernak elbow, they and the NHL are without one of the most dynamic and promising young players in the game indefinitely. Defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, who finished third in Calder Trophy voting last season, is concussed. He could be out three days, three weeks, three months. Nobody knows at this point. Cernak, meanwhile, received an outrageously light suspension from George ‘The Violent Gentleman’ Parros and his department of player safety, having to sit just two games, which will set Cernak back a whole $7,500. Truth be told, the Sabres couldn’t care less how long the Cernak suspension is because it doesn’t help them now. What would have helped them would have been a penalty call.
“The length is not up to me to judge and we’re just going to accept the result as it is,” said Sabres coach Ralph Krueger. “I said before and I’ll say it again: you would always rather have the five minutes because the suspension doesn’t do us any good.”
Combined with that, the Sabres announced Vladimir Sobotka underwent knee surgery Tuesday as a result of taking a low hit from Nikita Kucherov of the Lightning during their two-game Sweden series earlier in the month. That hit went unpenalized as well. So all morning, the Sabres had to answer questions about why they didn’t retaliate and whether or not they have what it takes to stand up for one another and succeed where the league fails them in making teams pay for pushing them around.
Over on the Calgary side, the Flames have quite obviously closed ranks for the time being until the investigation by GM Brad Treliving is complete. On a game day, the dressing room is normally open and there are all kinds of conversations going on, but on this day, the Flames room was closed and players were brought out to talk. On the Peters front, they understandably said nothing, beyond the fact that they need two points and that this game day is nothing different from the others.
Ward, who will make his NHL head coaching debut tonight under the worst of circumstances, said he had not spoken to Peters since the news broke and did not even know if Peters was still in Buffalo. “The one thing you do with teams is you always talk about how important it is to keep the noise to the outside of the dressing room and really insulate yourself inside the room,” Ward said. “This is nothing new for our players. We’ve got our own space inside the locker room that we need to respect and we can grow as a team and a family in that space. The guys are into that, they understand that and they’re comfortable with it.”
Nice try, but nobody associated with the Flames was looking terribly comfortable today. And they will continue to walk on eggshells until the organization completes its investigation and decides the fate of its coach.
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