Rick Dudley

Fans of the Buffalo Sabres could be excused for disliking the World Hockey Association. The rebel league hit most NHL teams hard with its player raids. One of the more shocking steals was when the Cincinnati Stingers signed fan favorite Rick Dudley away from the Stanley Cup finalists Sabres in the summer of 1975.

Rick, a natural athlete who didn't start playing ice hockey until his late teen years, was a later bloomer who had to overcome a serious leg injury early in his career. The Sabres took a chance on the youngster in 1971, and let him recover and develop with their American Hockey League farm team, which was ironically located in Cincinnati. By 1972-73 Rick had not only fully recovered from the injury, but emerged as a top player in the AHL. He scored 40 goals and 84 points, and was well known for his pugnacious style of play.

Rick made the jump to the National Hockey League in 1973-74, where he was spotted through a rookie season which featured 13 goals and 26 points by the left winger. However in his second NHL season Rick emerged as a fan favorite and real key to the Sabres success. With his vigorous skating and energetic checking, it was easy to like the hard working Rick. He added a level of abrasiveness which gave the Sabres a bit of an edge which perhaps they lacked previously on their forward units. He played with great passion, and it rubbed off infectively on his teammates. Rick, a former professional lacrosse star once described as "the world's best lacrosse player, also emerged as a scoring sensation that season, picking up 31 tallies, 27 of which were at even strength. His 70 points was good enough to place him 5th on the Sabres scoring chart.

The Sabres made a great run in the 1975 playoffs, making it all the way to the Stanley Cup finals. The Sabres, one of hockey's top teams by this point, ousted the Chicago Black Hawks in the first round before pulling an upset victory over the powerful Montreal Canadiens in round 2, setting up a Stanley Cup final between the Sabres and the Philadelphia Flyers. The Sabres were impressive on home ice but couldn't win in Philadelphia, and ultimately were shutdown by the great goaltending of Bernie Parent. Dudley was only able to play in 10 of the 17 Sabres games due to injury. One has to wonder if Rick had been perfectly healthy if his exuberance perhaps could have created some timely scoring chances.

Even though the Sabres lost to the Flyers in 6 games, fans of the Sabres were excited about their team. The French Connection - a line consisting of Gilbert Perreault, Rene Robert and Richard Martin - were a top line in the league, while the checking line of Craig Ramsey, Don Luce and Danny Gare were also tremendously effective, while the defense corps was big and mean. Dudley's emergence as a new hero excited fans even more.

Fans were disappointed to learn that Rick would not return to the Sabres in 1976-77 to chase that Stanley Cup. Rick instead signed a large contract with the Cincinnati Stingers of the WHA. Rick, who was already a fan favorite from his minor league days in the city, would be a top player for the Stingers for 3 and 1/2 seasons, twice scoring 40-plus goals and 80-plus points while delivering his aggressive style of take no prisoners play. The Sabres meantime remained as a top NHL team in the regular season, but never could find the magic once again in the playoffs. Perhaps Dudley's energy and enthusiasm could have helped in that regard.

The Stingers, like the rest of the WHA, fell into financial trouble by 1978-79 and were looking to dump Rick's contract. The Sabres re-acquired Rick by agreeing to take over the remainder of the contract. Sabres fans were excited to have one of their favorites back in the lineup.

Rick, who was a health food nut and operated a natural foods store in Cincinnati, returned and played the same style that he always did, although his penalty minutes would be down significantly as he matured as a player. But his offense which had been a big part of his game in the previous half-decade had dried up at the same time. He scored just 5 goals and 11 points in 24 games upon returning to the Sabres for the remainder of 1978-79 season.

Dudley scored 11 goals and 33 points in 1979-80, and scored 10 goals and 23 points in 28 games with the Sabres before the Buffalo Sabres exposed Rick on waivers. The Winnipeg Jets snatched up Rick, who played in 30 games with the Jets, scoring 5 goals and 10 points, to round out his National Hockey League career.

Rick turned to the management side of the game several years after his playing career was over. He would become head coach of the Sabres in 1989-90, immediately sparking a noted improvement in the Sabres record. Dudley's Sabres post 45 wins and a.613 winning percentage but were ousted in the first round of the playoffs. Rick would continue to coach the Sabres for a season and a half. He would later go on to hold jobs as the General Manager of both the Ottawa Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning.


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