Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE
Three strides, head down, impact and a lovely little view of the ceiling. That was the routine. Again and again. It didn't matter who, didn't matter where. The outside details were irrelevant. All we knew was that Mike Peca was going to hit something. He was going to put that sweater on with that "C", he was going to skate out there and hit something hard.
He never scored a ton of goals, never looked that flashy, never talked a big game. All he did was what we expected him to do: to play pretty hard almost all of the time; to make people regret going through the middle of the ice. When Mike Peca left after his bitter contract dispute in the 2000-01 season, a little bit of the subtle nastiness -- the holdover ruggedness of the Ted Nolan workmen -- left with him.
Perhaps even more so than that of Chris Drury and Danny Briere -- whose co-captaincy occupies much of our nostalgia -- Mike Peca's captaincy and tenure as a Sabre signified the attitude of the team at the time. It's an attitude that the Sabres have tried unsuccessfully to replicate in a variety of forms ever since.
The Jason Pominville captaincy didn't come about quite like that. It didn't come about to fit a certain attitude and certainly did not come about because Pominville played so tough that you couldn't ignore it. It was more a situation that arrived by circumstance.
Pominville, it turns out, is used to being lucky as circumstances come to pass.
Derek Roy couldn't have it. He was a captain before in his junior days -- had even raised a cup above his head -- but his immaturity and his frequent clashes with head coach Lindy Ruff made him seem unlikely. It wouldn't be Paul Gaustad, either, who despite sometimes possessing the correct demeanor (and other times not so much), was on the last year of his contract and did not play enough minutes to warrant the vaunted letter.
It wasn't going to be Drew Stafford, who was the red-headed stepchild of the Sabres "core" before a breakout 2010-11, but his maddening inconsistency and questionable work effort would prohibit him from being captain. The front runner was probably Thomas Vanek. But Vanek was so hard on himself that the captaincy would be a total gamble. He was just as likely to buckle under the pressure and experience full-on collapse if things went bad.
It left only one logical option: Jason Pominville, a young man whose quiet demeanor and gentlemen-like approach to everything made him an inoffensive choice. Not a hitter like Peca, nor does he bring that attitude: they still share many other things in common. They're both mid-20 goal scorers who play the game right on both sides of the ice, both who would prefer to let their games do the talking, both became captains at the time of ownership transition, and neither is the best at any one thing on their team but are solid at just about all of it.
For NHL players, there are few honors more highly held (for right or wrong) than being a captain. It means you're the most mature, trustworthy, level-headed member of a team; the player that the whole team looks to for answers.
For Pominville, the prospect of captaining a NHL team was not always an immediate or even likely one. He was never a prospect on the Crosby or Tavares level -- never that sure thing that was going to get the C right away -- and he wasn't exactly being "groomed" for it like a Ryan Callahan. Pominville's journey started instead by being told he wasn't going to be a Sabre at all.
"Oh, now do you believe? Now do you believe?"* At the end of that sentence, Jason Pominville suddenly became a very famous man in Buffalo, New York. With that goal, Jason Pominville became the first player in NHL history to win his team a playoff series by scoring a shorthanded goal in overtime. But it wasn't always good news.
To start the 2005-06 season, Pominville was waived by the Sabres. Unclaimed by another team, he went on to play 18 games in Rochester before being called up. This sort of thing can often be the death knell in the career of a young hockey player. When a team -- especially a team that is predicted to be toward the bottom of the league -- waives you outright from their NHL roster before the start of the season it's not a great vote of confidence. But when given the chance, Pominville shined. He almost immediately scored his first NHL goal on the Washington Capitals, and never looked back.
(*By the way: I know we all love Rick Jeanneret. I know we all love his goal calls. But the idea that this call was organic is a bit of Buffalo folk lore along the same lines of "May Day". Jeanneret had used this phrase -- "Now do you believe?" all throughout the series. He used it multiple times in the wild-and-wacky Game 1 of the series when I think the Sens/Sabres combined for 307 goals. He couldn't stop using it. As is the case often with hockey, it was just that so much emotion was wrapped up in this one goal that it felt like organic poetry.)
Two seasons of consistent play later, and Pominville became a very rich man on top of being a lucky one, and a critical cog in the post-July dismemberment Sabres "core".
He's the hero Gotham deserves but not the one it needs
"When I think of Mike Peca, I think about blue-collar, hard-working, leadership," says Joe Pinzone, editor of Buffalo Wins. "Central casting couldn't find a better Sabre."
These aren't necessarily words that are uttered about Jason Pominville very often. Instead, you get a lot of hubub about his consistency and two-way play, about his consummate Lady Byng potential, and the fact that he's a delicate flower who doesn't really like to hit anyone that much.
(Or if you talk to our disinterested girlfriends and wives (or husbands), it's that he's totally like this dreamy like dreamboat like totally. Since 2005 I've been to Sabres hockey games with, on my count, 4 different women including my wife. They all rank Pominville as some sort of weird athletic hybrid lovechild of Justin Timberlake and a unicorn. Majestic. Whimisical. A pearly-toothed adonis. Oh, Jason, let me count the ways...)
Pominville, of course, has never really stood out as the type of player you might expect to become the captain. Seemingly more follower than leader, more "1-B" than "1-A", he was disconcertingly quiet at the ceremony in Finland in which he was awarded the "C". I half expected the rest of the team to jeeringly chant "speeeech" like frat boys during a toast at a drunken stag.
And I've routinely thought it was time for Pominville to be traded; sent out to a team desperately needing goal scoring while the Sabres lacked attitude and toughness.
So Pominville isn't Peca in a lot of ways, and in ways we'd wish he could be. But we knew that going in.
It's been a different road for Pominville, and now we have to ask the questions about whether or not Pominville can help lead his team to a Stanley Cup appearance the way Peca did. Sure, he's no Peca. No "Captain Crunch". Not the "Dark Knight". Not cool and vicious and menacing.
But it's still been a difficult road for Pominville and still somewhat amazing he's made it this far. From being waived and doubted, from always playing runner-up to more prolific name brands on his team. He's never been the guy. He's never been asked to have the answers, until now. And believe me, there are plenty of questions. Is Pominville the right choice for captain? Does he really give the Sabres the sort of attitude they need? And so I suppose Pominville might have one of his own:
Would you like to know how he got these scars?
Matthew Stewart is a freelance writer living in Austin, TX. You can reach him on Twitter: @matthew1stewart