Rick Jeanneret called Sabres games for 51 seasons. ©2023, Micheline Veluvolu

Rick Jeanneret, legendary voice of Sabres, dies at 81

Legendary play-by-play man Rick Jeanneret, one of the most iconic figures in Buffalo Sabres history, died Thursday evening, the team announced. He was 81.

Jeanneret died following a two-year battle with multi-organ failures, according to his family.

He retired following the 2021-22 season, his record 51st year on the job. He spent last season as a broadcaster emeritus making appearances on behalf of the team and was often seen around KeyBank Center.

The Sabres gave him a rousing sendoff before he left the broadcast booth, honoring him with “RJ Night” and raising a banner in his honor during an emotional pregame ceremony April 1, 2022.

“Rick was indeed a very special and very loved man, to and by all, who knew him and listened to him, his magic, and his command,” Sabres owner Terry Pegula said in a statement. “How glad I am to have known him. How lucky were we all to have been around him and to have listened to him.

“Rick Jeanneret’s mark on Sabres history extends far beyond the broadcast booth and we will miss him dearly. I extend my deepest condolences to (his wife), Sandra, Rick’s family, friends, and all that were loved by him.”

Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams, who grew up in Clarence, said “Jeanneret was not just the voice of the Sabres, he was the voice for our city.”

“He helped foster my love of hockey, along with so many others,” he said in a statement. “Beyond the booth, Rick was an incredible man that was loved by all. His wit and humor was unmatched and we are all lucky to have known him.

“I am heartbroken by his passing and send my condolences to his wife, Sandra, and all of his family and friends. May he rest in peace.”

Jeanneret’s memorable calls endeared him to generations of Sabres fans. There was “LalalalalalaFontaine” following a Pat LaFontaine goal, “Woweee Housley” for Phil Housley’s exploits and “top shelf where mama hides the cookies” for goals under the crossbar.

“Now do you believe?” was popular as the Sabres morphed into an elite club following the 2005 lockout, as was, “These guys are scary good!”

“He’s as big a part of the team as any player that’s ever played or coach that’s ever coached because he’s got a direct line to the fan every single game,” former Sabres goalie Martin Biron said in 2012.

The “May Day!” call following Brad May’s 1993 overtime series-clinching goal against the Boston Bruins in Memorial Auditorium stands as his most famous and enduring.

“May Day, May Day, May Day, May Day, May Day!” Jeanneret roared on the radio broadcast from a raucous Aud after May, who hadn’t scored in 28 games, undressed future Hall of Famer Ray Bourque and clinched the Sabres’ first opening-round playoff victory since 1983.

The two men, May told the Times Herald in 2022, became “tied at the hip” following the goal, and when Jeanneret’s banner went up, May flew back from Ireland so he could “be in Buffalo to feel it with him.”

John Richard Jeanneret was born July 23, 1942 in St. Catharines, Ont. He originally planned to become a disc jockey and attended what he once called “a cram course” at the Midwestern Broadcasting School in Chicago.

“At that point in time, I thought I was going to be a jock for the rest of my life,” he said in 2012.

But one night in the 1960s, the junior Niagara Falls Flyers’ play-by-play man got sick. Jeanneret substituted, and a new career was born.

In 1971, the Sabres’ second season, WKBW began televising some games. With the late Ted Darling calling those broadcasts, they needed a radio voice.

Fred Hunt, Buffalo’s assistant general manager, recommended that Paul Wieland, who was in charge of the team’s broadcasting, listen to Jeanneret. Wieland, who had heard some of Jeanneret’s Niagara Falls broadcasts, called him.

He said he thought Jeanneret “had good pipes,” a unique style and anticipated the game well on radio or television.

“He was delighted to do it,” Wieland said in 2012, shortly before the Hockey Hall of Fame honored Jeanneret with the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award.

Jeanneret always refused to be called the “Voice of the Sabres.” That honor, he said, belongs to Darling, his close friend.

After spending about 24 years on the radio, Jeanneret moved to television in 1995. A few seasons later, the Sabres began simulcasting the television broadcast on the radio.

“What always amazed me was he could turn an ordinary game and turn it into a very exciting game, and to me, that’s a real gift of a broadcaster,” ex-Sabres forward Jim Lorentz, one of Jeanneret’s former color analysts, said in 2022. “People tend to gravitate toward all the great calls, and there’s so many of them, but for me, I look at the full body of work, and it was just superb, night after night of excellence.”

For about the last decade of his career, he called a limited number of games, mostly at home. He figured his longevity – no NHL broadcaster has ever called games for one team for so long – will be an unbreakable record.

“That’s unheard of,” a proud Jeanneret told the Times Herald in 2022. “That’ll never be matched again, not a chance.”

Jeanneret called his last game April 29, 2022, which the Sabres, fittingly, won 3-2 in overtime when Casey Mittelstadt scored against the Chicago Blackhawks.

“Casey, Casey Mittelstadt,” Jeanneret said as his legendary career ended, “Casey at the bat hammers it home and Buffalo wins it in ooooovertime!”

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