BUFFALO – It was Wednesday morning, and before the Sabres hit the ice, Ted Nolan had some business to take care of in a team meeting. The coach handed Mike Weber a jersey, which the defenseman then tossed to winger Patrick Kaleta.
The jersey was Kaleta’s No. 36 with an ‘A’ stitched on it, meaning Weber wanted the heart-and-soul player to take over his alternate captaincy.
Emotion overwhelmed Kaleta. The 28-year-old Angola native had tears in his eyes. Teammates hugged him and shook his hand.
“I was at a loss for words,” a proud Kaleta said Thursday inside the First Niagara Center. “I don’t really know how to describe it. You dream your whole life to play for the Buffalo Sabres. Now that you’re playing for them, getting an ‘A’ is like another dream come true that you work your life toward.
“I’m just honored and try to do my best to represent the team and city of Buffalo as best I can. It’s an unreal experience for me.”
Kaleta, a free agent after the season, will wear the ‘A’ for what could the final five games of his Sabres career. He sported it for the first time Wednesday. Weber had been wearing it for injured defenseman Josh Gorges. Kaleta, who plans to have one of the jerseys framed, last wore a letter in junior.
“Being able to wear it in my hometown and for this team, the blue and gold, it’s hard to explain,” Kaleta said. “It really means the world to me.”
Nolan believes Weber giving his letter to Kaleta shows how much the Sabres care for each other.
“When a fellow teammate has that much respect for another one and doing a gesture like that in front of your teammates, sometimes you look at these guys and you think they’re big, burly, tough individuals all the time,” Nolan said. “They do have some emotion. You do see some tears coming out of Patty’s eyes. He said, ‘Lucky thing the room was dark, or you would’ve seen it more.’ It was very emotional. It was a great gesture.”
Nolan added: “That’s one thing we try to instill, a group that cares for one other, because a group that cares for one another usually plays well together going forward. To see that, it was great to see.”
Nolan said defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen (sick) will return tonight against the Chicago Blackhawks after missing Wednesday’s 4-3 win against Toronto. Ristolainen skated in the Sabres’ optional practice Thursday.
Meanwhile, Nolan said goalie Matt Hackett, who didn’t dress the last two games due to soreness, is resting and could be available Friday.
Goalie Chad Johnson, out since hurting his ankle March 6, hopes he can return late next week before the season ends. Nolan seems less optimistic than Johnson the newcomer can play.