BUFFALO – No one, Rebecca Way said, believes her story of Sabres fandom.
Growing up in Pittsburgh, she rooted for the Penguins. When they lost in the playoffs in 2007, she said she “bandwagoned” for the Sabres. She quickly fell in love with them, in part, through legendary play-by-play man’s Rick Jeanneret’s colorful broadcasting.
Way said Jeanneret, who died August 17 of multi-organ failure at 81, “made me feel like I was a part of this team through the TV.”
Eventually, Way began commuting to Buffalo about 15 or 20 times a season to watch the Sabres.
“I was spending more money on gas and tolls so I decided I was just going to move here because I love this team,” she said Sunday outside KeyBank Center, where she laid a handwritten sign at Jeanneret’s Memorial before attending the “Remembering RJ: The Man Behind the Mic” event.
Yes, Way actually uprooted her life to be closer to the Sabres.
“I don’t entirely know if I would be here (without Jeanneret),” said Way, who lives in Niagara Falls. “He was a huge part of that.”
She put that on her sign, writing, “For years, you were my ticket to the arena. … I don’t know if I would’ve fallen in love w/Sabres hockey as hard if not for you.”
Josh Edwards, Way’s fiancé, also left a handwritten sign at the memorial, writing, “For the longest time you were the soundtrack to my life.”
“There was no question about when I heard this was going to happen, the need to have been here, because he’s been a big part of my life,” said Edwards, who also lives in Niagara Falls.
More than 2,400 fans and 59 alumni members attended Sunday’s 90-minute celebration, which featured a roundtable discussion with broadcasters, coaches and former players emceed by Sabres television and radio host Brian Duff.
The iconic Jeanneret called Sabres games for 51 years before retiring following the 2021-22 season.
“RJ is the greatest artist I have ever known,” Duff said.
The Sabres lowered the “RJ” banner they raised to the rafters April 1, 2022 and placed it behind the stage erected on the arena floor. His broadcast booth, meanwhile, was illuminated blue.
Sabres owner Terry Pegula called in and shared some of his favorite Jeanneret memories. Stories of Jeanneret the broadcaster and man flowed throughout the event, many eliciting laughter and some probably a few tears.
“It was enjoyable when you celebrate somebody’s life instead of mourning their death,” said Jim Lorentz, Jeanneret’s old broadcast partner. “Of course, all of us will mourn his death but he had an incredible career. It was an honor for me to work beside him for all those years and he gave me so many good memories.”
Former Sabres winger Brad May, who scored the “May Day!” overtime playoff goal in 1993, eliciting Jeanneret’s most famous call, said “you can’t be unhappy” thinking about Jeanneret.
“This guy had a full life and brought so much joy to all of us,” he said. “I think that he would be up there clapping for everybody else and say, ‘Move along.’”
Clearly, those who knew Jeanneret well or simply had an interaction with him – “He was talking to me like … he was talking to an old friend,” Way said of the first time she met him – treasure their memories.
Sabres coach Don Granato said in Jeanneret’s presence “you knew you were around a legend.”
Former Sabres coach Lindy Ruff called his time with Jeanneret “a gift.”
“Probably a gift I didn’t use enough because I was so caught up in (coaching),” said Ruff, who now coaches the New Jersey Devils. “Around him day in, day out, we got to spend plenty of time with him. But looking back, (I) wished we would’ve spent a lot more time because he was an incredible guy just to have a conversation with, whether it was about hockey or life, whether it was just about world news.”
Ruff said Jeanneret had such a massive impact he made him a better coach. He wishes he could’ve heard Jeanneret call a Stanley Cup championship for Buffalo.
“Everybody wants to win a Stanley Cup, and I wanted to hear Rick call either the game-winning goal or the finish to the game because you would’ve known at that point that something unbelievable had just happened,” Ruff said.
During one of New Jersey’s recent visits, Ruff had a chance to see Jeanneret for the last time.
“Only in Rick fashion, he just appeared,” he said. “It was like he knew I was going to be there, he knew I was going to be in the hallway. We got that final one great last conversation, got to say hello, got to give him a hug. Just looking back on that opportunity not knowing you may not see him again.”