That’s how Sabres prospect Sean Malone described the team’s development camp, which concluded with the Blue-Gold scrimmage Friday in First Niagara Center.
The Buffalo native and former Nichols School student can handle spreadsheets and the quadratic formula with ease. He is planning to study economics at Harvard in the fall, after all.
But how could he have predicted what it would feel like to skate out in a blue-and-gold sweater after growing up a die-hard Sabres fan living 10 minutes down the road?
“Going out there for the first time, it’s an eye-opener to see all these professional players out there, and I’m still coming out of juniors, going into college,” Malone said Thursday. “It’s an eye-opener, but I think it has gone well.”
Malone, a sixth-round draft pick this year, is one of five players with local ties who attended the development camp. The others are second-round pick Justin Bailey (Williamsville), Alex Iafallo (Eden), Alex Lepkowski (West Seneca) and Tyler Gjurich (Junior Sabres).
There are, of course, common themes that emerge from talking with the locals about playing for the team they rooted for as youngsters; words like “crazy” and phrases like “dream come true” are repeated often.
“This has always been a dream, ever since I started playing hockey,” said Iafallo, the 6-foot-tall, 19-year-old center. “It’s just been phenomenal to be a part of, to watch the Sabres while growing up, and now I’m here. It’s just unbelievable.”
Iafallo had 43 points in 50 games with Fargo (USHL) last season.
“It’s crazy. I was just soaking it in,” he said Wednesday. “Putting on the jersey, I was like: ‘Wow, this is something else.’ I’ve always dreamed of doing it.”
Bailey was a star attraction of Friday’s scrimmage. He was interviewed on the Jumbotron just before the puck dropped. The team also aired a prerecorded interview with him between the first and second periods in which he said Malone would be the teammate he’d select if he could only pick one to be with him trapped on an island.
Malone said the camp was made easier by having friends like left wing J.T. Compher, who scored a goal in the scrimmage, and fellow Buffalo boy Bailey. He said he and Bailey push each other in the weight room.
So, who’s benching more?
“Oh me,” said a laughing Malone, who is four inches shorter but just three pounds lighter than Bailey. “By far.”
Bailey, who turned 18 July 1, hopes to bulk up and gain 14 pounds to reach 200 by the season. He said he was a little bit nervous at camp, naturally, but he got through the butterflies the first day.
The much higher quality of play has been another adjustment.
“There are guys that are three, four, five years older than you, and they’ve had more experience, so it’s a little bit quicker,” Bailey said. “But I think after about the first 15, 20 minutes of the first day on the ice, I got used it.”
Bailey said his coach ran a pro-like atmosphere in Kitchener (OHL), and he felt prepared for the next level – particularly for the rigorous schedule demands that come with playing in an NHL system. He reflected on seeing his name in the locker room.
“It was a dream come true, and not many kids that grow up in Buffalo get that opportunity to not only play in First Niagara Center, but to be wearing a Sabres jersey, being able to represent themselves that way,” Bailey said. “So it was just amazing to see my nameplate and all my stuff.”
“I thought he’s got good speed; he’s got a good skill level,” coach Ron Rolston said of Bailey after the scrimmage. “His challenge is just being able to bring it all the time.
“You see flashes in the game when he’s dominant, and then he’ll go away a little bit, but that’s part of what we talked about with our team last year, just consistency of doing it every shift. Very, very talented. Very good speed, good skill level.”
Their paths to getting there may differ, but one thing was common among the three Greater Buffalo natives attending Friday’s camp: the joy of playing for their hometown team.
“I mean obviously growing up, it’s tough not to be a Sabres fan in this city especially,” Bailey said.