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Now Do You Believe?

It seems like such a cliché to start something about Jason Pominville with Game 5 of the Ottawa series in the 2006 playoffs.  But really where else can something about Jason Pominville begin?  There are very few people in Buffalo who can’t vividly recall Pominville skating around Daniel Alfredsson, Jay McKee flying out of the penalty box, and Rick Jeanneret bellowing his now classic, “NOW DO YOU BELIEVE?  NOW DO YOU BELIEVE?  THESE GUYS ARE GOOD!  SCARY GOOD!”  I leapt off the couch, jumped up and down and screamed, “HOLY SHIT, THIS IS SO AWESOME!”  I moved to Buffalo in the summer of 2000 so that was the first great moment of my Sabres fandom, the first moment that really swept me away.

Despite that, I’ve always had a bit of a complicated relationship with Jason Pominville.  Before writing this, I flipped through my blog archives, just to get an idea of what I’ve said about him over the years and it’s really been up and down.  I came to his defense when half the world acted like his whole game was going to shrivel up and die without Daniel Briere, but I killed him throughout the 2006-2007 playoffs.  In 2010, I railed about him being the most overpaid guy on the roster, but in 2011, I said on Joe’s podcast that I thought Pominville’s injury against Philly completely derailed the team by changing the special teams game.  I never pretended to be anything but a fan with a blog, and boy, poor Pommers got the irrational side of my fandom more than just about anyone else.  For crying out loud, I think I was nicer to Tim Connolly sometimes.  It's weird because in many ways, Pominville is exactly my kind of player – you know I love my two-way guys – but I don't know, for many years, he didn't permanently click for me.

Here’s the bottom line though.  Jason Pominville grew up to be a very fine hockey player.  He’s had his struggles for sure, but most seasons, he ended up at a pretty respectable, consistent level.  There’s been a lot of talk over the past couple of years about Lindy Ruff killing players’ potential, but Pominville is probably his biggest success story.  Some players – Thomas Vanek and Maxim Afinogenov, just to name a couple – struggled with Lindy’s emphasis on two-way play.  Other players – Derek Roy, especially – seemed to openly thrash against it.  But Pominville not only embraced it, he blossomed in it.  He was one of the few true all-situation guys we had in the past few years, playing regularly on the power play and the penalty kill.  Sometimes those well-rounded guys are the easiest to miss because they don’t stand out in one area.  I think Pominville's biggest struggles in Buffalo were really the result of being slightly miscast, sometimes asked to play roles that maybe weren’t quite the best fit.  Even with those struggles, however, I think when all was said and done, he was probably the guy who came the closest to living up to his contract.

Those of you who read Top Shelf will remember that a couple of years ago I was invited to ride along with Pominville and Ville Leino while they delivered season tickets.  It was an official team event so of course both guys were on their best behavior, but I was impressed with Pominville anyway.  He came across as a really good guy.  We delivered tickets to an older woman who had had her season tickets for a couple of decades.  He seemed genuinely interested in her story and asked her about her seats, who went to the games with her, her favorite players over the years.  It was a short interaction but it was a sincere one, nothing rote about it.  He took a few minutes to really connect with a fan and I have no doubt she felt that too.

Something I noted a couple of times over the past few years is how a Pominville injury seemed to affect his teammates deeply.  The couple of times he left a game with what appeared to be a severe injury, the Sabres instantly and quickly devolved, spending the remainder of the game skating around in circles and colliding with each other. After Pominville was carried off the ice with a concussion in 2010, the team got rattled, lost, and then went 2-7 while he was out of the lineup.  He obviously provided some sort of centering presence, and I got a little glimpse of that that day too.  Leino had been in town for just a few days at that point, and Pominville asked him a lot of questions about how he was settling in, places he was looking at to live, if he was getting around town okay.  As we drove around, he pointed out places to eat, things to do.  And again, it just seemed very sincere.  He had a really warm presence about him.  I can see why so many of the Sabres commented today on what a great teammate he was.

I imagine it’s pretty nice to have a Sidney Crosby, that player who comes in and immediately changes everything about a franchise.  Believe me, I wouldn’t mind finding out what that’s like some day.  But I think there’s something special about the Jason Pominvilles of the world too.  It’s hard for me, as someone who can barely stand on skates, to relate to unnatural and breath-taking talent.  I do understand plugging away and getting better at something a little bit at a time.  Watching a player figure things out on the ice and really put together an all-around game, to gradually go from baby to quality veteran, is, for me, one of the best things about being a sports fan.  Little Pommers started out as a player nobody wanted and grew up to be the player the other team really wanted a lot.  Who saw that coming?

I’m sorry the story of the Buffalo Sabres and Jason Pominville isn’t going to end the way we all wanted it to.  For what it’s worth, Jason, that goal against Ottawa will always hold a special place in my heart and a generation of fans share that sentiment.  If I tried to pinpoint the one moment when I really fell in love with hockey, that was probably it.  That night, I really did believe.  I believed in hockey, I believed in the Sabres, I believed in Buffalo, and I believed in you.  None of those things are perfect, and they've all disappointed me at some point over the last few years, but I like to think we’ll all be okay in the end.  Good luck to you, Pommers.  You’re one of the good ones.

Joe

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The Lord of Buffalo Wins

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