By Bill Hoppe
On Oct. 20, a 3.6-magnitude earthquake rattled San Antonio at 4:30 am, waking Tim Kennedy up a little earlier than the former Sabres forward expected. About an hour later, the phone rang.
“You’re coming up,” a Florida Panthers employee told the South Buffalo native.
As Kennedy prepared to fly to Florida, his wife, Janelle, checked the Panthers’ opponent that night.
It was the Sabres.
“I was just like, ‘Oh, great, this is going to be fun,’” Kennedy recalled Saturday morning inside the First Niagara Center prior to the Panthers’ 3-2 win over the Sabres. “It was nice, obviously.”
Kennedy played that night, the first time he had faced the Sabres since they waived him in August 2010
“It was kind of surreal,” Kennedy said about the entire day.
By now, Kennedy’s story is well known. The 25-year-old enjoyed a strong rookie year with the Sabres in 2009-10, compiling 10 goals and 26 points in 78 games.
He took the team to arbitration following the season, earning a one-year, $1 million award. But instead of paying him a salary they deemed too high, the Sabres bought him out.
Saturday marked Kennedy’s first game back in his hometown and just his 11th NHL contest since he left. He was a healthy scratch in Buffalo opening night last season with the New York Rangers, days before they assigned him to the minors.
“It’s not emotional at all,” Kennedy said about his return. “The only time it was emotional was when it first happened. ... Coming back here, (it’s) just like playing in any other arena, except you have some of your friends and family watching you.”
Kennedy has one close supporter watching him every day now, and his presence could jump-start a sputtering career.
Kevin Dineen, Kennedy’s AHL coach in Portland three years ago, is now Florida’s head man. Last season, when Dineen still coached Buffalo’s affiliate, he kept tabs on Kennedy, sending him a letter and talking to him frequently after games.
“Because he was my coach my first year, we kind of had a little bond,” Kennedy said. “He would tell me just to keep going, there are some rules in this league that aren’t the best, but you just have to keep fighting. So that’s what happened.”
Dineen added: “At the end of the day you (can) talk about you’re a victim, ‘Woe is me,’ and I think that’s not Timmy’s makeup,” Dineen said. “I think the way he played when he was in Hartford, I was very impressed to see how he had a game face whenever he was playing down there and how hard he was playing at the American League level.
“What can you do but take care of your own business?” Dineen asked.
It wasn’t easy for Kennedy. The Rangers wanted to keep him, but salary-cap concerns forced them to send him to the AHL and keep him in Connecticut.
“That wasn’t a good experience,” Kennedy said. “It was just a bunch of stuff with the CBA — I don’t want to say lies on their part — there’s stuff that came out. They’re a team that’s up against the cap and they wouldn’t put me on re-entry (waivers) because even though my contract’s so low, even the slightest bit would put them over the cap, and they didn’t want to risk that. So (I got) stuck in the minors the whole year no matter what.”
Finally, they traded Kennedy in February, and he played six games with the Panthers. He was the last player sent down before this season.
“He had to go down there and make sure he was one of top options for call-up,” Dineen said. “Obviously, I’ve got a history with him. But at the end of the day you’re looking for the best guy to help your lineup.”
Kennedy added: “They’re just a young team on the rebuild. They’re looking for young guys that can contribute for years to come. They’re giving me a chance here, and I’m going to show them what I have, show them I can stick with the team.”
Sabres center Jochen Hecht (concussion) practiced Saturday morning, a day after a headache forced him off the ice.
Hecht saw a chiropractor Friday.
“(We’re) trying to figure out if maybe some of his problems are stemming from neck issues,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “It’s a little bit of a gray area. You don’t know. Patty Kaleta dealt with it, Tim Connolly dealt with it. I think it’s helped some of our players.”
Hecht, who had been practicing fully recently, was concussed early in training camp. He hasn’t played yet this season.
“I feel a week good, and all of a sudden I got this headache then a couple days ago,” Hecht said.
Notes: Ruff on what he sees from Brian Campbell, his former ace defenseman now a Panthers star: “Big, red, curly locks. I said to him, ‘Get a haircut’ when I saw him.” ... Ruff on the defense swap he recently made, putting Andrej Sekera beside Christian Ehrhoff and Jordan Leopold with Marc-Andre Gragnani: “Andrej had played well enough I wanted him to have that extra ice.” ... The Sabres also scratched winger Tyler Ennis (ankle) and defenseman Mike Weber (healthy).