BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — You know the voice, but do you know the story? Friday, the famous voice heard in Sabres games for more than 50 years, Rick Jeanneret will have his name hung in the rafters at KeyBank Center. But before his historic night, News 4 caught up with the Buffalo broadcasting legend.
It’s starting to hit him that he’s got just one month left until retirement.
“It’s sinking in,” Jeanneret said. “Maybe I just deliberately pushed it away from my mind up until now, but when you have the night that’s coming up on Friday, then you have to start thinking about it.”
For five decades, RJ called the careers of some of the greatest players in not just Buffalo history, but hockey history as well. Soon he’ll see his name alongside them. It brings a lot of emotion to the Sabres legend.
“All good ones,” RJ said. “Not so much that my name is up there, but just that it’s up there next to guys like that, who I admired very much. Wasn’t just that I broadcast their games. I admired the way they played and I think of, and I’ve often said, while he played in Buffalo, Dominik Hasek was the greatest goaltender I ever saw put on a pair of pads. And I think of [Gilbert] Perreault and the [French] Connection and Patty La La [Pat LaFontaine] and Danny Gare. It’s a special feeling, but again I’m not sure what kind of feeling it is. By 7:30 on Friday night I’ll have a better idea.”
51 years in the booth with the same team. R-J’s the longest-tenured play-by-play broadcaster in NHL history, and he cherishes every day with the Sabres.
“There’s only 30 jobs in the world,” RJ said. “That’s all there is and it’s been pretty good. “It’s treated me well. It’s been a nice life to live. I respect the job and the people who listen and watch I know respect me and again that’s something I’m going to have to think about in the next couple of days as to what’s going to happen on Friday emotionally. Basically, I don’t know what’s going to happen because they haven’t told me. It’s a secret they kept from me.”
A half-century in the same job doesn’t start without a first step, and believe it or not, famous calls like “May Day” almost never happened. He started his career as a DJ doing a morning show and had no intention of ever doing play-by-play hockey, until one night in the 1960s.
“I was at a junior game one night to watch it and I was sitting downstairs, and just before the game, a fellow in the press box came and said ‘hey do you know anything about doing play-by-play?’ I said ‘why?’ The guy said ‘our guy got sick. Somebody’s got to do it.’ I said ‘well I guess we’re going to find out then, aren’t we?’ So I went up and did it and we’ve been rolling ever since.
Not long after that, he took over as the lead play-by-play man for the Sabres, and he didn’t anticipate being here as long as he was.
“I knew from the start that I was going to be ok and that things were going to turn out alright,” RJ said. “I didn’t know I was going to be here for 51 years. I had no idea of that.”
51 years led to plenty of classic moments and even more classic calls.
“90 percent of them are spontaneous or were spontaneous at the time,” RJ said. “I get asked all the time, how many times did you say May Day? I said May Day I don’t know how many times, but I was saying it until I could think of something else to say, that was basically all it is. The spontaneity is very much a part of me.”
Friday is RJ’s night, but he still has a month left before his actual retirement. When asked about his life after the Sabres, he wasn’t sure what he would do once he retires.
“The problem is after 51 years of doing this I don’t have any hobbies,” RJ said. “I don’t even play golf anymore, I did but I was awful, but I played and I enjoyed playing. Maybe I’ll have to pick up the clubs again. I don’t know.”
April 29 will be Rick Jeanneret’s final game as Sabres announcer. “Sabres announcer” is a title he prefers to be called, not “Voice of the Sabres”
“I get introduced a lot as the voice of the Sabres and I make it very very clear that I am not the voice of the Sabres, Ted Darling was the voice of the Sabres, and that should go to his grave with him,” RJ said. “I’m a Sabres announcer.”
For 51 years, this Sabres announcer called thousands of games and dozens of classic moments. With those moments came some great calls that people remember to this day. While RJ wouldn’t share his favorite call of all time, he would share a favorite moment of his. It happened in 2006 after the Sabres lost to Carolina Hurricanes in game seven of the Eastern Conference finals.
“I went down and I went around the room and shook everybody’s hand because it had been a wild season,” RJ said. “It was awesome, what a great ride. I got around to Ryan Miller last and he looked at me and I looked at him and we both broke out crying. That was the most emotional day I ever had broadcasting hockey games. I just got so invested in that team because they were underdogs. They were just overdoing themselves each and every night. Then it finally came to the end and they’ve got no defense left. Lindy Ruff had nothing to work with. They all were trying, it just fell a tiny bit short.”
RJ’s seen a lot in his days as a play-by-play man for the Sabres, and he’s mentioned retirement in years past, but there’s one thing that always kept him coming back.
Playoffs. Honestly, I might have been gone a couple of years ago, but I was thinking this team was going to make the playoffs again. I was hanging my hat on that, and it has not happened, so now I have to give up, but now I’m on my way out this time and they are getting very very close. I have all the confidence in the world in Kevyn Adams doing his job and Donny Granato who has done a wonderful job behind the bench and has all the respect of the players. I think they’re right there. It’s gonna happen.
While he may not get to call a playoff game in his final season, it’s no question the famous calls and famous moments from Rick Jeanneret will live on in the memories of Sabres fans for years to come. While he’s meant a lot to the Sabres fans and the franchise, they’ve meant just as much to a young man from Ontario.
“Everything,” RJ said when asked what the Sabres meant to him. “My entire adult life has been in airplanes and hotels on the road all the time, traveling. Every season doing exactly the same thing. The nice thing about it is that there’s no two hockey games that are alike so it’s never boring.”
His last night on-air is April 29, one that’s sure to be emotional for him and his fans.
“Haven’t even thought about it,” he said with a smile. “I will think about it, but not yet. I’ve got too many games left.”
Paul Stockman is a sports reporter who joined the News 4 team in 2020. See more of his work here.