Thomas Vanek, seated in the middle of his new Montreal teammates, gazed up from the bench as nine years of his life flashed by on the scoreboard. The applause and emotions grew as goal after goal went in the net, highlights of his time with the Sabres that spanned 598 games and three uniform overhauls.
When the video ended, Vanek and the fans in Buffalo were both on their feet. He waved, the crowd cheered, and the mutual admiration was evident in First Niagara Center.
“All I know is I have a lot of good memories in this building, in this town,” Vanek said Sunday. “It’s something I’ll cherish forever.”
The Sabres’ former captain and perennial scoring leader returned to the arena for the first time since being traded in October. It felt strange walking through the hallways as a visitor, but being an opponent couldn’t mask his love for Buffalo.
Or his regrets.
While Vanek walked down memory lane, the path occasionally veered toward disappointing times.
“Looking back at it and even talking to some of the guys who are not here anymore, it’s unfortunate,” Vanek said before Montreal’s 2-0 victory.
The left wing, drafted fifth overall in 2003, joined the Sabres in 2005-06 as a complementary piece. Chris Drury and Daniel Briere led Buffalo to the Eastern Conference final that season and the next. They departed July 1, 2007, and Darcy Regier responded by betting on Vanek, Jason Pominville, Ryan Miller and Derek Roy to be the next leaders.
They never won a playoff series, and they’re all gone.
“I thought we were a good team, a solid core,” Vanek said. “We always talked about not getting to the next level, but I thought if you really look back at what happened is that Danny and Chris left at the time, and they told us to step up, which is great. We all wanted that to happen, but we never replaced two good players.
“In this league you need depth, and I think five, six players can only take you so far. The way I look at it, I wish we would have went and got two, three, four more good guys. We really could have made some runs.”
Vanek, who will be an unrestricted free agent July 1, knew after an organizational meeting last summer that his run in Buffalo was coming to an end.
“I just asked what direction this team was going in,” Vanek said. “No one really had an answer. That’s when I kind of made up my mind that July 1 is probably a goal of mine.”
Knowing Vanek wouldn’t re-sign, Regier sent the forward to the New York Islanders in one of his last acts before getting fired.
“It looked like I was the last domino to fall, and then things started to change,” Vanek said. “It’s tough to see some of the guys go through this, but I think change was needed, and it happened.”
Vanek put up 44 points in 47 games with the Islanders, but he turned down a reported $50 million contract offer. Word of the rejection leaked out, ending the good times Vanek was having in New York. He went to Montreal at the trade deadline and is looking forward to a playoff race.
But first he had to say goodbye to Buffalo, and the Sabres said goodbye to him.
“It was great,” said Vanek, who was still in the organization when it failed to recognize Pominville’s return. “My previous experience when someone else came back they didn’t do much, so I didn’t know what to expect. I thought it was very nice and very classy of them.
“When guys ask me about Buffalo, there’s nothing bad I could really say about it.”