For most (if not all) Buffalo Sabres fans from my generation, their passion for the organization was forged during the team’s 1998-99 Stanley Cup run. The group known as “the hardest working team in hockey” won our young hearts as the scrappy team that could.
I got the chance to chat with one of the players from that group whose career epitomized that era of hockey in Western New York. As someone who had to fight for his NHL career in his late-20’s, Dixon Ward ended up playing a key role as a defensive forward with the Sabres from 1995-2000. During his time both in Buffalo and Rochester, he contributed to what was a fondly recanted stretch of championship appearances for the organization.
Anthony Sciandra: Dixon, starting with your collegiate career, as the only player in North Dakota University history to score over 100 goals and 100 assists, you had a pretty iconic four years there. What was your experience like at North Dakota and and how important was it to your growth as a future NHL player?
Dixon Ward: “Well, I think your college years, when you’re a guy who has gone through college, those years become the most important part of your process. That’s where you learn, truly, what the game is all about and how to make the next step. So, without that experience, for me, I don’t think I would have made the next step to the NHL.”
“Because of the coaching and experience I had at North Dakota it prepared me for what was coming next so, yeah it was the most important part of the whole process I think.”
AS: Jumping ahead a bit, during the 1992-93 season you kind of burst onto the scene at a 24-year-old rookie with the Vancouver Canucks, posting 52 points in 70 games. A little bit of a rough stretch came after that. You bounced around to a few different clubs before landing with the Buffalo Sabres in 1995-96.
Not many guys experience a career revival at 28 years old. What was it about landing in Buffalo that helped you get your game back to where it was during that first year in Vancouver?
DW: “Opportunity, basically. Vancouver was good, but those were the days, you know, people now see it and they think things happen entirely differently than they used to but as a young player, it’s very difficult to get opportunity above veterans. In Vancouver, as good a year as I had in my first year, I came back my second year and I was on the fourth or fifth line because of the veterans that were in front of me.”
“It was very difficult to get that sustained opportunity and then, unfortunately, when I got traded to Los Angeles, and then to Toronto, there just wasn’t a spot there so it took a couple years until I got into Buffalo to really get an opportunity and find a role that I could play consistently. That’s just the way it goes. Take advantage of opportunity, being patient, and staying relevant and active through the process until something clicks. It was a little bit up and down for a while there, but I was fortunate enough to get a chance with the Sabres and it worked out really well there.”
AS: That first year in Western New York, you spent most of it with the Rochester Americans, where you led them to a Calder Cup trophy You were also awarded the Jack A. Butterfield trophy as the MVP of the playoffs. What was it like winning it all down there and being a key part of that run in Rochester?
DW: “Well That was actually a lot of fun. I really enjoyed my time there in the city of Rochester. My teammates, we had a great group of guys there. Again, it was just about getting an opportunity where I could play. I played a lot there and I learned a lot about certain parts of the game that I needed to address.”
“It prepared me to step into Buffalo and play a style of game that I hadn’t played until that point in my career, being a responsible defensive player on a shutdown line with (Michael) Peca for the most part. Guys like Jason Dawe, Vaclav Varada and, you know, that was a really comfortable place for me. So, it’s just always about learning, getting better, and finding a way to be relevant. That was the process I went through in Rochester and I look back on that as a really important time.”
AS: Obviously your 94 points in 71 games that year earned you a permanent role with the Sabres the following season. How vindicating was that for you the go from the AHL, back to the big league in such an effective way, hitting the similar production levels you had in that first year with Vancouver?
DW: “Well, I always knew I had the ability. You can always look at my numbers, even my American League numbers. They were always very good so, I had the capability to put points on the board. It was trying to find opportunity. The hard part of this game is, not everybody gets the opportunities. It’s just the way the ball bounces sometimes so you have to be ready to take advantage of those opportunities, you have to be prepared, and you have to make sure you step up when it comes to it.”
“Taking that year in Rochester and really making something out of it to really give myself the opportunity to go back into Buffalo and become a solid, regular player in the NHL was very important. It’s a message that a lot of young players need to learn because I could have went the other way when I went to Rochester and could have been stuck there forever. I was fortunate enough to have good people around me to give me the opportunity to strive and succeed there.”
AS: Shifting focus to your time in Buffalo, you played under two coaches who are very well regarded by Sabres fans in Lindy Ruff and Ted Nolan. What was it like playing for those two guys, what were the differences between them, and what was the transition like, going from Nolan to Ruff?
DW: “Teddy was awesome. He was a guy that really cared about his players and coached the game from an emotional level. I think we were a group that decided to take on this identity of the hardest working group in hockey. We may not have been the most talented from top to bottom, but we were a real close-knit group who really cared for the Sabres organization and we played with pride.”
“Then when the transition came, I think Lindy stepped in and took a group of guys that were really focused on moving forward and fine-tuned a lot of what we did and we saw a lot of success from it. We won a lot of playoff games with Lindy Ruff behind the bench. He’s one of the best bench coaches I’ve ever played for. He made a lot of great adjustment in-game. He knew what buttons to push and he did a lot of great things for that organization.”
AS: You played alongside quite a few linemates in your Sabres career. You already mentioned Varada and Peca. Was there a teammate or set of teammates you enjoyed skating with the most?
DW: “I think Peca and myself, we were together for the better part of about three or four years. We played every shift together. He was always the stable guy and, like I said earlier, in Buffalo, Dawe was one the wing, and then Vaclav came in and we really liked playing with him because he was a different type of player than we were. He really complimented what we wanted to do. We played a lot of minutes against a lot of great lines over the years and he was a big part of that.”
“That was our favorite group I think we had there, and like I said, we saw success as a group and those are the good times to remember.”
AS: Speaking of good times to remember, what was the most memorable moment of your Sabres career?
DW: “Obviously the Stanley Cup run in 1999. I think for all of us that were there at that time, that was the most memorable and I think, very positive. At the time (laughs) it didn’t feel very good, but looking back on it, it was an awesome experience and an awesome time, and one that we’re all still proud of.”
AS: The Sabres have obviously hit a bit of a rough patch in their history and fans still look back fondly on that 1998-99 campaign, wishing the organization could get back to that level of success and fan excitement. What was it about that squad that made you guys so successful?
DW: “(Laughs) There was a guy in net that wasn’t too bad and that helped a lot, right? Obviously it all started with Dominik (Hasek) and the ability for us to tailor our game around his abilities was really a big part of it. We had a good, solid defensive corps and just a really good group of hard working guys that did everything for the team.”
“That was the key, and sometimes things come together. It’s not an easy thing to put together. Trust me, I’ve been through a lot of organizations and no matter how hard you try and no matter what kind of skill level you have, everything has to fall into place. It’s so competitive in the NHL, especially now, it’s very difficult to get to those levels. You just have to continue along a path of trying to do the right things. Change takes time in the league nowadays and with the the salary cap, and the contract structures the way that they are, it’s very hard to go in, clean house, and make adjustments.”
“We had the ability back when I played, we made some real solid trades at certain times that bolstered our lineup. The system works a little bit differently now as I’m sure you guys see. You have to build from within and that takes time. I know for fans it’s frustrating sometimes but I can tell you, the management in Buffalo right now, every day, is trying to do everything they can to try and make this organization better and do everything they possibly can. It’s not just easy to snap your fingers and things change. It takes time and vision, and hopefully they get on the right track.”
AS: After your time in Buffalo, you played with the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers but you also spent two years overseas in the Swiss League. What was that experience like for you as a guy who had played virtually his entire career in North America to that point?
DW: “It was great fun. I mean that was always something that I thought of in the back of my mind near the end of my career. If I had the opportunity to go over to Europe, play and experience the culture and that style of hockey, it was something I really enjoyed. It was great for me to get over there and see what that was all about in a really impressive Swiss League. The opportunity to play, and play a lot, was appealing to me and I had good success over there so I really enjoyed it and it was something I’m really glad I did.”
AS: Currently, from what I understand, you’re the Vice President of the Okanagan Hockey Group in British Columbia. How are you enjoying the player development side of hockey?
DW: “I really enjoy it. I really enjoy watching kids learn the game, appreciate and love the game, and get better at it. When you’re dealing with kids you can see improvement very quickly which is a lot of fun. When you get to the college or pro level, improvement happens in little increments, but when you’re dealing with 13 and 14-year-old kids, you can see it in weeks how they learn, develop, and get better. So, that’s a lot of fun because you get instant gratification when you’re developing these kids and you get to see some real change in them. We have a lot of fun with it and it’s a great experience for us and everyone involved.”
Before the conversation ended, Ward asked to make a final statement addressing the state of the fan base, and express his fondness, and desire to see the Sabres organization back to where it once was.
DW: “I do just want to add one thing before we finish. I know what the current climate is there in Buffalo and I don’t want to be involved in any of the negativity stuff. I had a great experience there. I have a lot of respect for that organization. I owe a lot to that organization and I hope that things turn around for them.”