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Sabres Central

NHL gives Peca birthday present
By Rick Anderson
March 26, 2000

Michael Peca turns 26 years old on Sunday. It will not be one of his best birthdays ever. He learned Saturday that he has been suspended by the NHL for his ferocious elbow on Calgary's Valeri Bure.

"We're all upset," remarked Peca about the gift-wrapped suspension that will cost him $15,625 in two games' salary. "I don't think it was fair in any way, shape or form, but that's what they decided."

Michael Peca gets two-game suspension for the hit he put on Flames winger Valeri Bure in Thursday's game against Calgary
[AP Photo/Don Heupel]

The captain of the Buffalo Sabres has been having a difficult year to say the least. During the first 40 games, he was nowhere to be found. The Peca that the Buffalo fans knew and loved was AWOL. He was not scoring. He was not delivering his signature open-ice hits. The team was already suffering from the loss of Dominik Hasek when its emotional leader also vanished.

Some people blamed it on the "Stanley Cup hangover." That was an obscure expression some lush must have come up with last October when the Sabres came out of the gate flatter than Swedish pancakes. Whatever the reason, the team that had taken the Dallas Stars into double overtime in game six of the Stanley Cup Finals was just not the same intense team that roared through the last spring's playoffs. People started pointing fingers. The fingers were usually aimed at the Buffalo captain.

Throughout all the gossip, the radio blitz that blamed Peca for the very slow start the Sabres had, the native of Toronto held firm. He would not deflect blame. That was not his style. Being captain of a young team, he knew that he would have to shoulder as much criticism as was directed his way. He did so with humility and class.

Trade rumors circulated throughout the year that said he was being sought after by various teams. Keith Primeau was rumored to be coming to Buffalo for Peca. Then it was Keith Tkachuk. Through all the rumors, criticisms and tremors around him, the captain remained calm and unpretentious on the outside. But a raging fire was burning inside the man who since 1995 has typified the hard-working attitude that has become the forte of the Sabres.

Something fishy?

Something had to be wrong with Peca, winner of the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the league's top defensive forward in 1997 and a nominee ever since. Was it because he was a newlywed and it softened him up? There were a lot of comments about his advertisements for a local supermarket chain in which he is shown shopping with his wife and waiting for her permission to slap a can of tuna with his hockey stick into her grocery cart. That commercial showed a smiling Michael who was made to look submissive to his wife. Quite a contrast to what the Sabres' fans were used to seeing on the ice.

Michael Peca is an intense athlete. Just by looking at him during games, one can see his biting concentration every time he's on the ice. That's the way he has always played his favorite game. That's the way Peca will probably always be. He never has too much fun on the ice at the time anyway. He may reflect after a productive game and gain some level of satisfaction, but he'll never show it during the game. When Peca scores a goal, there may be a brief glimpse of joy and exhilaration, but that expression quickly fades and is replaced with a steel mask of anguish.

But there seemed to be no life to Peca after the Stanley Cup letdown. Finally, in late February, he came out of his shell. The hits slowly started coming and he started to net a few goals. Suddenly Peca was on fire. He was the hottest scoring machine wearing the Sabres' logo.

Capital offense

Then came the game that Peca and the Washington Capitals will never forget.

Early in that game in Washington on March 6th, Peca delivered his signature Mack truck hit on Sergei Gonchar. Gonchar suffered a concussion and did not play the remainder of the game. Capitals' coach Ron Wilson was furious that no penalty was called on the play. He made a mental note to get his own retribution very late in the game when the contest might be out of reach.

"He got a direct shot to the head and I'm sick of it," Wilson related after that game about Peca's hit on Gonchar. "Gonchar probably has a concussion. He (Peca) went for the head and left his feet. I hope something happens to him and I hope that the league reviews it. I want something done, not only for our players, but for them all. There are too many guys out there this year with concussions."

With only seconds left in the game and the Capitals up 2-1, Wilson had Steve Konowalchuk do the dirty work of getting even with Peca. Konowalchuk took Peca by the shoulder and gave him a push and then cross-checked him in the face with his stick. The shoulder popped out when the two started to go at it; Peca told him that he could not throw any punches because of the injury. That did not stop Konowalchuk from fighting in fact he intensified his all-out assault until the Sabres' captain lay bleeding on the ice. He had to be helped off the ice and was diagnosed with a separated shoulder.

"The puck went down the ice," recalled Peca."I said the play was over, and he came over and cross-checked me high (in the face). Just as I was about to come off, he pushed up on my arm and it (the shoulder) popped out right away. I was pretty defenseless."

Peca was expected to be lost to the Sabres for the remainder of the regular season. As it turned out, he recovered faster than anyone expected.

Man on a mission

"The doctors were pretty surprised about how far along my shoulder was coming," Peca remarked. "So was the therapist. I was able to do quite a bit within the first week. I could skate, do full shooting, and had no problems. There was some pain in some of the exercises I did in therapy, but that's to be expected. All in all, I was really aggressive right from the start, and it's responded really well."

Peca made his first start since that injury on Thursday against the Calgary Flames. With the Sabres fighting with five different teams for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, Peca knew his presence was needed. He also may have wanted to make a good impression on the two newcomers acquired via trades, Chris Gratton and Doug Gilmour. Gilmour was an idol of Peca's while he was growing up in Toronto. To come out strong and to eliminate any doubts in both his and his teammates' minds was his number one prerogative.

"I didn't want to be tentative," Peca said in describing his aggressive play. "I wanted to get some emotion on our side and put to rest any hesitation in my own mind about what my limits are. I put myself through the test I wanted to today by playing a physical game and getting involved all over the ice. (The shoulder) responded real well."

Peca came out of the gate like a man on a mission. Going at 5'11 and 180 pounds, he's not the biggest of players on the ice. In fact, it's a wonder how he can deliver such an impact with his checks. Part of that ability is upper-body strength and the way he leans into his body slams.

First, Peca wiped out Marc Bureau in the corner and left him for dead. The hit was clean, but it left Bureau down on the ice for over a minute and needing to be helped off after receiving a concussion. That was Peca's clean hit.

Then in the second period, he did further damage to one of the Flames' scoring aces when he swung into Valeri Bure along the boards behind the Sabres' net. Bure, who skates with his head lower than most players, received the right forearm to his chin area and he too went down to the ice with an injury. Peca received a two-minute elbowing penalty and that seemed fitting for the blow to the head.

Peca explained that he was anticipating Bure to be up higher than he was, but the brother of Pavel tends to skate with his head down low.

"He just came there," explained Peca. "He's so low to the ice. It was a case where if it was a bigger guy, I would have been trying to push him in the chest. It was just a case where he's a short guy. Of course, he embellished it."

Bure would not have anything to do with Peca's defense.

"That is totally unacceptable," Bure responded. "I hope our general manager sends the tape in and (Peca) is suspended. He has no respect for other players. He was running around all night doing that kind of stuff. That's how players get concussions."

The Sabres disagree with the latest in a series of controversial decisions handed down by Colin Campbell.

"I've expressed to the league that we strongly disagree with their decision," General Manager Darcy Regier said. "We recognize we're going into the most critical part of our schedule. We have to focus on the games at hand."

Peca agrees.

"As wrong as I think it is, as wrong as the organization thinks it is, our team is in a crucial point in the season. We can't let this be a distraction for us. We have the two most important games of the season coming up, and we have to prepare with what we got."

Unfinished business

On Sunday, Michael Peca reaches the age of 26. He's still young compared to most captains in this league. In fact, when it was rumored that Mark Messier was coming to Buffalo in a trade, Peca said that he would offer Messier the captainship if he did indeed land in Buffalo. That comment caused Peca some grief, and later he probably wished he never had said that. When Gilmour came to Buffalo, it was questioned in some circles how Peca would handle it. In fact, with Gratton also arriving, Buffalo now had three players who were captains. Gilmour was given the locker right next to Peca, probably with the hope that his leadership qualities rubbed off on the young Sabres' C-man.

This year continues to be a big struggle for Peca. He has 17 goals and 19 assists so far. It took a surge for a month right before his shoulder injury to reach that level. It is far off his 27 goals he scored last season. Now with the two-game suspension, Peca may have to bite the bullet and calm the emotions that run rampant inside until he can take the ice again.

Will the suspension have any affect on how he approaches the game? That is the big question in Buffalo and around the league this weekend. Peca's game starts and stops with his ferocious hits. To put a cap on that aspect would be taking away half his firepower, forcing him to play the game with one hand tied behind his back, much like the situation he found himself in late in the game at Washington.

Will the league be ready to crack down on him if he does resume his puissant body slams? And will the opposing players be gunning for him while he's on the ice, ready to avenge all the damage he has inflicted upon them? These questions will be answered quickly once Peca resumes his role as leader of the pack when he steps out on the ice on April Fool's Day against the Montreal Canadiens. Then there's that final regular season game against the Washington Capitals looming on the horizon. Expect Peca and Konowalchuk to go at it once again as Peca has some unfinished business to do in the nation's capital.

In the meantime, Peca will enjoy his cake and ice cream and polish up his steel mask of anguish for another run at the Stanley Cup.

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