Buffalo, N.Y. (WGR 550) – The Buffalo Sabres were back at practice on Thursday, relieved from the positive news tweeted out by the Buffalo Bills about Damar Hamlin.
Before their game with the Washington Capitals on Tuesday, the team met in the morning to talk about their emotions, and about what happened to Hamlin on Monday in Cincinnati.
“We collective sat, and we don’t know how everybody is going to feel when they see what happened to Damar," said Sabres head coach Don Granato. "You think about his family and the team, and you think of your own vulnerabilities. So we have taken a lot of pride in open dialog, and players being able to share how they feel about things with us.”
Granato knew going into the game on Tuesday all that was on the players' minds, because there’s such a deep care for each other and the community that they’re in.
Granato has been a head coach for almost 30 years, so he’s seen and experienced a lot. He knows Bills head coach Sean McDermott, and saw on TV the coach going through all this in real time. He thought about it a lot since Monday.
“In some respects, I can imagine it and others, no I can’t imagine. It’s the intensity and the immenseness. No, I can’t imagine all of that," Granato said honestly.
“As coaches, you’re in situations where you’re supposed to be this leader, and the culture is this, and the head coach is never vulnerable and all knowledgeable. These are situations where everyone feels vulnerable, but I do know enough about Sean and the leadership there that the culture there is ready for stress well. I’ve been around coach McDermott enough to see that.”
Coaches have changed over the years, and coaches are more willing than they were in the past to show their feelings. Granato says if you’re not real with your players, you're not going to be able to get them to follow you.
“When I started coaching, you couldn’t be vulnerable, your team would react differently. Now in the world we live in today and if you're in the position of authority as a head coach of a team, if you act like you’re not vulnerable, I don’t think your players will trust you. It’s OK to be vulnerable,” Granato said.
As the captain of the team, Kyle Okposo wanted to be the first to speak on Thursday about Hamlin and his teammates. Okposo is one of the finest leaders I’ve been fortunate to be around in my career. The players had heard about the good news on Hamlin, because the Bills' tweet on the subject was up on the video screen in the locker room.
“It’s great to see a positive update," said Okposo after practice. "I just think sports is woven into the fabric of our society, and it has such a major impact on a lot of people’s lives. At times, you can forget that there’s human beings in the sport, and to have something like this happen on one of the nation’s biggest stages is scary. It had me personally kind of thinking about a lot of things, and about different times where I’ve seen situations similar. It puts a little bit of doubt in your head, and it causes a little bit of fear, a little bit of anxiety. We have a team that’s willing to talk about all those things, and we did that together as a group.”
Many of the Sabres players are friends with different members of the Bills. They go to each other’s games, and they’re even in the locker room afterwards.
"When something like this impacts people that are close to you, it’s a scary thing," Okposo said. "You just feel for those people, and I’ve tried to respect their privacy. You just send them your best, and hope they can heal from this.”
As this played out on national television, the raw emotion and how scared the players were for their fallen brother was there for all to see. Okposo could see how difficult it had to be for them.
“To watch a teammate, somebody that you spend almost every day with, I can’t imagine the emotional trauma," he said. "I mean, you could see it all over their faces and in that moment. You really do realize that underneath all that equipment and underneath the helmet are people, and people that care and have emotions just like everybody else. Things like that affects us as athletes just like it affects everybody else, and those players should be allowed to grieve and heal in the appropriate way.”
Tage Thompson had a hat-trick in Tuesday’s game, including the overtime winner. The Sabres were able to provide Western New York with a distraction on that difficult day.
“We have a lot of guys that truly do love the City of Buffalo, and whatever we can do away from the rink to help the community when it's hurting, we're going to do," said Thompson. "This is home for me and for everyone in this room, so they want to take care of their home and the people around it."
After Thompson scored the overtime winner, many things came together, as it pertained to Hamlin's No. 3.
Thompson says it certainly wasn't a coincidence.
"I'm a big believer in God, and I think that's a sign," he said. "I don't think he can make up something quite like that. So I think prayer is a powerful thing, and that's really all you can do in this situation."
The Sabres said Thursday defenseman Henri Jokiharju has begun rehab skates on his own. He's been nursing a lower-body injury since blocking a shot.
Buffalo will host the Minnesota Wild on Saturday night.