It was midway through the Buffalo Junior Sabres’ breakout season when Larry Playfair braced the board of directors for impending bad news.
“We’re going to have to look for a new coach,” the team president said.
Michael Peca, the coach and general manager of the Junior Sabres, had guided the organization into the national rankings. Playfair knew with Peca’s early success and name recognition, it was only a matter of time before a team from a higher level of hockey knocked on Peca’s door and whisked him away.
Not wanting to disrupt the Junior Sabres’ season, Playfair tiptoed around the subject with Peca. Finally, with tryouts for next year around the corner, Playfair needed to know if the former Sabres captain planned to stick around or take the next step.
“I don’t think you achieve that type of success and then walk away,” said Peca, who will return to try to build off his inaugural season. “My whole life I’ve been goal-oriented, trying to achieve a level of success. I did that throughout my playing career, but I think now that I’m retired from playing, my true passion is to make the City of Buffalo and its surrounding area of Western New York a hockey hotbed, whether it’s youth hockey or junior hockey.
“I think now with the Sabres’ support, we’re going to be able to achieve that.”
Peca’s family and heart are in Buffalo despite growing up in Toronto and playing in six NHL cities. The 39-year-old has a son who plays in Buffalo’s youth hockey system, and Peca pictures the boy and his peers having a clear path to college or professional hockey through their hometown.
“I grew up in Toronto where a kid can get a lot of opportunities afforded him for youth hockey and junior hockey,” Peca said. “There’s no reason why Buffalo can’t have that same type of opportunity. I know we don’t have the population, but there’s just as many boys and girls that want to grow up and play hockey at a high level.
“My passion and my desire now is to try and give those kids that want to pursue the game at a high level every opportunity to achieve that.”
Peca sees staying with the Junior Sabres as the best way to do it.
The team recently lost in the second round of the Ontario Junior Hockey League playoffs, bringing an end to a season filled with awards and recognition. The Junior Sabres went 38-12-5 and ranked in the top 10 in the Canadian Junior Hockey League, an organization that oversees 10 leagues and 128 teams from coast to coast.
Peca earned two honors, with the league naming him Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year. What’s more important to him is seven players committed to college, including four to Division I schools, and at least a half-dozen more are in position to do so next season.
“If it helps at all with some of our recruiting, to get some good players play for us, great,” he said of the individual awards. “Having the success we did this year I think will put us on the schedule of a lot of colleges now. They’re going to see the Buffalo Junior Sabres and say, ‘They have a really good team, and they usually have a good team, and we want to get out and see the players that they’ve got.’ That’s only going to help and benefit the players in our program.
“The reason we want success isn’t to pat ourselves on the back. It’s to get the coaches and college scouts out to our games as often as possible.”
The recruiters will see a team led by a calm, confidence-building coach.
“He brings a quiet confidence in his ability, but he also has a way of reassuring the kids,” Playfair said. “They end up confident in their abilities. He doesn’t barbecue them necessarily when they make a mistake. He asks them what were they thinking when they did that play and did they see Player X was open, and if the answer is no, well, next time think about that.
“It seems like the kids just gravitated toward that.”
Peca enjoyed coaching more than he figured. He’s been a hockey dad and coached youth teams, but leading 16- to 20-year-olds got the adrenaline going. Being the GM helped since he feels that could be a suitable calling sometime.
“My true assets are in evaluating and putting teams together,” he said, “but I fell in love with the coaching part.”
To the surprise of Playfair and others, Peca will continue to coach in Buffalo.
“For a lot of reasons, having Michael stay around is good,” Playfair said. “The peace that Michael gets is to give back to the community. Some of us played at that level, and because of a break or coaching or pure luck we were able to move on. It’s nice when you’ve finished your playing career and you come back to the town you’re going to live in and reach out and do that kind of stuff.
“I think Michael gets that part of it. He can help make a difference for these kids.”