Nearly 12 years in the Buffalo Sabres organization ended in a split second for Jason Pominville on April 3. It was trade deadline day and he was sent to the Minnesota Wild, which meant a harried cross-country flight to Los Angeles to join his new team.
It also meant virtually no good-byes for a captain who had been one of the franchise’s most popular players since its run to the 2006 Eastern Conference finals that included his unforgettable, series-winning overtime goal in Ottawa.
There was only one player who got a farewell and that was teammate, long-time linemate and Clarence neighbor Thomas Vanek.
Six months later, Pominville gets to say those good-byes – and now hellos – to lots of folks in First Niagara Center today in his first trip back with the Wild for a game against the winless Sabres. The morning skate figures to be quite a reunion before things get down to business this evening.
“The only two people I got to say bye to were Vanek, because he was my neighbor and drove me to the airport, and Dave Williams, who brought me my equipment,” Pominville told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune over the weekend, referring to Buffalo’s equipment manager. “So it’ll be nice to go back, but it’ll be weird to go in the same door but a different locker room.
“I’ll see the ice from a different angle, I guess. It’ll be fun. Everything happens so fast and I just would really like to see the staff and play in front of those fans again.”
Pominville has just one point, a goal, in the Wild’s first five games as Minnesota has gone 2-1-2. He had four goals and five assists in 10 games last year but was felled by a concussion from a hit by Los Angeles’ Dustin Brown and was ineffective in two playoff games against Chicago.
He is currently skating on Minnesota’s second line, with Mikael Granlund at center and former Ottawa standout Dany Heatley on left wing. And just as he did in Buffalo, Pominville is playing the right point on the power play while partnering with defenseman Ryan Suter.
Pominville is so bullish on a future with the Wild that he agreed to a five-year, $28 million extension with the club on opening night.
“I remember the first game in L.A., they chalk up a board and throw a bunch of things at you, and you’re just excited to be there,” he said. “It’s a new team, you’re meeting all kinds of different people and you’re just confused.”
Pominville’s wife, Kim, and his two children made a surprise drive from Buffalo to see him the week after the trade during a game in Columbus. The Wild’s PR staff decked out the family in team gear flown in that day from St. Paul for the occasion.
“There’s a lot of things that go with being traded,” Pominville said. “You have a place where you used to play, so you have to make sure you empty that and bring as many things as you can here. You get here and you don’t have a vehicle, so what do you do? And I’m terrible with directions anyway. Everything’s new, everything’s thrown at you. So it’s nice to be able to get settled in, get out of the hotel, get my family here and get a feel for the city and team.”
The Sabres acquired Pominville for center Johan Larsson, Rochester goalie Matt Hackett, a first-round pick they turned into defenseman Nikita Zadorov and a second-rounder next year. Among the Sabres’ all-time leaders, Pominville ranks 12th in goals (185) and points (456), ninth in assists (271), and is tied with Miroslav Satan for 19th in games played (578).
Rumors continue to fly in the hockey world that he might be joined next season by Vanek, who could be one of the hottest free agents on the market and could easily fit into Minnesota’s payroll with the salary cap going up and the Wild not likely to retain Heatley’s $7.5 million hit.
Vanek, of course, won an NCAA championship in Buffalo in 2003 while playing for the University of Minnesota and one of his teammates on that club was current Wild defenseman Keith Ballard. Vanek’s wife, Ashley, is a Minnesota native and he makes his offseason home in the suburbs of the Twin Cities.
Pominville has even joked with Minnesota reporters about how he gets asked once a day about Vanek. They rolled together during the Sabres’ glory years of 2006 and 2007, which seem a long way away from the Sabres now.
“We’d have 18,000 in the building and another 15,000 outside the arena watching on a big screen,” Pominville recalled. “The fan support was awesome. We were pretty fortunate. They love their hockey, they’re all about their team. We had some good years, we had some tougher years, but they always supported us.”
The Sabres (0-5-1) can tie the franchise record for longest winless streak from the start of the season if they don’t get a win tonight. Their anemic offense has an NHL-low six goals in six games – tied with the 1970 Buffalo expansionites for fewest in franchise history – and faces a tough test against a Minnesota team that leads the NHL in fewest shots on goal against (21.4). The Sabres, conversely, are second-last in that department (37.0).
Tonight’s game opens a brutal week for Buffalo, which plays the New York Islanders on Tuesday in Nassau Coliseum and then hosts Vancouver on Thursday and unbeaten Colorado on Saturday. With days off mostly mandated by the new collective bargaining agreement, the Sabres were off Sunday and are scheduled to be off again Wednesday, so they won’t even have a full practice again until Friday.