Owner Terry Pegula didn’t recognize the trend until it was pointed out to him: That the hires he’s made in the last four months for general manager and coach of the Buffalo Sabres and the NFL’s Buffalo Bills were individuals that never held those jobs before.
In the Bills’ case, it was Brandon Beene as general manager, after having served as an assistant with the Carolina Panthers, and Sean McDermott as head coach, after years a defensive coordinator. In the Sabres’ case, it was Pittsburgh Penguins assistant general manager Jason Botterill hired as the general manager, who then hired Nashville Predators assistant coach (and de facto defensive coordinator) Phil Housley as his new head coach.
“If you look at them, they spent their early years in organizations where they were well-respected and had some success. It wasn’t the plan, but the guys that won out, won out,” said Pegula. “Everyone has to start somewhere.”
This is true, and as a matter of fact Phil Housley started his professional hockey life in Buffalo, drafted sixth overall in 1982 out of high school, and then playing 608 of his 1,495 career games with the franchise.
“I’m really looking forward to the challenge. I don’t think people realize how pumped I am to be coming back to Buffalo,” he said, “and being a part of this organization and trying to do something special here.”
Housley was an assistant coach for four seasons in Nashville. His only significant head coaching experience was as the head coach when Team USA won the gold medal at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship. But, again, you have to start somewhere.
Pegula made it no secret that he wanted to change the “character” of the franchise after firing GM Tim Murray and coach Dan Bylsma after the season. “You have to have character in the organization and on the ice. You have to have a disciplined, structured environment where everybody is communicating,” he said at the time.
In Botterill, he brings in a long-serving executive who worked under GMs Ray Shero and Jim Rutherford for a franchise that now has three Stanley Cups since 2009. The cohesion of the Penguins, from management down, is envious, and Pegula is trying to graft that onto the Sabres’ skeleton.
One assumed that meant either Rick Tocchet or Jacques Martin would be imported in to coach the team, but Botterill and Pegula – let’s not pretend he didn’t have major influence here, after admittedly being on the sidelines during the Sabres’ last hirings – opted for a member of another well-run organization, the Nashville Predators.
But Housley isn’t a Predator. He’s a Sabre. Which obviously appealed to Pegula, who spoke glowingly about being a fan at the Aud watching Housley play. But it also meant that the new coach has an investment in bringing a championship to Buffalo beyond his aims as an NHL coach.
To that end, Housley isn’t content on being the coach of the Sabres, but also, in some ways, still one of the boys.
“I want to be rubbing shoulders with the players. I understand what they’re going through. One of the biggest assets I have is going through the battles with them. There’s a fine line as a head coach. The message has to be firm. But you have to get in their with them. Be a part of something. They’ll play for you,” he said.
The kind of hockey Housley wants to play in Buffalo – attacking mindset, playing with speed, using a five-man attack that involves the defensemen – and the kind of atmosphere he wants around the team are things he feels will appeal to players.
“It’s about creating that culture and building it. And having the trust in that culture, moving forward,” he said. “I think the people who comes to the games are going to like the brand of hockey here. I think the players will be excited to play the brand of hockey that I’m going to bring forward. That’s part of the whole process. Building the culture.”
Of course, you can build all the culture you want, but it’s going to sit there like an abandoned art house movie theater unless you get people to buy in.
And the primary customer in that buy-in is Jack Eichel.
The Sabres star was rumored to have played a role in Bylsma’s firing, but that was denied by his player and his reps. The fact remains: Any coach of the Buffalo Sabres needs to get Jack on board and motivated. He’s the franchise. He’s the star.
Housley is up for the challenge.
“The key here is getting to know him. I can only draw from past experiences. When you look at the guys we had in Nashville, P.K. Subban was a tremendous personality. I think I can use that experience trying to get to Jack,” said Housley. “He’s a terrific talent. I want to get the most out of him.”
Housley is the only current head coach in the NHL who is in the Hall of Fame as a player. It’s a credential that doesn’t always lead to success behind the bench – for every Jacques Lemaire, there are two or three Wayne Gretzkys – but it does instantly grab the attention of players.
“I gotta know where they stand, and they gotta know where I stand,” said Housley.
We know where Phil Housley’s going to stand next season: At the Sabres bench, where his story began, and where his next chapter opens. And he couldn’t be more excited about it.
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