Martin Biron, a first-round draft pick by the Buffalo Sabres in 1995, had just turned 18 when he arrived at training camp that fall. On the first night of camp, there was a team dinner and the rookie from Lac-Saint-Charles, Quebec, was seated next to a future Hall of Famer.
“I was sitting next to Pat LaFontaine — that was amazing,” Biron said. “I was just star-struck.”
The coach of the team was Ted Nolan, who called up Biron to make his NHL debut in December of that year in Pittsburgh.
Biron is a broadcaster now, working part time for several networks after retiring just last month, concluding a 16-year NHL playing career that included stints with the Sabres, Philadelphia Flyers, New York Islanders and New York Rangers. As an analyst and a longtime player, Biron is about as qualified as anyone to speak to what the hiring of LaFontaine and Nolan will mean to the Sabres’ franchise.
Buffalo’s naming of LaFontaine as director of hockey operations caught Sabres fans by surprise, but it didn’t exactly come as a shock to Biron. He said it’s always been a matter of “when, not if” LaFontaine would land a prominent front office job with an NHL team.
“Everybody kind of knows what kind of a person Pat is,” Biron said Friday during a phone interview. “He’s had a chance to kind of study the game and learn and take his time. You don’t want to rush into something like that. Having been with a few organizations and knowing how the league works, and working for the league a bit this year, those are all important things.”
The hiring of LaFontaine “was a great move for the organization and for the city,” he said. “Being on the ice with him, he worked extremely hard. He was so talented. People listened to him. I can still remember practices and he was the hardest-working guy out there and people really listened to him.”
Biron said he and LaFontaine crossed paths several times in recent years in New York, including a chat last year in a hallway at Madison Square Garden.
“It was fun to talk about the good old days when I was 18 years old and didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” Biron said, laughing.
With Dominik Hasek and Steve Shields ahead of him on the Sabres’ depth chart, Biron’s career ascent was gradual here. Still, he remembers Nolan as “very much a players’ coach.”
“He’s a great motivator,” Biron said. “Players respect him and they want to play for him. Even in training camp when I was here it was always very fun for us to be on the ice with him, it was fun for us to be in the locker room with him.
“You look at the teams he had in the mid-‘90s here in Buffalo and they weren’t the most talented of teams, they weren’t the greatest of teams, but people remember them because they worked. They worked hard, they were relentless. They carved an identity doing that.”
And Nolan got similar results when he coached the Islanders in 2006-07 and 2007-08, Biron said.
Now 36, Biron lives in East Aurora with his wife, Anne Marie, and their four children, ages 3-9. Biron does some work for the Madison Square Garden network on Rangers broadcasts — appearing in pregame, postgame and intermission segments. He also makes trips to Toronto to analyze games or break down highlights for TSN, and does occasional work for RDS in Montreal, a French-language station.
Most of his trips for broadcast work are one- or two-day events, meaning he is never far from home for too long.
“I’m trying not to overdo it because, obviously, I retired for a reason, to be at home and be with the family,” he said.
During the summer, Anne Marie Biron bought a retail business in East Aurora that’s called the Four Honey Bees Cottage (a tribute to the Birons’ four children). The Cottage offers interior design consulting, designer furniture, gifts and other boutique items. When Marty isn’t doing broadcast work, he is frequently helping his wife mind the store.
When the NHL season shut down a year ago during the lockout, Biron said the time off “kind of started the wheels turning a little bit. I got to be home and enjoy every football game and cheerleading and Halloween and Thanksgiving and be home. So your priorities change a little bit when you get older.”
Biron had done some broadcast work for TSN during playoff series when he was idle as a player, so he isn’t exactly a novice.
“But when you do it as a player,” he said, “all they want you to talk about is your personal experience. Now I really pay attention to games, I pay attention to players, to what’s going on around the league, because you have to be on top of it. You can’t take a day off and you really need to know what’s going on. You need to be able to make an educated guess or reasoning about what’s going on in certain games, or in highlight packages or stuff like that.
“I love the game of hockey. I’ve been in the game from when I was a kid and I want to stay in the game for as long as I can. … I’m a student of the game. I love going to the rink and taking notes, seeing who’s playing and who’s doing what.”
The Birons’ oldest child is their son, Jacob, who is 9. Dad Marty spends time with Jacob on the ice, and it may kindle a desire for him to get into coaching.
“I love teaching a little bit and I’ve done it with teenagers and high-quality midget players in Canada and some junior guys,” he said. “And the last few years in New York I learned a lot about goaltending and the teaching of goaltending because our goalie coach over there was somebody that I was really close with,” Benoit Allaire. “We talked a lot about it and I really respected him. It was something that kind of opened my eyes, like maybe that would be something that I would like to do.
“But this is great for me, the opportunity to have this year to try a few different things. I can do a little TV, I can do things with the kids, I can just stay home and be retired and do that and help my wife with her store. …
“So who knows, maybe something will come up where I can use my experience as a goaltender and maybe teach on the ice. We’ll just have to see.”