BUFFALO, N.Y. — New colours. A new start.
When Josh Gorges reflects on the tougher moments of his summer, particularly the three long days where he was in limbo while the Montreal Canadiens worked through trade scenarios, what he was missing most was direction.
Oh, sure, there was shock and raw emotion. He had poured his heart into the Habs and didn’t want to move on. But even after he expanded his no-trade list to facilitate a deal to Buffalo there was a period where he had to wrap his mind around a new reality with the Sabres.
“It takes some time,” Gorges told Sportsnet on Friday. “I was in Montreal for most of my career and in a day, in a minute, it changes. … You’re searching for answers at the time and you’re going: ‘Why did this happen? Did I do something wrong? Did I piss somebody off?’
“All of these different questions come up in your mind and I don’t think you’ll ever get the right answer, so maybe stop looking for it. I got to the point where I said ‘I don’t know if I want an explanation or I need one.”‘
Essentially, there was a period of mourning — albeit one that ended long before he took the ice here for the first instructional session of training camp.
Gorges moved into the area three weeks ago and started skating with teammates so that it wouldn’t feel quite so foreign to start his first season outside of Montreal since 2007. He has been paired with Tyler Myers, a fellow Kelowna Rockets product, and will be asked to help a young team navigate what promise to be choppy waters.
The Sabres are looking for a fresh outlook after the worst season in the NHL’s salary cap era. Gorges has made a career out of being a steadying presence, so there’s no mystery around where he’s supposed to fit into the puzzle.
“I think he’s going to be a guy that any of the young guys, especially the young defencemen, can go and talk to if they have any concerns or if they even have just questions about a game,” said Myers.
“My job is to be who I am,” added Gorges. “It’s not to try and reinvent myself, to be somebody that somebody else wants me to be. I think the reason that I’ve been able to have any sort of success up to now is because I stayed true to who I am.
“I want to help get this team into that right mindset of what it takes to win and what it takes to win consistently.”
There may not be high expectations for the coming season, but Gorges has four years remaining on his contract. That offers a long enough window of time to imagine being part of something bigger and better in Buffalo. It’s his new driving force.
Just four months ago he was two wins away from competing for the Stanley Cup.
There may not have been another member of the Canadiens who took the loss in the Eastern Conference final harder than Gorges. After Game 6 at Madison Square Garden, he spoke of how few and far between the opportunities are. “You’ve got to think that my career is more than half over and I still haven’t reached that next level,” said Gorges.
He never saw the trade that turned his world upside down coming.
In fact, when agent Kevin Epp phoned him on June 29 he figured it was to check in on his wife Maggie, who was only days away from delivering their son Noah.
“I thought maybe he was just calling to chat,” said Gorges. “When he first told me the news I said ‘OK what do you really want?’ I thought he was just messing with me because we do joke around like that. He says ‘I’m not joking around with you on this — this is the situation.”‘
The original deal would have sent Gorges to the Toronto Maple Leafs, but he wouldn’t remove them from his 15-team no-trade list. Looking at the roster, and thinking about jumping to a rival, he just didn’t see a fit.
Over the next three days — which he describes as the longest of his life — Gorges expanded his list of possible destinations by five and included Buffalo in that group.
The Canadiens wound up receiving a 2016 second-round pick, not to mention more salary cap flexibility, by dealing away a player that many saw as the future captain. The entire experience taught Gorges that “there’s no friends in business,” but there’s no hint of a grudge with his former employer.
“I won’t think anything ill towards that team,” he said. “That team meant a lot to me for a number of years. If it wasn’t for that organization I wouldn’t be where I am today and I thank them for that.
“There’s no time to be sour or upset.”
As we stood chatting in a hallway at First Niagara Center — Gorges sporting a new Sabres zip-up jacket — you could see the same enthusiasm in his expression that had once been commonplace at Bell Centre.
These are optimistic times in the city of Buffalo, with Terry Pegula having recently bought the NFL’s Bills to go with the Sabres, and the veteran defenceman has been thoroughly impressed with the organization so far. His summer may have included some tremendous highs and lows, but his eyes are trained on new sights now.
“It’s like starting all over again,” said Gorges. “I haven’t been with these coaches, with the management, with these players. I’ve got to go out there and earn my position and show what I can do. … I think that’s going to push me to play harder, to work harder, to get better each day.
“There’s that nervous, excited energy that I haven’t felt in awhile. It’s a good day.”