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Rick Jeanneret’s Voice Gave Buffalo Hope

Veteran broadcasters Harry Neale (left) and Rick Jeanneret (right) of the Buffalo Sabres get ready for their game
Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

My brother and I loved the Super Chexx Bubble Hockey Table. There was one at the Chuck E. Cheese where we and our friends always had birthdays. The roughly-colored red-white and blue-white figures on the flat plastic rink evoked a birthday cake topped with hockey-themed candles—another familiar sight for kids growing up in Buffalo. Though other machines were much more lucrative, ticket-wise, there was always a line to play the Super Chexx Bubble Hockey Table, meaning the din of the laughing children, beeping arcade machines, compressed engine sounds, and growling ski-balls was always punctuated by the bubble hockey announcer periodically shouting, “Aaand the game is underway!”

It was the voice of hockey. It was the voice of Buffalo. It was the voice of Rick Jeanneret, who died last Thursday at the age of 81.

It may seem strange that a mass-manufactured arcade machine would use the voice of a Western New York sports announcer, but it actually makes perfect sense. Even if you don’t recognize the voice, it's perfect. It has excitement in every word, the ideal AM radio pitch and timbre, the slight cracking when a sudden save or near-miss happens. It’s a little wilder and more nasal than what you might immediately conjure in your head at the phrase “perfect broadcaster voice,” but I assure you, the voice in your head was wrong. Rick’s voice, even when confined to the limited vocabulary of a bubble hockey sound card, carried in it an entire sport.

Bubble hockey, of course, is very different from an actual hockey game, and hearing Rick Jeanneret call a hockey game live was like nothing else in the world. The range of his voice was operatic; even a non-English speaker would be able to follow a Sabres game on the radio based purely on the musical crescendos of Rick’s voice. This fact dawned on me when I was eight and played NHL 2004 on my friend’s Gamecube for the first time. Something was off. The announcer, why did he sound like that? Where’s the real announcer? Who is this pretender who thinks he can do the real announcer’s job? That was the first time I became acutely aware of Rick Jeanneret.

RJ, as he was affectionately called by colleagues and friends, was the Buffalo Sabres’ play-by-play announcer for 51 years, starting in the team’s second season and retiring last year. Besides his voice, he was known for his signature red suspenders, uncanny resemblance to Rodney Dangerfield, and, most of all, his unrivaled play-by-play abilities.

A great broadcasting voice only gets you so far, after all. What truly matters is what you say with it, and Rick had an almost supernatural ability to say the exact perfect thing. Half-poet, half-comedian and all-broadcaster, a Rick ad-lib could elevate a play from great to fantastic, or from fantastic to world-historical. Ask any hockey fan from Buffalo their favorite Rick-ism and watch their face light up. I’ll recount a few of my favorites here.

Sabres great Alexander Mogilny, who had previously stated that he hated flying for away games, scored one of his signature split-second goals, gunning past the center line, dodging three defenders, and putting it in before you could even blink. Rick’s call: “Who says this guy is afraid to fly? He left a vapor trail!”

Another iconic call, and perhaps the most well-known Rick-ism, came whenever a Sabre scored with a wrist shot to the top part of the net. Even if you don’t watch hockey or aren’t a Sabres fan it's something you may have heard before: “Top shelf, where momma hides the cookies!”

In 2006, a rare and wonderful thing happened: The Sabres were good. Danny Briere, Chris Drury, Thomas Vanek, and Maxim Afinogenov, helped form a veritable dream team. Because they were the Sabres, and they’d started mediocre, it was an eye-opener for the rest of the NHL when the team blazed through the heart of the regular season to secure a playoff spot. Then it was a surprise when the team beat the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round. Then it was an all-out shocker when they started thrashing the top seed in the East, the Ottawa Senators. In one of those games against the Sens, after a short-handed goal by Jason Pominville, Rick made the call, an admonishment of everyone who had the Sabres written off before the playoffs even started: “Now do you believe?! Now do you believe?! These guys are good! Scary good!” Goosebumps, all throughout Buffalo.

The Sabres would go on to lose Game 7 of the conference finals to the eventual champion Hurricanes. They made it back to round three the following season but haven’t won a playoff series since. They haven’t even appeared in the postseason since 2011. For over 50 years, the Stanley Cup has eluded this franchise. My grandfather used to jokingly call them “The Buffalo Losers.” 

You would never be able to tell listening to Rick’s commentary, though. Even through the worst losses, as the irrelevant years compounded and many fans gave up, Rick’s excitement at a big save or a futile goal would never waver. Rick would bear all that painful hope for us, always, just waiting for the next upswing when we could all hope along with him again. He was the voice of hockey. He was the voice of Buffalo. And he was the voice of hope. To once more quote Rick Jeanneret, who gave almost biblical gravitas to a Wayne’s World line after a particularly amazing save by Dominik Hasek: “Oh brother, we are not worthy!”

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