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Sabres Central

The Freight Train named Peca departs Buffalo
By Rick Anderson
June 25, 2001

The Freight Train named Peca is eastward bound for Long Island. The 5-foot 11 inch powerhouse that rattled the bones of much bigger players has left Buffalo, only to return next season wearing the uniform of the Islanders. Michael Peca finally got his wish, after holding out all last season in a contract dispute.

Michael Peca will now join Alexei Yashin with the Islanders
[Sabres Photo]

On Sunday, the Buffalo Sabres made a trade with the New York Islanders, sending the disgruntled Peca over to the Island for youngsters Tim Connolly and Taylor Pyatt. Both were first round draft choices of the Islanders in the 1999 draft. In fact, they made the top 8 players selected. Each player has an identical $1.025 million contract, so the Sabres are getting two players for under what they would have had to pay Peca. Connolly is the player the Sabres could have had at the trading deadline, according to Peca.

"Speaking with the New York people, something could have been done in March," pointed out Peca. "I'm second-guessing why it wasn't done in March."

Connolly seems to be the better of the two players the Sabres acquired for their former captain. Connolly scored 14 goals in his rookie season two years ago, but dropped to just 10 last year, but upped his assists by 11 to get 31 for a total of 41 points. Pyatt just played last with the big club and collected a mere 4 goals. Each player is still a diamond in the rough and may need some additional grooming in the AHL next season.

The main focus in Buffalo was the departure of the man who delivered bone-rattling hits almost as devastating as Scott Stevens. Peca's lore will long be remembered and his tenancy will be missed. When he was on the ice and playing with that gun-ho intensity, Peca was able to turn games around with open ice hits that would leave opposing playing laying on the ice. He was often criticized for leaving his feet or delivering an errant elbow, but mostly, Peca's hits were clean but forceful.

It was a bitter, intense battle between two stubborn and determined foes. No, it wasn't Peca taking on the much bigger Eric Lindros, but more like David vs. Goliath anyway as his foe was none other than the Sabres GM Darcy Regier. Regier has battled with many foes before in contract disputes, but none of them were anyway as competitive and gritty as Peca. Peca demanded to be traded last October when he felt the contract negotiations were going nowhere. From there, the negotiations turned sour with no hope of any reconciliation. The March trading deadline came and went and Peca was still with the Sabres, at least in that the Sabres possessed his rights. Peca's heart was already gone, his bags packed and his will was being squashed by the Sabres management refusal to trade him.

After the first day of the entry draft and Peca hadn't been traded, both he and his agent Don Meehan criticized the Sabres for not moving him.

"It's nothing more than this organization being mean-spirited toward Michael Peca," Meehan said Saturday. "It's nothing more than that."

It must have blown Peca over like one of his punishing checks, when he heard that he finally got his wish and was shuffling off from Buffalo.

"Obviously, the temporary feeling is I'm relieved it's over," Peca related. "Professionally, I look forward to moving on with my career. Personally, my family is looking forward to moving on with our lives."

The year long holdout cost Peca between $2.5-$3 million. It may have cost the Sabres even more, as they came a crazy bounce away from advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals for the third time in four years when a deflected puck bounced right on Mario Lemieux's stick to set him up to tie Game 6 with a little over a minute left in that game. From there, the Penguins beat the Sabres in two straight overtimes to advance. Had Peca been with the team, things could have been much different. Losing at least two home games in a conference finals may have paid that $3 million that Peca wanted.

"I'm not going to say they could have gone further with me," Peca admitted, "but obviously when you're that close any piece could have made a difference, whether it was anything that they could have gotten at the deadline. In retrospect, as much as it cost me playing hockey and financially, them not getting to the next round - it cost them just as much in a lot of areas."

In the 1996-97 season, Peca was awarded the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the NHL's top defensive forward. The year later, he was the runner-up for the prestigious trophy.

"John Muckler brought me in here, and Ted Nolan gave me the opportunity and Lindy Ruff continued to give me that opportunity," Peca said. "The Buffalo Sabres organization is always going to have a place in my heart, as far as hockey goes. The fans were always great to me. It was tough coming in as a 20-year-old, nobody knowing who I was. They took a liking to me, which was nice. Hopefully the fans here in Buffalo, who as we all know deserve a winning team more than any, get that chance somewhere down the road."

Even though Peca had kind words for the fans, it's the Sabres management that will leave a bitter taste in his mouth for a long time to come. It is clear that Peca will get up for the first encounter the Sabres have with the Islanders next season. It will be like when Thurman Thomas played against the Bills for the first time in an opposing uniform or the upcoming Doug Flutie vs. Rob Johnson matchup with the Bills battle the Chargers. Peca will be dreaming of the day when he can line up his sights on Miroslav Satan or Curtis Brown to name a few.

"I'm sure, like I maintained all along, a message was intended to be sent," Peca said. "They realized they came to a point where we both had to move on. Thankfully, the Islanders were persistent."

Regier showed some real emotion in the press conference announcing the big trade.

"You're playing with people's lives," said the choked up Regier. "I have the utmost respect for Michael Peca. That obviously doesn't mean you agree, but you don't ever want to be a part of hurting anybody. I'm dealing on behalf of the organization, but it's about his life, and you don't ever want to have things become personal. Those are the unfortunate side-effects. Those things evoke some emotion."

Peca didn't shed a sympathy tear for Regier when he heard about the emotional speech.

"If that's the way he feels, it's nice to hear those words," said a stone-cold Peca. "But that's behind me now. I'm just looking forward."

Looking forward may mean that Peca could have a huge picture of Regier in his locker when the Sabres come to Long Island this autumn. But then again, he doesn't need any picture to get motivated to inflict some revenge that will come across the ice like a freight train to deliver his patented punishing checks. The Sabres had better be prepared for a Scott Stevens-like invasion the first time Peca comes back to town.

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