As the Buffalo Sabres began last Thursday's episode of Nanook of the North, they were leaving New York City for Buffalo, where snow was falling for the 52nd straight day and where the airport was closed because of fog. Worse, Richard Martin, the Sabres' leading goal scorer, was wearing a sling to protect the shoulder he had bruised during the previous night's 2-1 defeat of the Rangers and would have to sit out that night's Adams Division showdown against the first-place Boston Bruins, who were leading the second-place Sabres by four points.
Before continuing with Thursday's drama, however, here is a brief summary of the story so far. The Sabres started the season poorly and fell 10 points behind the Bruins, but then stormed through a 21-3-3 streak, moving into first place just before Christmas. Right about then the snow started its daily descent (so far more than 160 inches have fallen during the worst winter in Buffalo history), and the Sabres—forced to postpone many of their practices, cancel some of their home games and play road contests with rosters depleted by the absence of snowbound skaters—began a six-week slump, during which they won nine of 23 games and relinquished first place to the Bruins.
For the Sabres, the nadir came during the last weekend of January when the city of Buffalo was lost in a blizzard that added eight more inches of snow to the three feet already on the ground. The Sabres practiced in Buffalo on Friday morning and were scheduled to depart that afternoon for Montreal for a Saturday night game against the Canadiens. Driving home from practice, Wing Jim Lorentz had to abandon his car and walk the last mile; he didn't find the vehicle until three days later. Wing Gary (Crash) McAdam had five separate accidents in his new Thunderbird. After the fifth, McAdam was looking at his muffler and screaming at the woman who had rammed his car when suddenly he saw a car sliding toward his Thunderbird. He leaped onto the trunk and watched the car come to a halt against his bumper. It took Defenseman Lee Fogolin and Forward Brian Spencer four hours to make the five-minute drive to their condominium complex; they were not seen again for three days. "I ran out of the necessities—milk and beer," says Fogolin. "I grew up in Thunder Bay, Ontario and we never had anything like what Buffalo had that weekend."
With the Buffalo roads impassable and the airport closed, Coach Floyd Smith changed the Friday departure to Saturday. Following snow plows. Smith made his regular 20-minute drive to the airport in two hours. Defenseman Jerry (King Kong) Korab could not even open the door of his house, so he called Wing Rene Robert. "If you want me to protect you tonight," he told him, "come dig me out." Robert drove his four-wheel-drive vehicle to Korab's home, dug him out and started for the airport with Korab and three other teammates.
Still, Smith could count only 10 players at 3 p.m., so he went to the phone to call Montreal and cancel the game. But just then Defenseman Jocelyn Guevremont pulled up in his four-wheel-drive vehicle with four other players—and the trip was on. Guevremont had reached his car by jumping out a window and shoveling his way to the garage.
"On the plane the stewardesses were hollering at the pilots that we couldn't take off," recalls Center Don Luce. "I think they tried to turn it around, but all the plane did was blow sideways. Somehow they got it in the air."
Although only 15 players were suited up, the Sabres held the Canadiens to 19 shots on goal and escaped with a 3-3 tie. "As great as that was," says Luce, "it makes you wonder if it was worth putting guys' lives at stake."
The blizzard forced the Sabres to cancel the following night's game against the Los Angeles Kings in Buffalo. Then the next afternoon, with the Buffalo airport shut down again, the Sabres boarded a bus for what would be a 10-hour trip to Long Island and the start of a three-game road trip. They lost to the Islanders 6-3, barely defeated the Colorado Rockies 6-4 in Denver and then blew a two-goal lead and were beaten by the Blues 6-5 in St. Louis. "We've had one practice in 10 days," Smith said. "When we get home, we're going to make up for lost time and practice twice a day." Forward Craig Ramsay said, "We've been lucky that Boston has been struggling, too, and hasn't pulled way ahead of us. But if we don't wake up right now, we'll be buried in the snow and buried in the standings."
After Buffalo's home game against Toronto was snowed out, Smith drilled the Sabres for 75 minutes the morning of their game against the Rangers in New York, and they responded with a diligent but hardly artistic 2-1 victory. Center Andre Savard's goal in the closing seconds of the second period gave the Sabres their lead, and they spent the entire third period icing the puck. But so much for the story so far.
Last Thursday the snowfall finally stopped, the fog lifted—and the Sabres had a perfect landing when they arrived home to meet the Bruins. Because of the snow, the Sabres had not played a game in Buffalo in two weeks, and they were greeted like long-lost friends by a crowd of 16,433.
In an attempt to shake up the stumbling Sabres, Boston Coach Don Cherry decided to start his new policeman, recently acquired rookie John Wensink, at left wing. Wensink, whose minor league credits include a half-season suspension and a fine for biting off part of a rival's ear, immediately whacked King Kong Korab in the head with his stick. Korab retaliated in kind and was given a four-minute penalty for his outburst, while Wensink escaped unscathed. But Boston's power play failed to capitalize on this opportunity.
When Korab stepped from the penalty box, he picked up the loose puck and beat Bruins Goaltender Gilles Gilbert to give the Sabres a 1-0 lead. Korab also began to hit everything in a black uniform and scored another goal as the Sabres built a 4-1 lead. The Bruins closed to within 4-3 and appeared, even to Buffalo Goaltender Al Smith, to have scored a fourth goal, but the referee and the goal judge both ruled "no goal." In the end, it was Korab's night, and he said, "I'd like to thank Wensink for waking me up."
Smith rewarded the Sabres with two more 90-minute workouts the next day—the first day it did not snow in Buffalo since December 21. "We're turning it around," Smith said hopefully. "No matter what, we're fortunate not only to be close to first place, but that all of us are still alive."