'Class' is difficult to define in hockey.
In terms of what qualifies as "classy," I readily accept that I'm an 'older' hockey fan, one tied to the antiquated ideas of pugnacity and truculence prized by Brian Burke. When I think of the Avalanche of the early 2000s, I think of a soft team that had to dress Peter Worrell to protect them from the Canucks and retribution for a cheapshot. I DO NOT think of them as victims of some unforeseeable tragedy or Todd Bertuzzi's goonish approach to the game.
And while I enjoy the new NHL, and the exodus of many of its slow-footed goons, I cringe at the idea of 30 rosters devoid of grit. Ideally, after the rule changes following the most recent Lockout, I wanted to see the rise of big, tough players, who played the game on the edge and could protect themselves. And that's how I tend to think of the Corey Perry's and Ryan Getzlaf's of the world. I don't expect any of the younger fans to agree.
Still, I think I can spot a classy team. The 1998-99 Buffalo Sabres, for example . . .
Now, if you're of the mind that no team gainfully employing a goon or a pest can be a classy team, then you'll immediately point out that the Sabres had goons and pests: Rob Ray, Vaclav Varada and Matthew Barnaby (before he was traded). But in the East, where I hope a line brawl will always be the preferred method of dispute resolution, Rob Ray is just the cost of doing business.
And ultimately, the team hung its collective hat (and hopes) on Dominik Hasek, who was coming off his second consecutive Hart Trophy after a 72 game, 13 shutout season. You can throw other names into the discussion (and I will), but no one ever does. If you played in Buffalo during the Dominator's era, then you did your work-- for some, their best work --under the cover of a large, goalie-shaped shadow.
Hasek pulled their feet from the fire on countless occasions, but every netminder does in a deep playoff run. Ultimately, it took more than the man with a Slinky for a spine to keep moving forward in the postseason, and that team had it. They were the first longshot I ever bet would win the Stanley Cup Finals before the playoffs started, and for good reason.
Going into the postseason, the first thing that caught my eye was the acquisition of Joe Juneau and Stu Barnes. Acquiring players who narrowly missed the Cup is always a good idea. And up until that point, I believe the only player on the Buffalo roster that fit that bill was Alexei Zhitnik, who was a young defenseman on the '93 Kings team. Like any longshot, you want to pull for anyone looking for a second chance.
And in the realm of second chances, the Sabres also had the token NCAA forward, Dixon Ward, a former NoDak senior who was finally finding a way to stick in the NHL. I was probably pulling for him most of all, and a strong playoff performance, for the second consecutive year, didn't let me down.
That's not to say that any player on the team could draw offensive attention away from Miroslav Satan, whose 40 goal season was just as important as Hasek's dominance in getting his team to warm weather hockey, but in the end, it was players like Ward, Barnes, and Curtis Brown that kept playoff games close for the Buffalo goaltender.
On the blueline, I loved the way Zhitnik and Smehlik moved the puck, but I also loved the way Jay McKee moved rib cages. It's true that playoff teams need offense from their bluelines (and Zhitnik's 4 goals and 15 points were evidence of that), but they also need defense from their bluelines.
And maybe the most valuable defense came from the Captain, Michael Peca. Of all the players on that team looking for a second chance and looking for a place to stick, Peca was my favorite. The Selke Trophy winner embodied the ethos of a team that was outmanned in skill players, outgunned in offense and looking to ride a hot goaltender farther than any team should.
I think fondly on the 98-99 Sabres. On the back of a dominant goaltender, they swept the 2nd seeded Senators from the 7 hole, downed Boston in 6, bounced Toronto in 5 and were robbed of a Cup at the moment of truth. In a sense, they were my first glimpse of the 2002-03 Ducks.
I bet on them, too. Some teams, the classy ones, make you.