Thank you Sabres.
It’s a phrase 19 youth players and their families have been bellowing this season and with good reason. They have received five-star treatment from the Buffalo Sabres and the Sabres Alumni Association while preparing for an experience of a lifetime.
The Buffalo Junior Sabres’ 12-under team makes its in-tournament debut at 1 p.m. Sunday against the Nashville Junior Predators in an exhibition game that’s part of the prestigious 53rd Quebec International Pee Wee Hockey Tournament in Quebec City. It’s the first of two exhibition games on the day for the all-star squad, which will play its first tournament game Monday against St. Louis followed by two more exhibition games Tuesday.
Counting the exhibitions, the Junior Sabres will play at least six games in the double-elimination tournament that will draw more than 100 Pee Wee teams. The tournament runs through Feb. 24.
Buffalo will be in the 28-team Class Elite Division, the top bracket, with U.S. powerhouses Honeybaked, Compuware and the Boston Junior Bruins along with teams from Finland and Russia.
“You look at the bracket top to bottom, there are no holes,” said assistant coach Pat Fisher. “This is the best of the best. ... I’m a hockey nut. I’m looking forward to this.”
He’s not the only one looking forward to the experience, as this is a huge moment for players, their families and the Sabres.
This is the first time the Sabres and their Alumni Association have sponsored a team with the purpose of participating in the Quebec tourney. The Junior Sabres 12-under team consists of top players from the Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse areas. More than 110 youths were selected to try out last fall for the team selected by coach Rory Fitzpatrick, the former Sabres defenseman, and Fisher, the former Timon coach and current Buffalo Junior Sabres assistant general manager.
Team members play for organizations in their communities but have practiced throughout the season — twice recently at First Niagara Center — and played a tune-up game against a Rochester-area 14-under team (the Junior Sabres beat the older team, 7-3).
Buffalo-area youths on the roster include defensemen Matthew Doyle, Owen Green and Kuba Jakson; forwards Spencer Frome, Zachary Rehbaum, Lucas Hermann, Trevor Peca, Cameron Trejchel and Matthew Barbolini; and goalies Joshua Graziano and Dan Mikolajczak. There is also a girl who made the team, defenseman Chloe Harvey of Fairport.
Why are the Sabres sending a Pee Wee team to Quebec?
“It’s just another step for the Buffalo Sabres trying to enhance youth hockey in the area,” Sabres spokesman Michael Gilbert said. “We think this area has really good young hockey players. We’re now getting them on one elite team to see how they do against other top young hockey players.”
In the past 15 years, not been many area teams have participated in the Quebec tournament, mostly because Western New York teams struggled to compete in the event, according to New York State Amateur Hockey West Section President Dave Braunstein.
Those teams featured an organization’s top talents instead of the region’s best players. Officials tried to change that but to no avail.
That’s not the case with the Sabres in the picture.
Fitzpatrick, who has coached youth hockey the past three years in Rochester since retiring, was approached by a friend who’s on the board of directors for the Quebec Tournament about organizing a team. Fitzpatrick approached the Sabres about helping out.
The Sabres have done more than just lend a name. The team and its alumni have picked up the tab for almost everything (registration fees, practice ice time). Team members have been outfitted with Sabres-themed game and practice jerseys. Players also were provided helmets, gloves, shells and bags in Sabres colors. They were also given Sabres warm-up suits, hooded sweatshirts, winter jackets and toques.
The roster is posted at sabres.com, and each player has a link to his/her player card on the website.
While parents must pay their own hotel fees, the players get to stay with host/billet families.
Players also had practices in which current Buffalo Sabres and past Quebec tourney participants Marcus Foligno and Nathan Gerbe skated with them and shared their memories. The team was introduced at First Niagara Center before last Sunday’s Sabres game against the Boston Bruins. Players also received a pep talk prior to that game from Sabres captain Jason Pominville in which he told them to have fun because this is something they will remember for the rest of their lives.
“They really hit a home run here,” said Chris Rehbaum, whose son Zachary is one of the top players on this all-star squad, according to Fitzpatrick. “The Sabres have been overwhelmingly generous. It’s a pretty special time. ... This is a very special group of kids who are pulled together. They’re very fortunate to have this opportunity.”
The Frome family views this as more than just a hockey experience. Spencer Frome has an opportunity to try out his French-speaking skills (and serve as translator for good friend and Amherst Knights teammate Rehhaum). He’s been studying the language since first grade, according to his father.
“This is going to be the most profound educational experience beyond hockey my son Spencer has ever had,” said Keith Frome. “I think it’s going to expand his cultural surroundings and really open up the world to him. ... He’s going to see the world is a much bigger place.
“The Sabres have done a fabulous job making the boys feel they belong and feel they belong to the organization.”
The Sabres have picked their spots to leave their stamp on youth hockey but have taken it to another level recently with plans to build a two-rink facility at the corner of Jim Kelley Way and Perry Street. The Sabres also have a deal with the Buffalo Regals’ 16- and 18-under midget teams so that those two Tier I Elite League members are known as Regals/Jr. Sabres. The Sabres and their alumni acquired the local Junior A team, once again known as the Buffalo Junior Sabres, in 2008 and fully fund that nationally ranked outfit.
Gilbert said this is the first of many years in which the Sabres will send a team to the Quebec Tournament. He didn’t shoot down the idea of the Sabres becoming even more involved in youth hockey scene down the road.
“This is just another step in the process,” he said. “We expect to continue to be involved with youth hockey going forward.”