BUFFALO – Almost 10 years later, gritty Sabres defenseman Mike Weber’s first trip to the city he likes to say has become “home” is still vivid.
Shortly after getting drafted 57th overall on June 24, 2006, the Pittsburgh native hopped in his 1996 Chevy Lumina – he has since upgraded – and drove to the Pepsi Center in Amherst for his first development camp.
“It barely got here,” Weber recalled Monday inside the First Niagara Center.
Weber, 28, made it to Buffalo for good in 2010. These days, he’s the Sabres’ longest-tenured player by more than two years. On a team that has been gutted and rebuilt in recent seasons, he’s the last man standing from eras long gone.
Since debuting as a teenager Oct. 26, 2007, Weber has played for four coaches, two ownership regimes and shared a dressing room with 120 teammates, according to local hockey researcher Mike Haim.
“There’s been a lot of good guys in and out of these doors over the years, and somehow I’ve managed to stay here this long,” Weber said.
In Weber’s early days, the Sabres possessed strong Stanley Cup hopes. In recent seasons, the team’s descent into an NHL laughingstock has greatly hurt the prideful veteran.
And now, just as the Sabres have assembled enough young talent to possibly contend again in the near future, Weber might be leaving. As an unrestricted free agent following the season, there’s a strong possibility the Sabres will deal him before the trade deadline Monday.
In the dressing room before the Sabres left for their three-game California road trip, Weber, whose wife is due to give birth to their second child any day, sounded nostalgic discussing his long career.
“It’s special to be here through all the stuff that’s gone on here,” Weber said. “I do feel really honored that I’ve been a part of this organization that long. I hope I continue to be a part of it.”
He added: “I want to stay here. I want to have success, and there’s no better place than here to win.”
Clearly, Weber understands the end could be coming. He joked about packing a bigger suitcase. He knows Sunday afternoon’s 4-3 loss to Pittsburgh was perhaps his last home appearance with Buffalo.
“That creeps in,” Weber said. “I mean, I’ve thought about it. It’s tough. … I want to win here. I want to compete and battle here. I want to be here for even more years.”
To Weber, Buffalo is a special community.
“From my neighbors down the street, to the people you see at Wegmans, to walking around the mall, you’re treated extremely well here,” Weber said. “People know who you are but respect your privacy and your family time. It really is the family-first type of city. You can raise your kids here, you can have a great life here.
“You see how many veteran guys come back and live here. That’s a testament to the city in itself to how many guys who have moved on or played other places that might be a little fancier, a little nicer but they come back to raise their families here. That’s pretty special. You don’t have that everywhere.”
Of course, Weber understands what the business side of hockey – “Where I’m at, where we’ve been the last three, four seasons,” he said – means for his future.
After two down years, Weber has morphed back into a sturdy sixth or seventh defender – a real asset – on the revamped Sabres. Blue-liners are always at a premium, especially at this time of year. He might draw interest from a team looking to add depth for the stretch run.
While Weber’s uncertain future isn’t eating away at him, “I don’t think you can really put it out of your mind,” he said.
“My younger days, I think you worry a little bit too much about what’s going on upstairs,” he said. “As you get older and you mature in this league, you don’t worry about that, you just try to worry about … the guys you’re battling for every night.”
There’s a thought Weber could be dished and quickly re-signed on July 1. The Sabres’ defense depth has been whittled down over the last year or so. With no one ready to graduate from the AHL, they’ll need to add a player like Weber, who coach Dan Bylsma called “a heart-and-soul guy.”
“He’s a passionate guy,” Bylsma said. “He wears his heart on his sleeve as a person and as a player. That’s how he plays the game. It was evident from afar. I saw it playing against him. Undoubtedly, he’s showed it this year with the way he’s played.”