ROCHESTER – Dan Lambert’s relationship with Buffalo Sabres coach Dan Bylsma started in the mid-1990s, during their playing days with the Long Beach Ice Dogs, a team in the now-defunct International Hockey League.
Lambert was a high-scoring defenseman and the Ice Dogs’ captain. Bylsma, meanwhile, would occasionally be sent down from the parent Los Angeles Kings.
While the two weren’t close, Lambert said they shared “a mutual respect for one another.”
“Were we best friends? No, absolutely not,” Lambert said Tuesday after being introduced as the new coach of the Rochester Americans, the Sabres’ American Hockey League affiliate. “Were we good teammates? I like to think so. I think it was more of a respect thing.”
Lambert was beginning his coaching career as a junior assistant when he reconnected with Bylsma at a coaches conference in 2010 or 2011. Bylsma was already one of the NHL’s premier coaches, having led the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup in 2009.
“We just rekindled, we started talking,” Lambert said inside the Blue Cross War Memorial. “It was one of those things, ‘Oh, well, hey, here’s my number. If ever I can help.’”
Lambert, 46, took full advantage, occasionally calling Bylsma for guidance. He often found Bylsma’s advice helped. Bylsma even watched Lambert’s Kelowna Rockets when the Penguins visited Edmonton.
In his year between jobs in 2014-15, Bylsma flew to Kelowna to help Lambert, who had just been promoted to the head job. During four days beside Bylsma, Lambert found they worked well together and shared some of the same ideas.
Lambert said it dawned on him, “Wow, how great would it be to work with this guy?” He felt the way Bylsma communicates and works “would be cool and a learning experience for me.”
“It was a relationship that felt right,” Lambert said. “I guess it’s no different than when you meet your wife. It just feels right. We thought maybe down the road that maybe the possibility was we were going to work together.”
Lambert worked with Bylsma in 2015-16, a season that turned into a one-year NHL detour.
“I think when you look at most coaches, somebody helps them along the way, somebody guides them, somebody’s their mentor, and he’s one of the guys that has been that guy for me,” Lambert said about Bylsma.
After the Sabres hired Bylsma almost a year ago, he asked Lambert if he was interested in Rochester’s open head job or an assistant gig with the Sabres.
Lambert was initially hesitant, having just finished a Western Hockey League championship season. He was in a great spot in Kelowna and had never coached men before.
But then they developed a plan Sabres general manager Tim Murray liked: Lambert would serve a one-season “apprenticeship” in Buffalo before taking over the Amerks, who were coached by Randy Cunneyworth in 2015-16.
“I’ve known from the day I signed on with Buffalo that this was a possibility,” Lambert said about assuming Rochester’s top job. “Now, obviously, plans change all the time, so you never know for sure.”
Still, Lambert was confident enough in the plan his family moved to Rochester and he commuted to Buffalo. People often asked his wife, Melanie, why they settled so far away. She told them they liked the school district.
Lambert should be comfortable in his new surroundings. He learned during his season with Buffalo he enjoyed working with older players. Coaching an AHL team, he said, is the next step for him.
Other than a 29-game stint with the Quebec Nordiques, Lambert spent his entire playing career in the minors and in Germany. He was the typical “AAAA” player – too good for the minors but not quite good enough for the big league. He was named the IHL’s top defenseman in 1997-98 and had an 87-point season in 1995-96.
At 23 or 24 years old, Lambert said he started getting interested in coaching, and he briefly considered retiring to pursue it. Instead, he played until 2008-09.
“Common sense led me in a different direction,” he said.
Lambert needs to take the Amerks, who have missed the playoffs two straight seasons, in a different direction. The team’s collection of high-priced AHL talent flopped in 2015-16, never meshing.
Most of those veterans, however, likely won’t return next season.
Lambert said he has spoken to Amerks assistants Paul Fixter and Chris Taylor and plans to make a decision on their futures soon.