BUFFALO, N.Y. — Phil Housley still remembers high-fiving Sabres fans at Memorial Auditorium in opening his Hall of Fame career in Buffalo during the 1980s.
Now, Housley is looking forward to bringing that type of excitement back to Buffalo — this time as the Sabres head coach.
Some 35 years to the day since the then-18-year-old was selected by the Sabres with the No. 6 pick in the NHL draft, Housley is being asked to instil relevance to a franchise coming off its latest off-season house-cleaning.
“Looking back, I didn’t realize how passionate the people are here,” Housley said during his introductory news conference. “And I’d like to get that passion back as a head coach.”
Housley takes over as a first-time NHL head coach in replacing Dan Bylsma, who was fired along with general manager Tim Murray in April after Buffalo extended its franchise worst playoff drought to six years. And Housley was hired by another new-comer, general manager Jason Botterill.
Though Housley’s ties to Buffalo were hard to overlook, Botterill was more impressed by the work he did over the past four seasons as a Nashville Predators assistant coach.
It was in Nashville where Housley was credited for developing an up-tempo, offensive-minded, P.K. Subban and Roman Josi-led group of defencemen. They played a key role in leading the Predators to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance, which ended with loss to Pittsburgh in Game 6 on Sunday.
“He gets the most out of his players, and I think that trait resonated in the interview process,” Botterill said. “His approach to the game aligns with the way we envision our hockey team playing, and we’re excited to see where his leadership will take us.”
Botterill and Housley have several connections. They were both members of the Calgary Flames from 1999-2001, though Botterill spent much of that time playing in the minors.
More recently, both had ties to the Stanley Cup finalists. Botterill was the Penguins assistant GM and forced to leave the team during its playoff upon being hired by the Sabres last month.
Housley had no hard feelings toward his new boss when reminded how the Predators lost to a Penguins team Botterill had a hand in building.
“We’re over that now,” Housley said, with a big laugh.
Botterill was so impressed with how Housley conducted himself during the past two days of interviews that he sped up the hiring process by foregoing an opportunity to meet other candidates — including Penguins assistant Rick Tocchet.
Botterill did interview several other candidates, including Washington assistant Todd Reirden, before placing the search process on hold to wait for teams to conclude the playoffs.
Aside from their philosophies meshing, Botterill credited Housley for his track record of developing young players as being valuable.
In Buffalo, Housley faces the challenge of taking over a group of players criticized for lacking accountability and leadership last season.
On the ice, the Sabres were inconsistent on offence and their defence had difficulty in transition and moving the puck out of Buffalo’s end.
Rather than focus on his now-former players in Nashville, Housley turned his attention to Sabres defencemen, including up-and-coming stars Rasmus Ristolainen and Jake McCabe.
“We’ve got a lot of good players on this team,” Housley said.
“It’s just about learning the system, learning the way we want to play. And they will be heavily involved in our attack.”
Housley has head-coaching experience but not at the NHL level. He was head coach of the gold medal-winning U.S. team at the 2013 World Junior championships.
Starting in 2004, Housley spent nine seasons coaching Stillwater Area High School in his native Minnesota.
As a player, Housley’s 1,232 career points (338 goals and 894 assists) rank third among American-born players and fourth among all NHL defencemen.
Housley’s hiring coincided with his 32nd anniversary with his wife Karin, who also travelled to Buffalo.
Upon returning to his hotel room after meeting with Botterill, Housley said he realized he forgot to buy his wife anything for their anniversary.
“I walked back to the room and I said, ‘I forgot to get you a card,’” Housley said. “And then I said, ‘But I’m the new head coach of the Buffalo Sabres. Happy anniversary.’ So it was a great present.”