Chasing Joe Daley

12 Apr

A guest post by Chris O’Brien

When I was in second grade, the newly-minted Buffalo Sabres selected as the first member of their team a goalie named Joe Daley.  With that move, Punch Imlach, the Sabres’ general manager, set in motion an odyssey which would span forty years for me, finally ending last Friday.

That first season, anything connected to the Sabres had a sense of awe attached to it.  NHL hockey was new and wonderful in Buffalo; for a second grader, a program dad brought home from a game was a treasure to be shown off the next day at school.  I still remember the cover story, “Joe Daley: He Belongs.”  What that meant, I really didn’t know, but I thought it was the best article in the best program ever.

Fast forward to the 1990s.  I finally started playing hockey in a league with a team stocked with defensemen who couldn’t skate backwards and forwards who had trouble going forward.  Goalie for that team?  It was yours truly, but only after the captain promised that if I bought all the equipment, I would play every game, no matter how bad I was (and I was plenty bad).  When we ordered jerseys, there was no question what number I wanted: 30, Joe Daley’s number.  Our team that year resembled the first year Sabres: what we didn’t have in skill, we made up in camaraderie.  I often faced a ton of shots; unlike Daley, I was happy with the occasional save.

After the season was over, a goalie friend of mine begged me for my autographed Grant Fuhr jersey.  I wasn’t a huge Fuhr fan so I agreed, on one condition—that he have a Buffalo Sabres Joe Daley jersey made up for me.

The jersey became kind of a running joke with the guys I grew up with.  They all knew that when they would say, “Joe Daley?”  I would respond with, “He belongs!”  The jersey began to achieve a reputation of its own.  Before going to important Buffalo Bills’ games, I would get the call from a friend, “You wearing the Daley?”  At the games, walking into the stadium, at least two or three voices would yell, “Joe Daley? Great jersey!”  All told, the jersey had a lifetime win-loss-tie record of 21-6-3, including NHL games, NFL playoff games, and one memorable outdoor NHL game. In its later years, the jersey was reserved for only the most important games, as I knew it could only have so much magic in it.

In the back of my mind, I always wondered if I would ever meet the real Joe Daley.  About ten years ago, I found his website, a sports trading card store in Winnipeg, but I never followed through on actually contacting him.  After all, what would I say?  “I’m a 37 year old lawyer who wears your jersey even though you last played for the Sabres thirty years ago.”  Right.  How long until the RCMP would arrive at my door to ask me to please leave Mr. Daley alone.

I guess for a while it was enough for me just to know he was still around.  But then God dropped an out-of-town billionaire named Terry Pegula on the Buffalo Sabres.  It turns out that Pegula had spent years following the Sabres the same way my generation did, listening to the games on the transistor radio.  And what does the new owner do but invite all former Sabres to the last game of the season!

I knew I had to be at the game.  This might be my only chance to actually meet Joe Daley.  The fact that the Sabres needed a point to make the playoffs was important, too, but I was focused on meeting the man behind the jersey.  I called the Sabres to make sure he was coming into town.  I pleaded with a friend to share his tickets with me.  And I suited up for the game, a grey-haired 47 year-old former second grader who only wanted one thing, to meet Joe Daley.

So there I was, in the second period, worried because the Sabres were down 3-2 halfway through the game.  Making the playoffs was starting to look in doubt.  I realized that maybe wearing the jersey wasn’t enough.  Maybe I needed the man himself.

I turned to my friend and said, “Let’s go!”

He looked at me blankly and said, “What?”

“Let’s go, we gotta find Joe Daley!”

It wasn’t just for me anymore, it was for the Sabres—they needed the karma (or so I convinced myself later).

So we walk around the arena, spotting the famous and the near-famous former Sabres who are mingling with the crowd in what is perhaps the best day in the history of the Sabres, for players and fans alike.  But no Joe Daley.

Finally I head to the private box where I see a bunch of former Sabres  watching the game.  Unfortunately, there’s an usher positioned to keep people like me from ruining the former players’ chance to enjoy the game.  In what I can only describe as a Pegula-like move, the usher allows me to approach the box and a Sabres official spots the jersey I am wearing.  He waves me around to the back door, where he welcomes me into a room full of Sabres history .

The next thing I know, I am walking up to a table where there’s a man in his 60s just about to eat a plateful of wings.  “Joe, you’re not going to believe this… “ the Sabres guy says.  The man looks up, sees the jersey I am wearing, jumps out of his seat and literally lifts me off my feet with the biggest bear hug I’ve ever had.

The next ten minutes are a blur of me and Joe Daley.  I tell him about the jersey and its winning record.  I tell him about all the fans through the years who have remembered him.  I tell him about the “Joe Daley” call with the “He Belongs” answer.  And I tell him of the only time I met the late Rick Martin, who at the first game of this season had spotted me wearing a Joe Daley jersey and had come over and shared a beer with me and my friends only because I was wearing that jersey.  Looking at the smile on Daley’s face, I know it’s a close call between which of us is happier, the kid who finally met his idol or the man who now knows he is still remembered forty years after he last played a game in a Sabres’ sweater.  His smile, his bear hug, the joy he has talking hockey: I know I was right to wear this player’s jersey for so many years.  This is a good man.

Being the guy he is, Joe signs my jersey, thereby insuring that the jersey will never be worn again.  He gives me his business card and we agree to keep in touch.  Naturally, the Sabres soon tie the score and make the playoffs.  I met Joe Daley and the Sabres made the playoffs, all in one night.  Could there be anything better?

As I am leaving the arena after the game, I hear people whispering, “Is that Joe Daley?”  I can only think to myself, “No, it’s not.  But it’s pretty great to have you think that I am.”

Chris O’Brien is a partner with the law firm of O’Brien Boyd, LLP.

21 Responses to “Chasing Joe Daley”

  1. Mary April 12, 2011 at 9:19 am #

    Great story. (I too wore #30 as an 8-year-old, for Desjardins.)  

  2. Jesse April 12, 2011 at 9:46 am #

    Brings a tear to the eye.  Awesome story, just awesome.

  3. Eric Saldanha April 12, 2011 at 10:00 am #

    Wonderful story..I’m glad you finally got to meet him.

  4. Brian Castner April 12, 2011 at 11:46 am #

    That’s why I love sports.

  5. Greg April 12, 2011 at 1:52 pm #

    Awesome. Thanks 🙂

  6. lulu April 12, 2011 at 2:06 pm #

    Wonderful story!

  7. Bbill April 12, 2011 at 2:12 pm #

    Joe Daley in action

  8. kbecker April 12, 2011 at 4:39 pm #

    🙂

  9. pirate's code April 12, 2011 at 5:49 pm #

    Great story. Now, if we could only get Taro Tsujimoto to a reunion…

  10. Marc Odien April 12, 2011 at 7:38 pm #

    Dude looks pretty good for being a goalie and not wearing a helmet.  Great Story Chris!

  11. Dan April 13, 2011 at 11:14 am #

    Great story!

    I’d love to have a Korab or Luce jersey, just to buck the French Connection trend.

  12. Andrew Kulyk April 13, 2011 at 2:09 pm #

    Thank you for a magnificent story… Joe Daley is how I fell in love with the Sabres and became a customer for life. 02.13.71… my first game ever in person, I was a little kid and took my little brother with me and we were two wide eyed boys getting the sights and smells of real NHL hockey for the very first time. The Sabres beat the California Golden Seals 3-0 that night, Daley stood on his head and got the shutout. I was a 7th grader and remember every single thing about that magical night.

  13. beekpr1 April 21, 2011 at 9:01 am #

    Living in Winnipeg I was fortunate to be able to see Joe many times during his career with the WHA Jets.

    Guess if I had a story like this it would be about Andre Dawson. But I don’t have my #10 Expos jersey any longer. 😦

  14. Jimbo Morris April 21, 2011 at 9:02 am #

    Wonderful story. One of the positive sports stories. Too bad rabid dogs like Kornheiser and Jim Rome never touch upon the good things. No ratings, huh?
    Saw Joe Daley play many a game with the Winnipeg Jets of the WHA. Daley played in the halcyon era of Anders Hedberg, Bobby Hull, Ulf Nilson, Lars Sjoberg when the WHA Jets were one of the top teams in hockey (NHL, WHA, Russia)

  15. John Tataryn April 21, 2011 at 10:11 am #

    What a wonderful story. I’m from Winnipeg, and grew up in the same neighbourhood Joe Daley did, but didn’t know him personally, as he’s almost 20 years older than I am. However, I remember when he signed with the Winnipeg Jets, one of their first signings in the WHA, and I went to many, many games to watch he and his teammates play. I also met him numerous times during autograph sessions. One of my prized possessions is a program from the last ever WHA game, the final playoff game in 1979 when the Jets beat the Edmonton Oilers…and Wayne Gretzky…for the final Avco Cup Championship. My program is signed by one player only – Joe Daley, the only original Winnipeg Jet still on that final WHA team.

  16. Jim Swail April 21, 2011 at 3:05 pm #

    Great story about one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. I first met Joe when he became a Winnipeg Jet and then got to know him better when he opened his sports card shop. A great guy who always had time to chat and tell great stories of his and fellow players. It’s very nice that he was honored as the “first” Sabre. Way to go Joe!

  17. Gary Schellenberg April 21, 2011 at 5:58 pm #

    I live in Winnipeg and have frequented Joe’s trading card store as I am also a card collector.  He was a great goalie and I also played goal but only at the commercial level.  Love your story and we are all hoping the Jets come back to Winnipeg.  This is a great hockey city.  

  18. Gerald D April 21, 2011 at 8:12 pm #

    Great story. Joe’s a guy that has stayed true to his love of the game for his entire life, even after pro hockey in Winnipeg. I’m happy that you as a fan were able to share some of his passion with him. Let’s
    hope we can watch Buffalo come and play in Winnipeg next year. I’m sure Joe will be there in the stands…Go Jets!

  19. Greg K April 22, 2011 at 12:37 am #

    Love it! Rodger the Dodger Crozier was The Man for me! I can hear Ted Darling calling the play-by-play out of my tube radio under my pillow keeping the Sabres in it late into the 3rd.

  20. John H. April 22, 2011 at 2:31 pm #

    Joe is a terrific guy. I stop by his card shop a couple of times a year and we always have a terrific chat. He has told me that one of the greatest games he ever played was as a Sabre when he faced 72 shots in a 8-2 loss to the mighty Bruins in Boston. He faced 40+ shots in the first two periods in holding the defending champions to a 2-2 draw. Unfortunately, the dam burst in a 30 shot 6 goal third period barrage. The game is referenced in the 2001 edition of the excellent Hockey Compendium by Jeff Z. Klein and Karl-Eric Reif, who coincidentally hail from Buffalo.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. NYHJ Sabres Blog » Blog Archive » News Round-Up: Playoff Hair, Award Nominations and Random Thoughts - April 12, 2011

    […] Random Things: Sabres players are back on Twitter….A great read about one man’s encounter with his childhood favorite Sabres, Joe Daley, at Fan Appreciation Night….Please, oh please, […]

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