BUFFALO – As Philippe Boucher approached Buffalo on his eight-hour drive from Quebec City on Wednesday, the 25th anniversary of the 1991 NHL Draft, the former Sabres defenseman sounded nostalgic recalling his life-changing day at Memorial Auditorium.
“To be drafted by Buffalo in Buffalo obviously added to that day,” Boucher said by phone.
Boucher watched the NHL Draft on Friday from the First Niagara Center stands as youngsters experienced the same emotions he felt when Sabres drafted him in the first round, 13th overall, on June 22, 1991.
Then 18 years old, Boucher had never visited the United States before and spoke almost no English. Two buses from his hometown outside Quebec City made the trip to Buffalo, which was hosting the draft for the first time.
The draft was one of the most memorable ever, with Eric Lindros, hockey’s biggest prospect in years, refusing to put on a Nordiques jersey after Quebec drafted him first overall.
Fresh off a big junior season with the Granby Bisons, Boucher said there were rumors he might be drafted as high as fourth overall by the New York Islanders.
“But I thought that was very early,” said Boucher, now the coach and general manager of the junior Quebec Remparts.
Instead, the Isles took defenseman Scott Lachance.
So Boucher anxiously waited with the other prospects, including former Sabres winger Jason Dawe, the team’s second-round pick, 35th overall.
“You’re sitting there, you have no idea,” Dawe said. “You’re on pins and needles.”
Boucher found out the Sabres wanted him badly after the Edmonton Oilers selected forward Tyler Wright 12th.
“When they named Tyler Wright, the entire Buffalo table turned around and pointed at me in the stands, so I knew in about five or 10 minutes they were going to mention my name on stage,” Boucher said.
The feeling, Boucher said, “was awesome.”
Still, he wondered how fans inside the Aud would react when his named was announced.
“I was really nervous to go on stage,” Boucher said. “You don’t hear much. You hear the rumblings, but you’re not too sure what’s going on. You don’t want to trip when you’re going up on the stage. You just want to put the jersey on.”
Boucher’s name was cheered. He walked to the stage safely, shook some hands, put on a white No. 91 Sabres jersey and then nervously tried to answer questions from the media in English.
“I did my best,” he said. “Short answers. I didn’t understand most of them, but I was happy. I was really nervous after that, to be honest, with the media and everything. It was all new to me.”
Twenty-two picks later, the Sabres drafted Dawe, a junior star with the Peterborough Petes. Dawe knew the Sabres had been scouting him, so he had an inkling they were interested.
“I thought I might be going (as) one of the picks in the first round,” Dawe said by phone Wednesday. “But with all the Europeans, goaltenders and stuff it trickled down.”
Of course, getting drafted is special. Getting picked by the host team makes the experience even better.
“It’s really cool,” Dawe said.
When Boucher left the Aud, he tried to soak in all the new surroundings.
“You go back to the hotel with your family and friends, and you know this is where you might be for a while, right?” said Boucher, who played 65 games for the Sabres. “The team that drafts you is always special, even if I didn’t play that long in Buffalo, it’s always special.”
Dawe still has a home video of him leaving the Aud, which was demolished in 2009, on draft day.
“Me pumping my fists and stuff,” he said. “Now that the old Aud is no longer there, it’s even more special.”
Former Sabres star Thomas Vanek’s two-year stint with the Minnesota Wild is over.
The Wild plan to buy out the final season of Vanek’s three-year contract, freeing up $5 million, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Vanek, 32, had two 40-goal seasons for the Sabres. The Austrian, who lives in Minnesota, scored a career-low 18 goals last season.
Notes: NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who was booed mercilessly as he walked to the draft podium Friday, said the Sabres will host the 2017 NHL Draft Combine. The Sabres have held the event the last two years in HarborCenter. … Before Dallas coach Lindy Ruff announced the Stars drafted forward Riley Tufte 26th overall, the crowd cheered the former Sabres coach loudly.