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Losing a Legend

On Saturday afternoon, I drove down to KeyBank Center to pay my respects to long-time Buffalo Sabres broadcaster Rick Jeanneret. The team has graciously arranged a makeshift memorial, with the big ‘RJ’ sign out in Alumni Plaza and three banners just inside the window, both mementos from when the team honored him and put his name in the rafters.

As I stepped out of my car, the first thing I heard were the words: “Hi everybody, I’m Rick Jeanneret” melodiously singing out over the sound system in the plaza. It felt just perfect. The memorial itself has been filled in nicely by Sabres fans, with offerings from flowers to teddy bears, a few packs of cookies – placed ‘top shelf,’ of course – a can or two of beer, and other mementos. The backside of the RJ sign is filled with notes, and a ‘guest book’ of sorts has been left for people to write messages in, too.

I stood there for a few minutes, listening to the entirety of the near-six minute long audio loop of some of RJ’s best calls. As I listened, more and more people stopped by to pay their respects – some leaving notes, some other items, and all sharing a similar bond – a touching reminder of how much Jeanneret means to Sabres fans, to the city of Buffalo, and to the greater hockey community.

For those who perhaps aren’t local or can’t make it downtown, here’s the full loop:

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He may not have known every single one of us, but we all felt like we knew him. His voice was a calming, reliable presence in our household for 82 nights a year back in the day, sometimes more. He was honest, genuine, passionate, fierce and funny. He made us laugh, made us smile. He kept it real. It truly felt like he gave us everything he had, and there will never be another like him – with the Sabres, in the NHL, or in hockey at large. He was truly one-of-a-kind.

When I look back on my last ~27 years watching the Sabres, so many of those memories come with recollections of Rick Jeanneret; the big moments and the smaller ones. Coaches came and went. Players came and went. RJ was forever.

Listening to Sabres forward Alex Tuch speak about RJ on WGR550 radio at the end of last week was like a revelation: so many of his memories of RJ are the same as mine. He grew up a Sabres fan in the same era that I did, that many of us did. Personally, a few of my favorite RJ calls over the years include the Derek Plante OT goal and the aftermath; how these guys were scary good, and any of his infamous overtime calls. He could make even the simplest of plays sound like a superstar in action, make any big hit sound like a damaging Carubba Collision. He brought the game to life through his voice.

Over the last few years, as RJ seemingly faced some health issues, many of us had to come to terms with, well, mortality. Personally, this is something I’ve been dealing with since the unexpected passing of my dad in 2018: realizing that everyone you love will someday be gone, and I’m not sure you can ever prepare for loss, even if you know it’s coming. That life is never guaranteed, so making the most of it is highly recommended. That we should make sure people know how much we love and appreciate them while they’re alive, not just after they’ve passed.

I think that Rick Jeanneret knew how adored he was, how many people loved and respected him. We were his beautiful noise, just as he was ours. On that night when the Sabres honored him, he was the star of the show. If his family didn’t already know how much he was loved, they sure did after that night – and they know just as much now, in the wake of his passing.

And that’s just to say how much Sabres fans loved RJ. I can’t even begin to take into consideration the love of those who worked closest to him, like Rob Ray, Dan Dunleavy, Brian Duff and Martin Biron, and the crew behind-the-scenes, too. I am in awe of the strength of these people, and if you haven’t watched any of Friday’s Sabres Live, I highly recommend it. I don’t know how Marty & Duffer kept it together for the three-hour-long show, as they inevitably feel this loss even deeper than we do.

It’s also been so touching to see the wider hockey world speak out with their respects; it really shows the scope of how many people RJ reached, and how much of an impact his 51 years with the Sabres had – from Doc Emrick to PK Subban, Kevin Weekes to Patrick Kane, and so many others in between.

I know that RJ never liked to be called ‘the voice of the Sabres,’ as he felt that moniker was reserved for Ted Darling, but to so many of us, he truly was the voice of the Sabres. The voice of our childhood, our adolescence, our adulthood. The voice of wins and losses, of playoff hopes and Stanley Cup dreams, of big hits and goalie fights and sneaky passes and top-shelf goals. He meant so much to so many.

He will never be forgotten, nor replaced, and his memory will live on through all of us. Rest in peace, RJ. I hope you find all the cookies on the top shelf.