Sabres of Yesterday | Hockey Diversity Panel Part Two

In the final segment of this conversation, we spoke to Ndur, James, and Grand-Pierre about their playing careers in the Sabres organization

In part one of our conversation with Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre, Rumun Ndur, and Val James, we discussed the issue of racial inequality in both hockey, and society as a whole. Their responses were illuminating and added to an ongoing dialogue that is long overdue.

For the second half of the interview, we asked these men about their respective playing careers - specifically their time with the Buffalo Sabres organization. From favorite memories to past mentors, their responses and recantations will surely bring a smile to fans in Western New York.

The following Q&A segment took place in two parts, one including Ndur and Grand-Pierre as a duo, and one with James individually. All players were asked the same line of questions.

Question #5: You were all part of some Calder Cup runs with the organization. Can you tell us about your favorite memories playing in WNY, whether it be with the Sabres or Amerks?

Ndur: “My time in Western New York, specifically Rochester was… I feel so great to be part of that part of America. I mean, growing up, you get thrown in there. You’re 20 years old. You know, I lived with billet parents when I was in Guelph in the OHL.”

“You’re thrown in there, and you’re on your own. Just the relationships that I made off the ice… Not even teammates, just guys in the community, guys that I still talk to to this day. It was great. Obviously, I think winning plays a great part in how you remember things, you know, positively or negatively.”

“Winning a championship my rookie year in the American Hockey League. You know, I think it was tweeted the other day. June 13th was the day we won the championship. That is so long to spend with a group of guys that you’re just going to war with every day. Everybody is on the same page, and everybody tugging on the rope to get to that goal and just the relationships and everything that I forged in those years…”

“I love to say that I’m a product of Western New York. I was raised in Canada, but I feel a great connection with Western New York. I loved my time there. I was so proud to be drafted by Buffalo. I was so proud to be an Amerk. Those are great memories that I will always remember.”

Grand-Pierre: “My first year was not as memorable as Rumun’s. We were awful. It was a completely different first year, but you know, I did learn a lot from that season. We had a lot of rookies. I think we had 10 or 11 first-year players that year.”

“We had Brian McCutcheon that year. It was his first year coaching in the American League. We had no assistant coach. It was very unusual. For a little bit, we didn’t have a coach because we got in a bus accident and Brian was hurt. All of the sudden Scott Metcalfe was running practice and Buffalo sent their video guy to coach us. It was a different year.”

“I will tell you, Rochester and Western New York, same thing for me. Starting when I got traded to the Buffalo organization, I spent the summers training in Buffalo. We had a six-week camp there. That’s where I really learned how to be a pro. That’s where I bought my first car. That’s where I got my first apartment. A lot of firsts.”

“I still talk to some people from Rochester to this day, and Buffalo as well. I was not happy when I got traded. My connection with Rochester was definitely more my first year. In year two and three, although we had two trips to the Calder Cup, I was up with Buffalo. It almost creates a disconnect with the city when all of the sudden you bail out on them.”

“I remember not being happy, especially my third year when right after our last game of the regular season, and I knew that was our year to win the championship because the year before we lost to Providence. I was so pumped to come back, and I knew that was our last game.”

“I still remember Brian McCutcheon coming to my stall and saying ‘hey, you’re going to Buffalo’ and honestly that was probably the most disappointing day of my life. It’s like, how is that possible? You’re going to the NHL. It’s just that you worked all season long with these guys to get to the ultimate goal and all of the sudden they’re like, ‘okay, now you’ve got to go up to Buffalo and sit in case somebody gets hurt.’ ”

“That was really disappointing for me that year. But yeah, definitely great memories from Western New York. To this day, every time in the summer when I go to Montreal, I’ll loop through Buffalo and Rochester and sometimes I’ll sleep over there just to kind of reminisce and show my kids my first few places.”

James: “I’ll tell you about both. When I was playing with the Amerks, our first year wasn’t all that great. I don’t even think we made the playoffs. Our second year is when we excelled and the thing was that Mike Keenan… He kept pretty much his whole core for the second year. The first year was mostly him teaching us all his drills and getting us to be able to actually execute them to perfection.”

“That’s what he did. He groomed us the first year, and the second year we started to excel. Once you get to know a program, you know where your players are, you know who is going to be where at any point in time. That’s what the learning process of playing with a line is, so you can ‘gel.’ That’s what that word means for anybody who’s listening, wondering what ‘gel’ means. It’s getting a team together so they can play with each other, and knowing where that player you’re playing with is going to be at any given time.”

“My experience with the Americans came to pinnacle when we were able to advance through the league and win the Calder Cup. The players were fantastic, the coaches were fantastic. I know there have always been raps and talks about certain things about certain coaches, but you know what… results are what matter, and that’s what people are looking for.”

“My stint with Buffalo was great. I couldn’t believe I got called up to begin with. Then to find out I was playing the ‘Bad Boys,’ you know, the Boston Bruins… I knew there was always this huge rivalry between Boston and Buffalo.”

“I felt very honored to be able to slip on a Buffalo Sabres uniform and actually step on the ice and represent the organization. We had a great coach, Scotty Bowman, and all the other coaches that were there helping. We had quite a few legends who were actually teaching that team at the time. They were just great people. When you came in, they welcomed you, they talked to you, and any mistakes you were making, they tried to clear them up.”

“I know that when I did go up, the experience I got there made me have to always work my behind off to keep up with the guys because when you take that next step up, everybody is a good skater. Everybody could fly, so you have to adapt.”

“By the time I came back (to Rochester), which was that Calder Cup year, I had already been up there (in Buffalo) for three weeks to a month. So, I had lots of time, and lots of practice with guys who were a hell of a lot better than I was… And I thought I was pretty good.”

Question #6: Who was your favorite defensive partner or linemate?

Ndur: “I have a couple that I definitely have to mention. My first year, Doug Houda came down (to Rochester). I don’t know if you remember the story because it was a while ago now, but we were a last-place team in that ‘95-’96 season. I think we were second-last at Christmas and we ended up winning the Calder Cup.”

“A few things happened that year. Steve Shields came down from Buffalo and Doug Houda as well. When Houda came down, he… obviously, he’d been an NHL veteran and that demotion at that time in your life, it can be a killer. Let’s be honest, you don’t want to be sitting on the bus, going to Providence or Portland.”

“It can be tough, and he came down and he was the most professional pro, and that was one of the first kind of guys that I latched onto. Every day at practice working hard, working on quick feet, working on making that first pass. He just took me under his wing.”

“So Doug, it was a brief half-season. I never played with him again but that half season… we did great things and he really changed the culture that we had. We were a young team that year, but he came in and really stabilized everything on the defensive corps.”

“Charlie Huddy came in the following year and again, it was playing with a guy who just had a presence, and a great demeanor to him. Playing with guys like that really kind of set me up for my future career.”

Grand-Pierre: “As far as a defensive partner, I want to say my first year in Rochester, which was 1997-98, I think they just signed Mike Hurlbut. I think he’s in the Amerks Hall of Fame now. He was my D-partner and he was a very calming presence on the blue line. I was a 20-year-old trying to prove myself, so I would get caught out of position quite a bit, just chasing guys, trying to put them through the glass. So he was definitely a great partner for me. Again, he was an older guy. A true pro.”

“I learned a lot about how to take care of yourself, and how to conduct yourself like a true pro, and obviously on the ice he was a big help as well. I would say he was the one that changed me the most.”

“Then in Buffalo, for me it was Darryl Shannon. It was literally the exact same thing. I’d play with Shannon or Jason Woolley. For me, Darryl Shannon was the same thing. I spent a summer at his house in Buffalo the one year and he was like a father figure, taking me under his wing and showing me things.”

“Rumun only got me in trouble (laughs).”

James: “I have a couple… I’ve got to tell you Chris McRae. There was Don Keller. There was Clint Fehr, Mark Wichrowski. Those were linemates in Rochester. Kevin Maguire was another one. There’s a lot of guys that I played really good with, that were some of my favorite players.”

“I can’t forget my friends from Erie, Pennsylvania as well. There’s been a whole host of guys who were just wonderful guys. I tell anyone who asks me – pretty much every team I played on, all the players were great. We were just one big family. That’s why we were able to win together, because we actually cared about each other. That’s the difference between winning and losing championships.”

Question #7: What led you to your next steps in hockey? Jean-Luc, you’ve had success in broadcasting, Rumun, you’re coaching youth hockey, and I know Val has stayed involved with alumni events in both Buffalo and Toronto. What attracted you to those post-playing roles?

Ndur: : “For me it was staying with the game. It was pretty simple. You know, hockey has given me so much in my life. I got to travel the world. I played in Europe, I played in three or four different countries. I played with Wayne Gretzky… It’s given me so much and those moments in the dressing room… guys talk about it all the time. You miss those moments in the dressing room when you forge great relationships.”

“I miss all that and I just wanted to keep that feeling going as much as possible. Just to give back, you know? Stay with the game and give back to a generation to come. Giving back what I’ve gotten out of this game which is so much.”

“I want to get back into coaching in the National Hockey League, or as high a level as I can. I’m just a competitive guy.”

Grand-Pierre: “For me, it was a little bit different, but I like what Rumun said about giving back. That’s where it kind of started with me. Once I retired, I was actually offered a job in broadcasting but I was honestly so burnt out by hockey by the time I was done, I literally wanted nothing to do with the game anymore.”

“Not in a bad way, but almost… I just needed to redefine myself. So I actually went into real estate and really found a passion. Like Rums said, we’re such competitors. I found myself being very competitive in real estate, like I just need to sell more than everyone else. Then, about four or five years into it, as the sales were mounting and mounting, somebody approached me in our area, and our high school did not have a high school team. So, we created a board, and started a team here and that’s when I got into coaching.”

“It almost rekindled my love with the game. For me, it was more than winning and losing. It was really about helping these kids understand how much power… and again, trying to give them back what hockey gave me. Discipline, relationships, responsibility. All these things, I think in any sport you need all these things, but hockey has given me so much and I wanted to give back.”

“I coached high school here [in Columbus] for like five years. Then as my son was getting closer to high school, I’m like, there’s no way I’m coaching that kid (laughs). I just want to be a dad.”

“Then the broadcasting job just came out of nowhere a couple years ago when Bill Davich decided he was going to retire. He kind of reached out to me and was like, ‘hey, if you’re interested, you should go for it.’ “

“I needed to take that step away from the game. You hear a lot about guys going through depression and all these things once they’re retired because they miss the camaraderie and the relationships they built. For me, the best way to deal with it was to literally step away completely and forget about it. I was not in a bad way, but I thought personally, that’s the way I had to deal with it. Honestly, I’m really grateful I did because I’ve still got the real estate going, and I’m back in the game and I absolutely love it and enjoy every moment.”

James: “First off, I want to let the fans know that I appreciate the support they have given me, and that (alumni and charity involvement) is just my little thing that I can give back for the years that they supported me. Also, us older players have seen a lot of things that these younger players will never see. It’s up to us to teach them the right way too.”

“Of course, I was an enforcer, which is one of those banned obstacles right now but in doing that, I did get to meet a lot of people. Let’s face it, the game is 100-percent, maybe 200-percent more gentlemanly than it was when I played. Guys aren’t running guys from behind anymore. Guys aren’t trying that knee-to-knee stuff anymore…”

“It was just one of those things where the enforcer enforced the goon. Hockey fans are now knowledgeable enough to know the difference between the two, because there was a time where everyone thought they were the same.”

Final Thoughts

Because this series’ entire intent was to open dialogue about the issue of racism in hockey, we asked these men if there was any final thoughts they wanted to add. Below are their open-responses and final thoughts on the overarching issue.

Ndur: “I think we were kind of brought together today because of what’s happening in the world with certain injustices. So, let’s continue that talk. I know we’ve talked about it already, but let’s make sure we continue these conversations. These are tough conversations but we have to do it.”

“I said it earlier, I think… something’s different this time around. We keep talking, and we keep changing and generations to come will have great lives. I guess I hate that we came together in these circumstances, but let’s have the difficult conversations now.”

Grand-Pierre: “Right now it’s the hot topic. It’s bigger than protests, or posting on social media. At the end of the day, I don’t care if you don’t protest. The biggest impact is going to be at home. It’s looking at yourself in the mirror, and having this conversation with your family.”

“It’s simply about how to respect each other as human beings. It’s how to treat each other with respect, and look at your neighbor. You know, it’s something that I taught my kids really young and it’s as simple as opening the door for someone. It doesn’t matter if they’re old, or young, or Black, or gay. It doesn’t matter.”

“Open the door for someone. Smile. Look up and get your face away from the phone. It’s bigger than race. I think it’s just about interaction between human beings that needs to be greater. Again, I have a lot of hope. I think it’s only getting better. There’s still some evil in this world, but we’re doing things to change it.”

James: “At this point in time, with the way society has turned this corner, we have an opportunity to put everyone on an equal footing now. It’s not going to be one of those things that’ll happen overnight. It’s going to take time. Everyone involved has to have a little patience.”

“As we said before, you’ve got to learn about each other and what things hurt people. You’re going to have people out there that don’t care and they want to get under somebody’s skin no matter what, and they will do that. Those are the types of people you have to try and reach. You’re not going to reach them by screaming at them. It has to be an intellectual conversation where, at that moment, it clicks.”

“All you really want someone to do is to look at you as an individual. Not as a color. And if anyone can get someone to look at them like that, if they are a racist, you have done something. Because as long as they start to think about it, now maybe they’ll want to go a little deeper and find out why they’re so pissed off at a certain race.”

Are you a hockey fan who is now asking “How can I educate myself? How can I help fight racism in hockey and in society?” We recommend visiting this website, which is a work in progress put together by Jashvina Shah (@icehockeystick). The website features ‘resources to support minorities and tools to educate yourself on systematic racism and biases.’