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Heaven certainly can wait, but Robert Simonick one day could be the first person in NHL history to have "R-I-P" listed twice on his tombstone. The letters when crunched together form his nickname since childhood but separated they explain how peacefully he will rest should Buffalo ever win a championship.

His father gave him the moniker, not because Rip was a rip but because when he was a baby he slept like Rip Van Winkle. And similar to the character, he woke up one day and tried to figure out where all the time had gone. He has been with the organization since Day One, 40 years and counting.

"Time flies," Rip said.

And so does Rip.

He estimated that he has easily flown more than 2 million miles while crisscrossing the continent and beyond with the Sabres.

Nobody calls him "Robert" or "Simonick." He's known simply as "Rip," the way Tiger is Tiger and Shaq is Shaq. He's a local treasure who has spent more time behind the bench than any coach in team history.

In this town, he's royalty.

Rip was hired as a 21-year-old college student to work under trainer Frank Christie and was paid $100 a week off the books, or $4 more than what current players collect per day in meal money. Each day started with him fetching coffee on Main Street because the Sabres didn't have a coffee maker in Memorial Auditorium.

"I was just happy to be working in the NHL and meeting the players who were in the NHL when I was 12 and 13 years old," he said. "Jean Beliveau and Henri Richard were playing for the Canadiens. Stan Mikita with the Blackhawks. They were superstars. That was my payment, not the cash. It was meeting guys I idolized my whole life."

His whole life has been hockey. He's watched more players come and go than the Kardashian sisters. He's approaching 3,100 NHL games and is the longest-tenured equipment man in the NHL, but describing him as such is an injustice. He has been a confidant and counselor for decades, a rich part of team history.

In this, the 40th anniversary season of the franchise, it means something.

For him, it has been years of memories after growing up in the First Ward, joining the organization in its infancy and watching the team he loves evolve in the town he adores. It's about time they win one for the Ripper.

The highlights of his career were trips to the Stanley Cup finals in 1975 and 1999 even though both ended in defeat. He was there when a French-speaking center named Gilbert Perreault showed up for his first training camp. He had a front-row seat for the French Connection and every one of Craig Ramsay's 776 consecutive games.

He was there when Lindy Ruff was a rookie, when Dominik Hasek was at his best, when the Sabres were the hardest-working team in the league and all the years they weren't.

"People ask me to name a player I hated," he said. "I don't think I had a player I hated. Disliked? Yeah, I've disliked a few, but they always come back to me later and say, 'You treated me good even though I was a [jerk] to you.' That's what makes me happy."

Rip was in the dressing room the day after Tim Horton died in a car accident in 1974, leaving behind an empty locker stall in the Aud. "It just tore your heart out," Rip said. "He was the father of the locker room. Our team fell apart after Timmy passed away."

He was standing over Clint Malarchuk, who was bleeding profusely from a severed carotid artery slashed by a skate in the scariest moment in the Aud. "Don't let me die in front of 16,000 people," Malarchuk told him. "Call my mum and call a priest." Rip called Malarchuk's mother.

"I didn't call the priest," Rip said. "I told him he would be fine."

Rip was there for Malarchuk, as always. Times have certainly changed, but he's been the one constant.

The Sabres had one general manager, one coach, one trainer and one equipment man when Rip joined the organization. Laundry was done three times a week. The Sabres traveled by commercial planes. The sticks were wood, the skates heavier, the equipment dried overnight.

The Sabres have a full front office, six coaches, five equipment men, an athletic trainer, team doctors and a massage therapist. Players are pampered these days with charter jets, $200 sticks, $800 skates, four sets of laundry, equipment dryers and paychecks larger than the gross national product of some countries.

And yet Punch Imlach didn't have a coffee maker?

"We didn't have bottled water, either," Rip said. "They drank out of the tap like every other person in the City of Buffalo. Now we have to have bottled water. Those are things that have changed. I still think the game is played the same way."

Perreault will forever be known in these parts as the greatest player in franchise history and the centerpiece of the French Connection. Little did fans know he was a chain smoker whose pregame meal was five cups of coffee and a pack of cigarettes. His hours before playing the Canadiens were often spent chatting with Guy Lafleur, his rival.

"It was literally a pack," Rip said. "People don't believe me when I tell them these guys had their own ashtrays on the road with their numbers on them. Gilbert, Jerry Korab, Rene [Robert], Rico [Rick Martin], all of them. Now, they have six beers [for the entire team] after a game. Back then, it was more like six cases."

And more practical jokes.

Danny Gare was hauled away in handcuffs during his rookie year by state troopers who told him a woman had filed charges against him. He called Perreault in a panic. His entire team showed up at police barracks to bail him out. It was all a hoax.

Martin walked through airports with his clothes inside out. The Sabres took joy in attaching thread to a $5 bill and jerking the string when people tried pulling it off the floor in the airport. They waited for their teammates to fall asleep on the plane so they could start their shoes on fire, which now would be a felony.

Jim Schoenfeld played a gag on rookies in which he waited until they were dressed before summoning them near the shower and throwing a bucket of water on them. It backfired with Ruff, who donned Schoenfeld's clothes before getting drenched.

"Schoeny bombarded his own suit," Rip said with a laugh.

You hear all this and wonder what's left. All that remains for him and the organization is winning the Cup. He's convinced they're getting closer.

And that's when he begins to imagine; imagine this town with a championship and the peace it would bring.

"Can you imagine?" he said. "This city would be out of control for not one year but maybe two years. If they won a Cup, the players would be a god forever here no matter who they were. They would be kings. The fans are starving for a winner. They want to be here when a championship is won."

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com