Steely blue eyes fixed ever-intently on the game in front of him, Martin Biron’s presence on the ice made him one of the recognizable Buffalo Sabres of the 2000’s. As a former 15th-overall draft pick, he spent the first eight years of his NHL career in Western New York. After retiring from the game at the end of the 2013-14 season, he returned to Buffalo, going from beloved goaltender, to beloved broadcaster. With 134 wins and 18 shutouts in blue-and-gold (then red-and-black, then blue-and-gold again), to this day, fans admire him as one of the most endearing talents and personalities in club history.
Biron was kind enough to share a great deal of his time, conversing with us while touching on a variety of subjects. So our readers could enjoy all of his answers and the stories that followed, we decided to split this segment into two parts. In part one, we focused on his early days at the professional level, his emergence as an eventual 15-year NHL veteran, and recant some of his most iconic and memorable moments in a Sabres uniform.
Anthony Sciandra: One of your first appearances for the Sabres came during the 1998-99 cup run. You had made your NHL debut three years prior, but what was it like as a rookie netminder coming into that situation so early on in your career?
Martin Biron: “Well, I didn’t get to play in that playoff, but I was in my own set of really high-pressure playoffs in Rochester. We had a really good team, I had a really good season. It was my second year in Rochester and we were just starting the conference finals against the Philadelphia Phantoms, and we played the first games in Philly, and we lost. So, we’re down 0-2 right away in Philadelphia and I got a call saying that I needed to go to Toronto because the Sabres needed me there.”
“I didn’t even know what they needed me for, but they needed me there. So, luckily for me there was like a five-day break between games two and three of our conference finals in Rochester. So, I went to Toronto and backed up (Dwayne) Roloson for game one and two. We won one and lost the second one but I remember that gave me a break, and funny enough, you think about getting called up to the NHL and this is going to be really high-pressure it actually gave me a break. It gave me a break from my own pressure situation in the American League, and being down 2-0, being able to relax and have a change of pace was exciting.”
“So, I didn’t really see it as pressure getting called up to Buffalo in the playoffs, because for one, I wasn’t playing, and two, it allowed me to just catch a breather a little bit from what I was doing in Rochester.”
AS: Sure, but during that year you did appear in six games with the big club in the regular season. As a young player coming in for Dominik Hasek on a Stanley Cup caliber team, playoffs or not, that had to be a high-pressure situation.
MB: “Yeah it was, and I remember we lost game two in Toronto and after the game, Lindy Ruff pulled me aside and he said “I don’t know what’s happening with Dom. You guys have games in Rochester but, I want you to stay ready because there’s a chance you could be playing game three.””
“I remember thinking “oh, that’s so cool” and “what the heck man, this is the conference finals!””
“But that year I was so confident. I had an unbelievable year in Rochester, I had gotten my first NHL win. Actually, we beat Dallas, we tied Philly. They were great teams so, I was like, “sure, I’m ready to do that.””
“I made the All-Star Game in the AHL, I had won goalie of the year. I was the minor-pro prospect of the year, there were so many things. I was ready, and I was as confident as I could be. But Dom came back, and I went back to Rochester, and we actually won four-straight to win the conference finals and go to the Calder Cup Finals against Providence.”
AS: After being drafted by the team in 1995, you spent five years developing in the system in the QMJHL, AHL and even a very brief stint in the ECHL. In an era where goalies are sometimes rushed to the NHL before they’re ready, how was important was that tempered approach to your eventual development as a 15-year NHL player?
MB: “Well, I did the reverse track. I played my first pro games in the NHL but obviously it was an emergency situation. Everybody was injured and we needed some bodies so I came up on a professional tryout. I was only 18 and I was definitely not ready for that.”
“My junior career started really strong. Then, every year it started to slip down a little bit, so when I got to the AHL at 20 years old, I wasn’t trending in the right direction and my first season in the American Hockey League didn’t go well. We didn’t have that great a team in Rochester and it didn’t go well. Actually, I was playing with Mike Bales, who is the goalie coach and assistant coach for the Sabres. He was the veteran, I was the young rookie and he played a lot. I barely played because I didn’t really play well.”
“Then they made the decision to send me down to the East Coast which I wasn’t very happy about because at that time, the East Coast League wasn’t what it is now. There was another pro league that was better, the IHL, so when you went to the East Coast… Not a lot of players came out of the East Coast. Not a lot of players made it to the NHL after playing in the East Coast so, I wasn’t thrilled about that.”
“So, me and Mitch Korn went to South Carolina and spent a few days down there. I played a couple of games and I was getting ready to get on the bus that one Saturday night after a game at home and Rick Vaive, our coach, called me to the front of the bus and said, “Marty, get your stuff off, you have to get back to Rochester. Mike Bales suffered a season-ending knee injury in Hershey tonight and you have to go back and play.””
“I was very lucky because I don’t know if I would have made it back to Rochester that year, and I finished the year really strong there. From that point on, things really fell into place but you know, you’ve got to be lucky. You’ve got to get the bounce, the right situation, the right opportunity. When those opportunities come though, you’ve got to perform so I came up to Roch’ to finish the 97-98’ season, finished really strong, we made the playoffs, and that kind of got me going in the right direction.”
“But before that, the Sabres were really patient with me. I was lucky, I already had a contract with them because when I got called up at 18, as a reward for me being called-up and all that, when I got sent back down to juniors, they signed me to a contract. So, if I hadn’t signed a contract, I don’t know that they would have thought I was progressing the way that they wanted me to be. But luckily, I already had that contract so, I wasn’t going anywhere, and I was afforded a little bit more time to develop than some other goalies.”
AS: You were around for some of the franchise’s highest points and lowest points. Your tenure in Buffalo extended through the uncertainty after the NHL took over control of the team, to the Sabres being post-lockout darlings. Can you take me through what that roller coaster was like as a player?
MB: “Yeah I mean, I got drafted when the Knox brothers owned the team and it was one of those feelings where, it was still a family affair. Mrs. Knox would sit right behind the bench at all the games and I got to play at the Montreal Forum where Seymour and Norty (Northrup) made the trip and it was Seymour’s last game on the road. It was really unique and I’m really thankful that I got to meet that family. I still have a connection with the family now, which is awesome.”
“Then, we went into the Rigas years and at first it was great. You know, the exposure, the TV station, the radio station, and all of that was great. It was like we were moving into a different day and age. Those were the years where the Sabres went to the conference finals and lost to Philly. Went to the finals and lost to Dallas. It was competitive, and that was incredible.”
“I have to say, when I came in for my first full season, in 1999-2000, it was great. What an environment to be in! They were remodeling the locker rooms, changing the training room. There were so many things that were happening and it felt like we were really being taken care of. I was just a young kid, and I was like, “This is awesome! This is the NHL!””
“Then, unfortunately, the troubles started coming with the bankruptcy and not knowing if you were going to get your paycheck one week. You know, it’s coming from different banks and one week it has the NHL logo on it, one week it’s not. It was just very difficult. Players were putting their houses up for sale thinking the team is going to move.”
“All I knew was Buffalo. I lived here all year long by that point so it was a tough time of year. Obviously 2002, going into 2003 and 2004 was pretty tough but I think the lockout in some way came at the right time for us in Buffalo. It allowed for the dust to come back down, you know, after the change of ownership and bankruptcy issues. It allowed for some players to develop in Rochester and then when we came back after the lockout it was amazing again. The buzz, the feeling, the support we were getting from Tom Golisano and his staff was unreal.”
“So yeah, it was really a roller coaster of success, emotions, support, and all that but I would say through all of it, one thing that never really changed was how we were being supported by the fans, how we were being supported by the community… Like I said, I lived here all year long. I didn’t go back home, I just stayed here in Buffalo throughout the year and you know, I played softball leagues in the summer, went to the golf course… It was just amazing.”
“The support from the fans, even though we were struggling on the ice, we were struggling ownership-wise, I think the support from the fans was always there which is really all you care about as an athlete is getting the job done and hope the fans are ready for you so, that was great.”
AS: In 2005-06 you played a big role in the teams success. In 32 starts you came away with 21 victories. For many younger fans, that team was what fortified and established their fandom. What was that season like on a team that surpassed expectations post-lockout?
MB: “Well it was fun because, you know, in the years prior to that, we made the trade to acquire Doug Gilmour, and we got Donald Audette, we got Dave Andreychuk and the team was trying, but we never really got the sense that it had a long-term plan. It was like, let’s really get something going right now to finish the season, or for one year.”
“Then we traded for (Chris) Drury, we traded for (Daniel) Briere. You know, we had some young players coming in so, we really felt like this was the start of a longer plan. That it wasn’t going to just be for half a season, or a season and things were going to have to be done all over again after that. We had young players like Tim Connolly and Taylor Pyatt that had been in the (Michael) Peca trade. We had leaders and experienced guys like Drury and Briere that came in.”
“Then, all of the sudden, you look at a guy like Teppo Numminen and young players like (Jason) Pominville, (Ryan) Miller, (Thomas) Vanek, (Paul) Gaustad, (Brian) Soupy Campbell, and those guys. It really solidified the mentality that this is not a one-year thing. This is going to be for four, five, six, seven, eight years, and we’re going to get our shot at the Stanley Cup.”
“So, Coming out of the lockout, maybe it was a little bit ahead of what we thought it was going to be, but it really happened right away and we were all good for it. Like, man it was so exciting, and we didn’t want to lose. We just didn’t. We were pissed if we lost one game out of ten. In the second year, in the 06-07’ season, we started the season 10-0-1, and when we lost that 11th game in a shootout, guys were pissed.”
“Like, we were mad losing a game in a shootout. That was the feeling and that was an amazing feeling to know that, you know, we had built this culture. We had built this mentality, and it was going to take us a long way.”
AS: We can’t talk about that era of Sabres hockey without mentioning the Ottawa Senators Brawl in 2007. You were obviously a big part of that, going toe-to-toe with Ray Emery. Walk me through that game and the build up to what was probably the peak of that rivalry.
MB: “Yeah, the game itself had a build up before that. Now, there was an Ottawa-Buffalo rivalry going on way before that game. In the playoffs, Michael Peca shutting down Alexi Yashin. Game seven, Derek Plante scoring on Ron Tugnutt. You know, I was a hockey nut so I was watching all of this. I was drafted by the Sabres so I watched closely what was going on.”
“But even bigger build-up was the fact that we were losing players to injury every game before that night. We had lost Paul Gaustad, we had lost…. I don’t remember who was injured, but we lost four or five guys in consecutive games. So, we get to that game and it’s… you know, it’s a game, it’s intense. Ottawa-Buffalo was a pretty good rivalry that year. You know, the year before that, the playoffs, so we’re looking at it like, this was always going to be intense, but now, Chris Neil does the hit on Chris Drury who was laying down, and were thinking – “Another player down? We’re losing so many players right now.””
“It just boiled up. It led to everybody really feeling like this is enough. You’re ready to break your stick in the locker room and you know, want to scream and yell. We definitely were ready to explode. For me… I didn’t care. I always thought I was maybe going to get in a fight or two in the NHL. I remember watching Mike Vernon beating up Partick Roy. Mike Vernon was a smaller guy. Felix Potvin taking on Ron Hextall. Felix was a smaller guy.”
“You know, I’m not a big guy but maybe I’ll get lucky. I can do what these guys did. So then I got my chance against Ray Emery and I’m like – “Oh, this is happening. I’m gonna get my chance here.”
“(Laughs) So, I was happy to do it. I was like, let’s go. You know, I’m mad about what happened, I’m frustrated. I was mad the year before when Tim Connolly got hit by Peter Schaefer. Like, I felt emotional about that, losing a player to injury during a game on a hit. Like, I always felt emotional to it. So now that it happened while I was on the ice, and we were going to have a response, I was like, let’s go. I was excited about it.”
*Stay tuned for part two of our conversation, scheduled for release tomorrow, March 19th.