Cody Hodgson noticed the special moments during every road game. He’d see fans rise to their feet to cheer a community or military hero, someone who has strived to make the lives of others better. He knew there were similar folks in Sabreland who also deserved an extraordinary day.
After approaching Buffalo’s community relations staff, Hodgson and the Sabres came up with a plan to bring ill or injured members of the Ontario Provincial Police to Buffalo for games and dressing-room meetings.
“We’ve got a lot of fans from that area, too,” Hodgson said Monday. “They do a ton of stuff for us that’s not really rewarded, so I wanted to give them something to give them a break, especially for the ones that have put their lives at stake for us, officers that have been hurt in the line of duty. They need that time away with their families, and it’s kind of nice.”
There was one condition. Hodgson didn’t want people to know about it, which was evident by his sheepish acknowledgment of the program.
“It’s not a big thing,” the center said. “I don’t want a big announcement on TV. It’s just something for the families to come. We give their whole family tickets, and they get to enjoy the game.”
Hodgson is one of several Sabres donating time or money for charitable causes, a long-standing tradition in the sports world that is undergoing a rebuild in Buffalo.
Jordan Leopold, Nathan Gerbe and Patrick Kaleta were the most active Sabres in the community, but they’re not on the team anymore. The Sabres needed new players to step into their roles. Hodgson, Mark Pysyk, Mike Weber and others have gladly accepted.
“It’s really like starting over,” Rich Jureller, the director of community relations, said in First Niagara Center. “It’s a really good group. Hockey players by their nature are all very generous.”
For some of the endeavors, Jureller and his co-workers seek out volunteers. In other instances, the players approach them with ideas.
“We’re really blessed as hockey players to do what we want for a living and do what we grew up playing,” Hodgson said. “It’s nice we can use what we have to make other people feel good, too.”
Pysyk recently began working with Stone’s Buddies, a program for chronically ill kids at Women & Children’s Hospital. Leopold used to make monthly visits to the hospital, and the whole team will make a Christmas trip Dec. 18.
Pysyk has been visiting hospitals for years on the recommendation of his mother, Sherry, a nurse in Alberta, Canada.
“Whenever there was a kid or somebody that was sick, she would always get me and a buddy and ask if we want to go,” Pysyk said. “We’ve got a lot of free time, so that’s something that I’ve always enjoyed is just hanging out with the kids there.
“It’s nothing out of my day to go see them, but hopefully it makes a big impression on them and hopefully can light up their day for a little bit at least.”
Weber replaced Gerbe in sponsoring “Tickets for Troops,” which supplies tickets and a jersey every game to members of the military. It’s the most well-known program with in-game announcements, but it’s far from the only one.
The Sabres have helped remodel a dormitory for homeless veterans at the City Mission and played volleyball and cards with children in the Kids Escaping Drugs treatment program. They have more on the calendar, including a fundraiser for the Buffalo Zoo in which they’ll sell stuffed-animal otters that are wearing the jersey of captain Steve Ott.
“For us, it’s a humbling experience,” Weber said. “Just to be able to give back is a huge thing.”
The help extends to the top with the Sabres’ foundation and continues with coach Ted Nolan, who helps with several charities and talks about its significance with the team’s players.
“The majority are from small towns and they know the importance of giving back, especially this time of year,” Nolan said. “We’re able to be financially rewarded in this sport. It doesn’t mean too much if you can’t share it with somebody and help somebody.”