Weekly Feature



2012-12-05 / Sports

Buffalo Junior Sabres quietly dominating OJHL

by PATRICK GREGOIRE Intern


Buffalo Junior Sabres forward Ryan Schmelzer, left photo, looks to pass the puck during a game Nov. 26 at the Northtown Center at Amherst. The Amherst native is second on the team in scoring. Buffalo Junior Sabres goalie Parker Gahagen, right, photo, watches from the bench. The Amherst native leads the OJHL with six shutouts. 
Photos by Timothy T. LudwigPurchase color photos at www.BeeNews.com Buffalo Junior Sabres forward Ryan Schmelzer, left photo, looks to pass the puck during a game Nov. 26 at the Northtown Center at Amherst. The Amherst native is second on the team in scoring. Buffalo Junior Sabres goalie Parker Gahagen, right, photo, watches from the bench. The Amherst native leads the OJHL with six shutouts. Photos by Timothy T. LudwigPurchase color photos at www.BeeNews.com As Buffalo experiences a withdrawal from the NHL this winter, the Buffalo Junior Sabres are quietly dominating the Ontario Junior Hockey League.

The Junior Sabres sit in first place in the OJHL and are ranked 10th among all junior teams in Canada. They have a 22-10 record, including two shootout losses.

Leading the Junior Sabres to the top of the OJHL is former Buffalo Sabre Michael Peca, who is in his second season as head coach and general manager. Last season, Peca led the Junior Sabres to a 26-26 record and 51 points, which was good for third place in the West Division. The Junior Sabres were ultimately knocked out in the second round of playoffs by the Oakville Blades.

Although the finish was upsetting, it was a major turnaround from the previous season’s record of 18-32.

Peca took the job to not only help improve the club’s record, but also to promote players reaching the next level both on and off the ice.

“As an organization, our goal is to help every single kid to try and reach their true potential, both as hockey players and young men,” said Peca. “As this program moves forward, we want the kids who move on to college programs to make those programs proud to have had them. Schools will quickly learn that getting a Junior Sabre means getting a great person, not just a great player.”

There was plenty of optimism coming off the first season with Peca behind the bench. As much promise as last season showed, the Junior Sabres are exceeding any preseason aspirations.

“I’m not sure if I expected the success thus far, but I’m not surprised,” said Peca. “We have the great combination of great skill, leadership and passion throughout the lineup that really makes it a treat for myself and the entire coaching staff to work with.”

Arguably a contender for the most valuable player at the midway point is netminder Parker Gahagen. The Amherst native has an 18-7 record while posting a 2.46 goals against average and a .923 save percentage, seventh and fifth best in the league, respectively.

Gahagen also leads the league in shutouts with six.

“We hoped to build off our disappointing finish in playoffs last season and knew we were going to be solid this year, but I don’t think anyone saw this coming,” said Gahagen. “Overall, we are much more solid this season. Offensively and defensively, we are getting contributions from everyone so far this season.”

Fellow Amherst native Ryan Schmelzer, a three-year player, is also putting a solid season together. Schmelzer is second in scoring with 10 goals and 22 assists for 32 points in 29 games.

“We have taken this season game by game and look where we are now,” said Schmelzer. “Of course, you have high expectations going into the season, but I didn’t think it would be this good. The team chemistry is high, and we’re feeling great going on with the rest of the season.”

Williamsville native David Seward has posted six goals and 13 assists for 19 points in 28 games. As assistant captain, Seward plays a big role as a leader on the ice and in the locker room. Seward believes that Peca is a big part of the team’s turnaround.

“For me personally, it’s confidence,” said Seward. “Having him back there really helps us settle down when we’re behind. He knows the little ins and outs of the game and you trust him, because you know he’s been there and at the highest level possible. He has full control of our bench, and it’s great having a guy who really knows what he’s doing.”

Despite the Junior Sabres playing in a league based out of Ontario and their coach hailing from Canada, the team still manages to keep close ties with the Buffalo area. Ten players on the roster hail from Western New York.

Alongside Gahagen and Schmelzer is Amherst resident Nolan Sheeran, who, in his second season with the team, has posted nine goals and 11 assists for 20 points in 32 games. Defenseman Darrin Trebes, a Williamsville native, has a goal and four assists in 18 games.

Two rookies from Clarence, Ryall Ledyard and Brian Ruff, also have family ties to the Junior Sabres.

Ledyard’s father, Grant, played five seasons with the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres in the late 80s and early 90s, and Ruff’s father, Lindy, is coach of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres.

Ryall Ledyard has scored five goals and added two assists in his first 24 games. Brian Ruff has scored a pair of goals and added five assists in 19 games.

Cheektowaga’s Max Mikowski, Orchard Park’s Josh Kielich and East Aurora’s Tim Kielicheachhavehitthe20-pointbarrierwith just under 30 games played. Each has played a major role in secondary scoring support.

Despite being at the top of the standings, Peca and his players believe there is still room for improvement to truly become a contender come playoff time.

“No matter the level of success any team has, getting better is always the goal,” said Peca. “Becoming stingier on defense is our number one goal to improve. That touches many parts of the game of hockey, and we are getting there. My feelings have always been that when you stand put, you get run over, so we are always pushing ourselves to be better each and every day we enter the rink.”

“We’ve got to tighten up the defensive end a bit and get our play back up to where it was at the beginning of the year,” said Schmelzer. “That’s why we were so successful with our power play, it was hot and it’s gone down since.”

Many may wonder why American kids would want to play in a league based out of Ontario, but many players made their choice pretty clear.

“It’s a high level of hockey, and the home rink is right down the road where I’m from,” said Gahagen. “Of course, bringing Peca in played a huge part in my decision to come to the team as well. I mean, it’s pretty cool to play under a guy with great experience like Mike Peca.”

“Being local was huge,” said Seward. “It’s fun being able to play such a high level of hockey while being able to live at home. I grew up playing with some of these guys like Parker and Ryan in Amherst and playing with guys who you grew up with. It doesn’t get much better than that.”

Like Gahagen and Seward, Schmelzer based his decision on the level of hockey, quality of coaching and proximity of the home arena.

“Peca being the coach was a huge attraction for me and playing close to home is great for me,” said Schmelzer.

When asked, Peca made it clear that he didn’t have any coaching changes in the near future.

“My real passion in coaching hockey is and always will be in the amateur ranks,” said Peca. “From young boys to young men in juniors, I just feel I can have a greater impact on their paths at these levels.”

With an experienced coach such as Peca motivating a talent core of players, the Junior Sabres are well on their way to a franchise best season.

The team will look to carry its current momentum into playoffs and bring a Canadian championship south of the border.

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