No one is enjoying the new NHL more than Daniel Briere. Freed from the clutching and grabbing, the 29-year-old Sabres forward is now rocketing his way into the upper echelon of the league and he's taking the Sabres with him.
In this edition of Facing Off, the Sabres co-captain tells us how early NHL rejections helped him turn his career around, why he and Broadway Joe have something in common and which NHL star he hopes to be skating with at next month's All-Star Game.
Question from David Amber: Growing up, who was your favorite player?
Answer from Daniel Briere: I had three players that I would say were my favorites. Wayne Gretzky was obviously one of them for everything he did for hockey. I grew up a Habs fan, so Mats Naslund was another favorite. He was their main offensive weapon and a small guy, like me, so I loved watching him play, and Pat LaFontaine because he is a smaller guy who played in the Quebec junior league. All these guys I could look up to and say, "If they could survive at their size and be stars in the NHL, maybe I can, too."
Q: Your size was always questioned. At 17, playing junior hockey, how big were you?
A: My first year of junior, I was 140 pounds at training camp. I was playing against guys who were 200, 220 pounds. I was small, but it was something I was never afraid of. It didn't matter to me how big they were. I knew I wasn't there to fight those guys or outmuscle them. I learned how to play against big guys. Every once and a while, I got crunched, but I did pretty well staying out of trouble.
Q: NHL scouts said you were as talented as any player going into your draft year. How much was your size held against you?
A: It was held against me a lot. Now, with the new rules, it's starting to change a little bit more, but in the 1990s, the theme was "the bigger, the better." GMs thought if you could find a guy who is 6-foot-4, you could work with this guy and make him a player, where a guy who is 5-foot-8, 150 pounds, they thought it would be hard to get height on him and add weight. For me personally, it was a good thing. I had a lot of people tell me that if I were 6 feet tall, I would have been the first overall draft pick, so I always had motivation to prove people wrong, people who said I was too small to play at the next level.
A: I really wasn't thinking about it, I was just happy and surprised to be taken in the first round. For me, the toughest thing was when I cleared waivers in my fourth year in the NHL, when every single team passed me by. That was probably the lowest point of my career. That was a big blow to my ego because you realize that nobody wants you. At the same time, it was a wake up call that I needed to change some things. My goal after that was to prove everyone made a mistake, so that's been my attitude since then.
Q: What was your first NHL game like?
A: It was crazy, just a dream coming true for me. I was playing for Phoenix and I played against the Avs and Patrick Roy. I was overwhelmed at first, just looking at the stands, looking around the dressing room. It was really cool.
Q: What was the best part?
A: Actually, my best memory was my first NHL goal. It was my second game, we were in L.A. and I got a pass from Mike Gartner coming down the wing, and I one-timed it past Stephane Fiset. That was the proudest moment of my life. The only problem was I separated my shoulder later in the game, so it was a great high followed by a bit of a low.
Q: Alexander Ovechkin gave you a shot from behind a few days ago and got kicked out of the game. What happened there?
A: We got stuck in our zone chasing the puck for a while. Finally, I got the puck, dumped it out and I skated to our bench, and about 3 or 4 seconds after I dumped the puck, I got hit from behind. I had no clue anyone was coming, so I wasn't protecting myself. It was a very gutless play on his part, I was defenseless, I couldn't protect myself, I couldn't see him because he was coming from behind. At the same time, I have to do a better job protecting myself, so I take some of the blame, too.
Q: You fell right into the door of the players' bench. It looked pretty bad. Has Ovechkin contacted you since that incident?
A: No, I didn't hear from him at all. And to be honest with you, I was very surprised that a guy like Ovechkin would hit me like that. I didn't think he was a dirty player, maybe it was just a bad reaction on his part. I hope it was just one of those moments that happens, when you're young and all full of energy and you don't realize what you're doing. We need to eliminate hits like that from the league.
Q: You have three sons who all play hockey. What's that like for you?
A: Well, our youngest is 5, and we also have an 8- and a 7-year-old. They keep us busy. My wife goes crazy sometimes because she gets them to all their games and they try to get to my games, too. We are definitely a hockey family. All three are decent players here, but I just tell them to work hard and have fun. I don't care if they make it to the NHL or not. At this age, it's all about having fun. We try and push other sports on them to get them to try different things.
Q: Three boys. So are you and your wife now angling to get that elusive daughter?
A: [Laughs.] Our last one was our last try. They are a lot of fun, but we need to stop at three. They are a handful [laughs].
Q: If you weren't playing hockey, what job would you have?
A: I don't know, that's a tough question. I like dealing with numbers, so maybe something in the financial industry. I don't have much background in that field, but it's something that would interest me.
Q: You can make a pretty good living as an investment banker. Not as good as a hockey player, but still pretty good.
A: Yeah [laughs]. Sounds good. Right now, we'll stick to hockey and we'll see what happens down the road.
Q: You have scored 140 goals in your career, but you've never had a hat trick. Why not? [Editor's note: Ironically, Briere recorded his first career hat trick on Tuesday night, a few days after this interview took place.]
A: [Laughs.] I don't know, hopefully it will come one day. I'm one of those guys who just can't find it, find the way to get the third one. I just don't have those big nights. I think once I had a four-point night. I don't know how to explain it. Chris Drury and I were laughing at the start of the season because he got his first hat trick early on, and he told me it took him more than 500 games to get his, and now I'm at over 400 games and I still don't have it.
Q: Who do you think is the most offensively gifted player in the game right now?
A: I'd have to say [Jaromir] Jagr. It's not just one season or two seasons that he's been doing it, he's been around for so many years. He's a big guy with soft hands, he can pass as well as he can shoot. I would say that, overall, he's as gifted as anyone in the game right now.
Q: Who do you room with on the road?
A: Marty Biron.
Q: What's that like?
A: [Laughs.] Lots of talking. Marty never shuts up, he's a motor mouth. But the best thing about Marty is that he one of the most positive guys I have ever been around and he never has anything bad to say about anybody. He is a refreshing guy to be around, always positive. He is a laid-back guy, so he's easy to room with. It's funny, everyone used to tell me, "Oh, boy, you're with Marty. He's never going to shut up, you'll never get any sleep." But he's great to be around and we have a lot of fun.
Q: I read a couple of weeks ago that during a game against the Leafs, you made a promise to teammate Michael Ryan. What happened there?
A: [Laughs.] I was basically trying to cheer him up. It was his first NHL game and he was back-checking and he lost the puck in front of our net and basically shot it into our own net. He was devastated. Everybody felt bad for him, so after the second period, I leaned over and said, "Don't worry about it. We'll win the game and that's all you'll remember from your first NHL game." And that's exactly what happened.
Q: C'mon, you are downplaying this. I read you guaranteed the win and then scored the game-winning goal in the third.
A: [Laughs.] Yeah well, I was just at the right place at the right time.
Q: Any more guarantees you want to make for this season?
A: I wish I could, but I'm going to keep that for myself.
Q: You're near the league leaders in assists and points. Does Daniel Briere deserve to be an All-Star this year?
A: [Laughs.] Well, it's not up to me to decide that. I would certainly love to go, there's no doubt about that. It would be a great honor to be able to represent the Sabres there. I watched a lot of All-Star Games growing up and just getting the chance to mingle with all the other stars around the league would certainly be a lot of fun and something I would be proud of.
Q: Is there one player in particular you would love to get a chance to play with in that format?
A: Sidney Crosby impresses me a lot. At the age he's at, you watch him play and he looks like he's been around the league for 10 years. The way he handles pressure and all the demands he faces both on and off the ice is really amazing. He is such a complete player and so effective, that's what impresses me the most. He never seems to make mistakes, so to get to play with him would be nice.
Q: After all those Super Bowl losses from the Bills, and the fact they haven't made the playoffs in a few seasons, have the Sabres become Buffalo's team?
A: I don't know if we're more popular than the Bills, but we're certainly up there. This is clearly a hockey town. Everywhere we go around town, people are excited about the team, going crazy for the Sabres. You definitely feel like the city is behind us, they believe in us and the atmosphere has changed totally since my first game here.
Q: Aside from hockey, are you a sports fan?
A: Oh, yeah. I love baseball and the NFL. I grew up an Expos fan, but now that the team is gone, I am an Arizona Diamondbacks fan. A few years ago, when I played for Phoenix, Mark Grace invited me to take batting practice with the team. It was fun, but I didn't hit any home runs.
Q: Warning-track power?
A: Not exactly, but I hit a few into the outfield. Man, hitting is tough. Robin Yount was pitching to me, so it was really cool, one of the best things I've had the chance to do.
ESPN reporter David Amber is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.