Special day for Sabres and Blue Jackets, too

Published Sep 26, 2018 at 12:00pm

CLINTON — Players and coaches alike reminisced on their time in rinks like the one they practiced on Tuesday morning in preparation for last night’s Kraft Hockeyville NHL preseason game between the Buffalo Sabres and the Columbus Blue Jackets at Clinton Arena.

The rink was filled with students and music was blaring Tuesday morning as the two teams practiced. The Blue Jackets came out for an hour, with eight players in white practice jerseys and eight more in dark blue, as well as two goalies. Then the Sabres took their hour, half in dark blue and half in yellow.

It was a bit different than the rinks these two teams usually play in. KeyBank Center in Buffalo seats 19,070. Columbus plays in Nationwide Arena, which seats 18,144.

Columbus Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella was impressed with the facility and recent renovations. He stressed that while the team has a job to do in preparing for the regular season, the event is “what it’s all about,” making the NHL experience fun for the fans. He said it was good to see “all the kids and the excitement it’s bringing the area.”

He continued: “Once you get here you’re glad you’re here. That’s why you play. We’re entertainers.” He noted that even the bus ride to the rink was memorable. “We came in to the village. It’s beautiful.”

As for the rink itself, Tortorella said it reminded players of some of the places they played in the minor leagues as juniors, with low ceilings and less forgiving boards.

While Tortorella said there was no special plan for which 16 players and two goalies dressed for the Hockeyville game, he noted that Artemi Panarin needed some extra time after returning from injury. Star goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and team captain Nick Foligno were not among those who participated in the Hockeyville game.

Sabres coach Phil Housley said he did have a plan for the uniqueness of the Hockeyville game.

“We wanted to dress as many American players as possible.” Like Columbus, Buffalo did not dress its starting goalie for the game. Carter Hutton was not one of the two goalies chosen.

“It was great,” Housley said of the morning skate. “Tunes were blaring. The crowd was awesome.” He said the crowd in the rain “hung in there and our guys stayed out there and signed (autographs).” The arena itself, he said, “brings you back to your childhood memories.” The Sabres, technically the home team, also got a little reminder of their home rink when the crowd chanted “Let’s go Buffalo!” during the morning skate.

“It’s been awesome,” said Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones that morning.

He called it “a great turnout” by fans who stood outside the arena to welcome the players and get autographs even in the rain.

Jones, the son of Ronald “Popeye” Jones, who logged time with six NBA teams in 11 seasons, had his own small rink memories.

He said the experience is fun, getting “out of the box,” to “change it up a bit.” He said he “grew up in a rink like this,” and looked forward to the game in a place where “the energy is more intimate,” where the low roof makes it a loud place to play.

“This is what it’s all about right?” said Sabres alternate captain Zach Bogosian. “Seeing it for the first time it all came back,” he said of the small rink feel. “The corners are pretty square so it kind of reminded me of my junior days.” But, he said, the goal is still to win the game and prepare for the season.

Blue Jackets alternate captain Boone Jenner said he’s “never been a part of something like this.”

He said the “passionate crowd” was a real sight. “It’s the whole experience: getting off the bus, seeing the kids.”

Casey Mittelstadt, a 19-year-old who played six games for the Sabres last year after being drafted out of the University of Minnesota, said his teammates were amused when he said the experience in the rink “felt like high school. It makes for a fun skate. It was definitely fun and good to see,” he added of the crowd outside and inside the rink.

Jeremy Roenick, part of the NBC Sports broadcast team, was in the building as well. The retired 500-goal scorer said he has enjoyed the days in Clinton.

“I didn’t know anything about Clinton. The history of hockey here has been really interesting to learn.”

He said he would have loved to have the chance to play in a place like Clinton in an event like Hockeyville. “It would be amazing.”