From a poster with the words THOU SHALL PROTECT streaming underneath it, the images of Matthew Barnaby, Rob Ray and Brad May, fists raised in their best John L. Sullivan bare-knuckle poses, glower over the treatment tables in the Buffalo Sabres' training room. With their history of running up penalty minutes, they have been compared with the infamous brawling Hanson brothers in Slapshot, although they don't beat up soda machines, as their cinematic counterparts did. This season Barnaby, May and Ray have suppressed their predatory nature a tad—these are not quite the lock-up-the-women-and-children Sabres who led the NHL in penalty minutes last season—but sometimes these guys still seem a couple of floats short of a parade.
Off the ice they are engaging, thoughtful and well-behaved, except for the time a few years ago when Ray almost threw Barnaby out a window of their apartment. That never would have happened if Barnaby had given MTV a rest and clicked to the Nature Channel or CNN or something else Ray wanted to watch.
At week's end the rollicking Sabres trailed the first-place Pittsburgh Penguins by only one point in the Northeast Division, but don't look for Buffalo to win the Stanley Cup. The Sabres don't have a scorer in the top 50, as of Sunday their power play ranked a dismal 18th in the league, and they had outshot opponents just seven times in 52 games. Yet Buffalo is pugnacious proof that entertainment value can't be measured simply by statistics.
The Sabres are hockey's Barnaby & Bailey circus. Their coach, Ted Nolan, and their general manager, John Muckler, snarl at each other like big cats. The death-defying Jumbotron scoreboard at the new Marine Midland Arena, working without a net, plunges to earth. Watch the Elastic Man, goaltender Dominik Hasek, and see the three roustabouts wrestle Bruins, Panthers or other fierce creatures on a nightly basis. "We're in the entertainment business," Nolan says. "Sometimes I think, If I were sitting in the stands, what would I like to see? You feel good about yourself when you sec someone blocking shots, diving for the puck, sticking up for a teammate. People misunderstand—we're not a big, goon-type team."
True. Although the Sabres have taken half a Prozac since last season when Barnaby, May and Ray were ranked first, fourth and fifth, respectively, in the NHL in penalty minutes, they can be a small, goon-type team whenever the need arises. In fact, Buffalo is among the more diminutive teams in the league. "People call us the Broad Street Bullies of the '90s," says Nolan, referring to the fighting Philadelphia Flyers of 20 years ago, "but we're just a hardworking team. We defend ourselves."
The defense starts with Hasek, the human Gumby. When he was a 10-year-old in Pardubice, Czechoslovakia, Hasek was so flexible that doctors thought something was wrong with his knees. "I could do the butterfly 180 degrees," says Hasek, describing a perfect split. "Now I can't make it 180 degrees, but my butterfly is still very good."
The butterfly is only part of Hasek's act. In his most intriguing trick, he will drop his stick to the ice and cover the puck with his blocker. There's compelling logic in the maneuver, especially when the puck is to his right, or stick side. Unlike the clumsy catching glove, the blocker has fingers that allow him to snatch a puck easily—as long as those fingers aren't occupied holding on to the stick. The 32-year-old Hasek picked up the move about 10 years ago and admits that he uses it more than he should, but the risk of playing without his stick is minimal because of his superb reflexes. When he is groping for the puck on all fours, Hasek looks like a man searching for a contact lens rather than the premier goalie in the world.
Muckler says Hasek is the most important element in Buffalo's player-development program because he gives the Sabres, who are the fifth-youngest team in the league, a chance to learn without their mistakes winding up in the Buffalo net. Hasek saves shots and face, a priceless parlay on a team that is beginning to sense how formidable it can be. Like the New York Rangers' Wayne Gretzky, Hasek sees the game spin at 33¼ while everyone is playing at 45. The sprawling kick saves, the flailing glove saves, that memorable save against the Toronto Maple Leafs last season when, flat on his back, he stopped a shot by raising both legs in the air. Those are grace notes to a style that is unique but sound.
Hasek is tested more than any other goaltender in the league because Buffalo, for all its feistiness, often allows its opponents a conspicuous amount of open ice. Through Sunday, Hasek had faced a league-high 1,525 shots, which made his 2.49 goals-against average and .923 save percentage stand out even more. "Twenty shots or 40 shots a game, I don't think about it at all," says Hasek, who led the NHL in save percentage the past three years. "In practice I face 300, 400 shots, so I don't care. I just like to play on a winning team."
The Sabres, 27-19-6 at week's end, have a remarkable record considering they finished 33-42-7 in 1995-96 and were rattled at the start of this season. All-Star center Pat LaFontaine suffered a career-threatening concussion on Oct. 17, and then on Nov. 16 the Jumbotron crashed to the ice as it was being lowered for routine maintenance after a visiting team practice. A new $4 million scoreboard will be up in March, but LaFontaine's wiring is more problematical. Some symptoms of his postconcussion syndrome are abating, but he still suffers from headaches and depression. The prolonged absence of LaFontaine, while hastening the development of young centers Derek Plante, Brian Holzinger and Michael Peca, has deprived Buffalo of its only 40-goal scorer, a power-play threat and its classiest hockey ambassador. In about a week LaFontaine will return to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for further evaluation.