NEWARK, N.J. — Williamsville’s Justin Bailey was picked in the second round of Sunday’s NHL draft and West Seneca’s Sean Malone went in the sixth. Pretty much what they expected. But what was already a life-changing moment came with an incredible twist: Both players heard their name called by the Buffalo Sabres, the team they grew up watching.
“It’s surreal. I always loved the Sabres. This is definitely a dream come true,” a smiling Bailey said after he donned his blue sweater. “It’s a blessing for me to be taken at all. There’s not disappointment being drafted into the NHL. There’s thousands of other kids that won’t get drafted and will never play at a high level. For me to be taken anywhere at this draft, especially by the hometown team, is really special.”
Bailey, a rugged winger from the Ontario Hockey League’s Kitchener Rangers, went at No. 52 overall and that’s the highest pick ever for a Western New York native by the Sabres. The previous best came in 1989, when Nichols product Scott Thomas was taken in the third round at No. 56.
The Harvard-bound Malone, a center who played two years at Nichols, most recently suited up for the U.S. National Development program and played at First Niagara Center in the All-America Prospects game in 2012. He went at pick No. 159.
“It’s been a long day and I’m real excited to be picked by my hometown team,” Malone said. “I have a lot of family here and it’s a real honor. My dad was nudging me a little bit that it was always a possibility. … It’s really cool. I can’t wait to go home and celebrate with my friends.”
Malone is 18 and Bailey turns 18 today. Kevin Devine, the Sabres’ director of amateur scouting, said he’s looking forward to both players having year-round access to the programs of Doug McKenney, the team’s strength and conditioning coach. General Manager Darcy Regier echoed that feeling.
“I actually view the ability to choose local guys as an opportunity both for them and for us,” Regier said. “Because they are there, they can have full access to our resources, the facility, our staff. To be able to get hands-on with those players I think is a huge advantage both for them and for us.”
Bailey was taken with the selection acquired from St. Louis in April for Jordan Leopold.
Both Bailey and his mother, Karen Buscaglia, said they had not heard much chatter about the Sabres taking him other than perhaps Montreal.
“As a mom, you feel their pain and their joys,” Buscaglia said. “I was just watching him. I did say, ‘Put him where you want him to be, God’ and this is where it is. Buffalo is close to home and there’s 25 wacky people with him here.”
Bailey, the son of former Bills linebacker Carlton Bailey, grew up knowing all the Sabres and was especially close with Matthew Barnaby. He lived with Pat LaFontaine and played with his Long Island Royals.
How bizarre are Bailey’s connections to the Sabres?
He had minor shoulder surgery a few years ago and the doctor was Les Bisson, the Sabres’ orthopedist.
“It was amazing for my family and myself,” Bailey said. “You grow up and you’re playing hockey. Especially for me loving the Sabres, quoting Rick Jeanneret when I was younger, knowing every guy on the team and growing up with them as well. It’s just absolutely amazing.”
Bailey’s mother said he was a Sabres autograph hound until just a few years ago.
“I was in the rinks at the summer skates at the Northtown Center and he’d make me wait there and I’d be like, ‘We already have their autographs’ and he’d get them 500 times,” Buscaglia said. He has the signatures of Maxim Afinogenov “and all those guys. It’s just amazing to see this little kid that stood out at the rinks and now he’s pulling the jersey over his head for the team.”
Malone, who said his favorite Sabre was former captain Chris Drury, is especially looking forward to playing in the ECAC with Harvard.
“I know it’s a very pro-like league, especially this past year with Yale and Quinnipiac being in the finals this year,” he said. “I’m real excited to be a part of that.”
In a little over a week, they’ll both be at the FNC for development camp officially wearing the Blue and Gold.
“It’s incredible. I love that rink and I can’t wait to go out there and show them what I have,” Bailey said.
“It’s crazy. It’s sort of going a full loop,” Malone said. “I started off in Buffalo, went to Nichols, played two years, headed out to the national team and then coming back to Buffalo. It’s pretty cool.”