BUFFALO, N.Y. — I’ve always been fascinated about how the best in the business get it done.
As far as Rick Jeanneret is concerned, I got the answer in February of 2012.
I distinctly remember having dinner with RJ before the Buffalo Sabres were about to face the Tampa Bay Lightning at the arena.
Years before, through our connection to NBC, I’d gotten to know, as a professional acquaintance, another all-time great in Doc Emrick.
After a morning skate in Boston, I got to see his legendary “cheat sheet.” The handwritten notes, in epic detail, that he would take into the booth to call a game.
It prompted me to ask Rick about his preparation ... his approach … his cheat sheet.
He just looked at me and kindly said nothing, but the look on his face read, “Dude, did you seriously just ask me that question?”
He simply held up the lineup card with both rosters on it. The one that all media gets when they arrive at a game.
He then just tapped is temple as if to say, the rest is up here.
Classic RJ, without saying a word at all.
I think about that conversation as a window into what has made Jeanneret so unique and so special during a 51-year run calling Sabres games that comes to an end Friday night. He is the longest tenured broadcaster with a single team in the history of the National Hockey League.
“Anything that came out of these lips has been pretty natural. I very seldom think ahead of time … in terms of the number of calls that I’ve had that they call famous or infamous. That’s me. You take me as what I am,” Jeanneret said.
It’s rare that you find a broadcaster whose voice and calls are associated with the great moments in the history of a franchise, as much if not more, than the players actually involved.
That has been the case from ‘La-la-la-la-LaFontaine,’ to ‘Mayday,’ to ‘Top shelf where momma hides the cookies,’ to ‘Scary Good’ and so much more.
“I just went with the flow,” RJ says with a shrug.
It’s a career and an approach that started in 1963, when at the last moment, Jeanneret was asked to call a Niagara Falls Flyers junior game because the play-by-play man at the time had gone home sick. After a brief run with the AHL Bisons, he joined the Sabres in 1971, and he has been with the team ever since.
In 2012, Jeanneret received the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award from the Hockey Hall of Fame, the highest honor for members of the media.
He’s done it all, and called it all, with the exception of the Sabres winning a Stanley Cup.
“You know what? An awful lot of players have never won a Stanley Cup either, a lot more than me, but there’s a void there. Yeah … and I wish that it had been filled … but it wasn’t,” he said.
Jeanneret called both of the Sabres’ trips to the finals in 1975 and in 1999.
He’s first to point out that more than filling any void has been his relationship with Buffalo and its fans. He points to the support he received as he successfully fought throat cancer in 2014. It’s a relationship that was celebrated on April 1, when the Sabres hung a banner in the rafters of KeyBank Center, along with other retired numbers in Jeanneret’s honor.
“I have three words … just three,” Jeanneret said during his speech to a sellout crowd that night. “I love you.”
As his final call approaches Friday night, he admits he’s taking time to reflect.
“It’s been a long, long, time. Whatever I did, I’m happy that I’m going out on top of my profession. I’m very happy about that. I don’t think anyone will doubt me,” he said.
As for the end, he simply says, “time goes on.”
As for his approach, the one I talked about earlier, he says that’s not changing as his final call arrives.
“I don’t want to change myself because I’m on my way out the door. I don’t want that to happen … and I don’t want a lot of people to think that I’m changing for that reason. So, I’m constantly thinking about keep your nose to the grindstone and keep doing what you’ve been doing for the last half century,” he said.
In that sense, it will end just as it began, and don’t ask him about a cheat sheet.