In the moments after the Buffalo Sabres’ nightlong celebration of legendary play-by-play man Rick Jeanneret ended in 2022, coach Don Granato did something out of character.
“RJ Night” had been perfect, as the Sabres rode the wave energy from an emotional pregame banner-raising ceremony to a thrilling victory before a raucous crowd.
As the special evening ended, Granato was prodded to put on a turtleneck and suspenders – a tribute to Jeanneret’s style – for his postgame news conference.
At first, he did not want to change outfits.
“There is no possible way I would ever imagine myself wearing suspenders into a press conference,” Granato said on a Zoom call Friday, a day after Jeanneret died of multi-organ failure at 81.
Still, Granato left his comfort zone and walked into the media room sporting different clothes.
“He compelled me to put them on because of who he was,” Granato said. “I can’t imagine I’d do that for anybody – and I say anybody meaning everybody – but RJ had a way that you endeared to him.”
The iconic Jeanneret, who retired following the 2021-22 season, his 51st with the Sabres, endeared himself to seemingly everyone he encountered. He stands as one of the most popular figures in Buffalo sports history. His death has shaken the Sabres organization and the rabid fan base that adores him so much.
He provided the soundtrack to every magical Sabres moment and was a constant presence in so many lives.
“I don’t think there’s a hockey fan in the world that doesn’t know that voice,” Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams said. “You can close your eyes and that’s just the voice and that will be with us all forever.”
Adams grew up in Clarence listening to that voice. As a child, he would stickhandle in a barn pretending to be Sabres great Gilbert Perreault and Jeanneret’s voice would be calling everything in his head.
“He had such an impact on my passion for the game, passion for the Buffalo Sabres organization,” Adams said.
Adams couldn’t always stay up late to watch the games, so he had a radio next to his bed to listen to Jeanneret illuminate the action.
“It was like a dump-in from the red line felt like it was a grade-A scoring chance, you know?” he said. “Just the way his voice (sounded). And my mom would come up and say, ‘It’s time to go to bed,’ and I’d be like, ‘How am I supposed to go to sleep, RJ’s calling the game?’ That just had such an impact on my life and my journey in hockey.”
Adams and Granato want to instill a sense of the Sabres’ history in their players. With Jeanneret around the team, they never worried.
“He conveyed the history of the Buffalo Sabres to the hockey world,” Granato said.
Adams said during Jeanneret’s final season, the Sabres’ younger players would often have conversations with him, “really asking questions, getting to know him, him sharing stories.”
“I never took that for granted … being on road trips where I’d grab RJ and just start asking him questions on the bus and just listening to him talk about the history and what he’s done and what he’s seen,” Adams said. “And our players got to feel that. I just think it’s all part of when you think about being part of something special and it’s bigger than you.”
Adams and Granato want to relay that message to players in training camp.
“There’s people that have paved the way in this organization in many different roles, from someone like RJ to players, coaches, equipment managers, trainers,” he said. “And we all want to leave it better than we found it. And you can take a little bit from that. That’s what RJ did. He left this place better, he left this world better than he found it, and I just think that’s a pretty powerful thing for us all to think about, talk about as a group.”
Spending time around Jeanneret over the past few years, Granato said he realized he “does make you want to be a Sabre.”
“He makes you proud to be a Sabre,” he said. “Historically, he is just an amazing guy. He was just an amazing person and so deep, so much depth he could reach our entire locker room, or he could reach players individually.”
Jeanneret enjoyed a unique relationship with players. Rob Ray, who played 14 seasons in Buffalo and called games as a color analyst with Jeanneret, said he took interest in them and was always available to have a conversation.
Sometimes if he knew a player was struggling, Ray said he’d make them feel special by calling them in their hotel room and checking in.
“He was just so passionate about and so understanding that maybe what the guy was going through,” he said.
Ray said Jeanneret became almost a father figure to players, offering them a comfort zone. Guys looked up to him. He was easy to be around.
As a broadcaster, he never put players in a negative light. Instead, through his unique calls, he amplified their exploits. His “May Day!” call of the series-clinching goal in the 1993 playoffs, the most famous and enduring of his career, helped elevate Brad May’s status.
“I know that back when we played and things would happen, you couldn’t wait to get off the ice to rewind the tape to see how RJ described it,” Ray said. “He left an impression on guys because they wanted to do something special just because they know that he would have taken it to the next level and made it even greater.
“I just think that he was never a threat to anybody. I think players understood that and felt that so they felt open to him.”
Jeanneret was so open to fans that on “RJ Night,” April 1, 2022 in KeyBank Center, he held back tears and closed his remarks by telling them, “I love you.”
Ray said when Jeanneret was in his mid-70s, he asked him why he kept working.
“He goes, ‘I have to. The people depend on me. … There’s a lot of people that can’t see this game or the people who are watching the game, they depend on me. That’s why I keep going,’” he said. “So it wasn’t a selfish reason for him to keep going. It was him feeling that he owed something to the fans.
“On nights that he might not have been doing a game or he’d be there early, he’d be like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go to the front lobby and shake hands.’ We always joked around with him like ‘Hey look, you’re Canadian. You can’t run for mayor here. Just get ready for the game.’ ‘No, I’ve got lots of time.’ He just loved the people.”
Ray said Jeanneret “always respected the opportunity that he was getting.”
“Until his last day,” he said, “he still thought that was the greatest opportunity in the world.”