Tuch And Roll

Western New York Native Alex Tuch Enjoys Happy Homecoming In Buffalo
By: 
Bill Hoppe

 

Talk hockey in Western New York and it doesn’t take long for the topic to turn to those high-octane Buffalo Sabres teams of the early 2000s – you remember, the ones led by Daniel Briere, Chris Drury, Ryan Miller and a slew of talented youngsters. 

Bring up the conversation and Alex Tuch starts rattling off his most vivid memories of that golden era.

Tuch remembers just about everything – the rollicking post-lockout playoff runs to the Eastern Conference final in 2006 and 2007, the Presidents’ Trophy they earned as the NHL’s best regular-season team in 2006-07 and the nifty spin-o-ramas by Maxim Afinogenov and Brian Campbell.

“Just those memories of sitting on the couch and watching the game so intently and picturing myself out there is like nothing else,” says the affable Tuch, a winger who joined the Sabres early in the 2021-22 season. 

“Every kid has their favorite team growing up and their favorite players, and mine was the Sabres.”

Growing up in Baldwinsville, a suburb of Syracuse about two and half hours from Buffalo, the Sabres enchanted Tuch.

Besides being a pretty darn good team, they sported those sharp black and red “goat head” uniforms that the Sabres, much to Tuch’s liking, have brought back as a third jersey this season. They had Rick Jeanneret, the legendary play-by-play man whose memorable calls illuminated their success.

They also had a 6-foot-1 center who possessed soft hands and dynamic playmaking skills. His name? Tim Connolly, who happened to grow up next door to the Tuch family in Baldwinsville.

“He loved Tim Connolly, that was his favorite player, and it was his motivation,” recalls Carl Tuch, Alex’s father.

Tuch never had much interaction with Connolly, who’s 15 years older and left town to play junior hockey in the late 1990s. Connolly did, however, once stop and play street hockey with the neighborhood kids during a visit.

But watching Connolly’s exploits with the Sabres helped fuel Tuch’s dream of playing in the NHL someday wasn’t so far-fetched.

“It was like, ‘If Tim Connolly from Syracuse, New York, can make it, I can make it,’” the elder Tuch says. “And he just idolized him as a hockey player.”

To this day, Tuch reveres Connolly.

“I still think that not many people understood how skilled he was,” the 26-year-old says.

Tuch kept his Sabres fandom until 2014, when prior to his freshman year at Boston College, the Minnesota Wild drafted him 18th overall.

Then it was time to move on.

“I watched some amazing teams,” he recalls of the Sabres. “I got to follow some unbelievable players. I got to see some of their successes and failures. Just being a Sabres fan pretty much through and through until pretty much the day I got drafted is something I’ve always cherished.”

Tuch, of course, fully invested himself with the Wild. He left Boston College following his sophomore season and made his NHL debut in 2016-17, playing six games. Months later, the Wild traded him to Vegas Golden Knights on the condition the NHL’s 31st franchise would select Erik Haula in the expansion draft.

In the desert, Tuch’s career blossomed as he developed into a cornerstone as the Golden Knights roared to the Stanley Cup final during their inaugural season.

Still, while he was entrenched in Vegas with a seven-year, $33.25 million contract he signed in 2018, having seen other players return “home” at the end of their career, he wondered if someday he might be able to do that.

“I was like, ‘Oh, that’d be kind of cool, go back home and play for my hometown team and my favorite team growing up,’” Tuch admits. “It was in the back of my mind. Obviously, it happened a lot sooner than thought, because I loved my time in Vegas and you’re always planning on just sticking with the one organization.”

That it happened when Tuch was 25 and not, say, 32, was surprising. But to pry Jack Eichel away from the Sabres on Nov. 4, 2021, the Golden Knights had to send major assets to Buffalo.

“It’s kind of like a dream come true twice, right?” Carl Tuch says. “So, your son’s playing in the NHL, which is, come on, that’s crazy. Think about it. And then playing for the Sabres, which is his dream. So, it’s surreal.”

As general manager Kevyn Adams began rebuilding the Sabres, they sorely needed a player of Tuch’s caliber – a power forward capable of scoring 30 or more goals – to help them compete in the crowded Eastern Conference.

But his value can’t be measured in just goals and assists. In Tuch, the Sabres, a once-proud franchise trying to break an NHL-record 11-year playoff drought, have a passionate personality who relishes playing in Buffalo and being a visible member of the community.

In the wake of so much losing and some high-profile players wanting out of Buffalo, that means something.

“I love it in the sense of you have a guy who wears it on his sleeve,” Sabres coach Don Granato says of Tuch’s passion. “He’s got so much passion and energy for being here and for the people. And for our fans to pick up on that identity that as quick as they did, I think is pretty neat. And so, Alex, he’s another guy, a very genuine, genuine humble person. Lovable guy, and, yeah, he adds a lot to our franchise.”

Fans instantly identified with him, and he has become perhaps the Sabres’ most popular. His No. 89 jersey can be seen all over KeyBank Center.

“It’s a lot of support, it’s a lot of excitement,” Tuch says of what he feels from fans. “The line is, ‘Oh, I’m so happy you’re here.’ I wish they understood how happy I was at the time because I say it and I try to show it, but I don’t think anyone really truly understands. So that’s something I really try to project as much as possible.

“I’m a pretty happy and outgoing person, and I know the fans see I’m having a lot of fun being on this team.”

Tuch has helped transform the Sabres, the NHL’s youngest team, in multiple ways. Through his first 19 games this season, he scored 10 goals, putting him on pace for a career-high 43. He has morphed into a first-line right winger for the Sabres, showcasing terrific chemistry beside center Tage Thompson and Jeff Skinner.

His presence in the dressing room has contributed to the Sabres growing close.

“We’ve, in a way, found a connection with each other, with the city, with being a Sabre and what it means to each individual guy and as a team as a whole,” he says.

Adams said Tuch has “been a breath of fresh air since the day he walked through the room.”

“Just the way he carries himself every day,” Adams says. “He treats people well. He absolutely gets that it’s bigger than just what they do on the ice, in terms of that the people in the community matter and we can invest ourselves as an organization in the community. We can get so much back from the community if we do that.

“And I think he’s just naturally that way, no matter where we would be playing, I think that’s just who he is. But I do think it’s made an impact on our team, especially our young guys.”

 

Bill Hoppe is a freelance writer based in Williamsville, N.Y.
Issue: 
2023-01

Poll

Who is your favorite American player?
Auston Matthews
26%
Jason Robertson
5%
Tage Thompson
17%
Matthew Tkachuk
3%
Patrick Kane
14%
Other
36%
Total votes: 66