By Bill Hoppe
BUFFALO — Travis Turnbull said he never stopped believing he’d crack the NHL someday. Still, the odds looked stacked against the undrafted center. The Sabres possess a slew of talented youngsters and high-priced veterans in Rochester.
The 25-year-old Turnbull’s name has rarely popped up as a prospect since he was inked out of the University of Michigan in 2009.
The Sabres had already summoned six forwards from the AHL this season when Turnbull’s phone rang Tuesday night. It was Rochester coach Ron Rolston.
“I kind of had the feeling that was why he was calling me,” Turnbull said Wednesday inside the First Niagara Center prior to making his NHL debut in the Sabres’ 3-0 win over the Montreal Canadiens. “It was probably the best thing I’ve ever heard in my life.”
Eight Sabres have made their first NHL appearance this season. Turnbull called making the big leagues “so surreal.”
“The feeling is nothing that I’ve never really felt before,” he said. “It’s something that each and every one of us has worked our entire life (for). To finally be here and get an opportunity to play for the Sabres is unbelievable.”
The first person Turnbull called after receiving the special news? His father, Perry Turnbull, who played 608 NHL games with St. Louis, Montreal and Winnipeg in the 1970s and 80s.
“He was pretty excited. He didn’t act like he was that excited, but I know he was,” Travis Turnbull said. “He was just kind of like, ‘That’s awesome. I’m so happy for you and proud of you.’”
Patrick Kaleta’s injury (upper body) necessitated the recall. Turnbull, 6-feet and 193 pounds, showcases a similar physical style to the hard-hitting winger.
“I just try to bring a lot of energy, be physical, good defensively and also I can score some goals, too,” said Turnbull, who had 12 goals, 27 points and 94 penalty minutes in 53 games with Rochester.
Kaleta, who missed some shifts Monday, is “probably more than day-to-day,” Ruff said, so Turnbull could receive more than a one-game audition. He played between Brad Boyes and Cody McCormick.
Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said Rolston recommended Turnbull to fill Kaleta’s void.
“We’re replacing the same type of player – agitator, scrappy kid, plays on the edge,” Ruff said.” He’s really played hard down there. … We were looking for a fourth-line role.”
He added: “It’s sort of a win, win. He’s got some good hands. He’s got some good speed, a real competitive kid. He’ll fit right where he’s playing.”
Turnbull hasn’t played much in the AHL during his three full seasons. He appeared 57 times as a rookie in 2009-10, and then only 20 times last year, when he battled a bad shoulder injury.
“When I hurt my shoulder last year, it was pretty depressing,” said Turnbull, who wore No. 65. “I missed a whole season. I came back in the playoffs. I never really thought this wouldn’t happen. I just kind of knew within myself that if I kept working hard I’d get this chance. Today’s the day.”
Naturally, watching his friends and teammates get recalled before him was bittersweet.
“I’m always happy for guys when they get called up,” Turnbull said. “But obviously at the same time, you kind of think that you really want to be there, too, just like you everybody does. I’m ecstatic.”
Wednesday was hardly Turnbull’s first time around an NHL rink, though. The St. Louis native grew up learning from former Blues players, making for a special hockey upbringing.
“Unbelievable, words can’t really describe the help that I’ve gotten, not only from my dad but from his buddies – Bernie Federko, Kelly Chase … Basil McRae,” Turnbull said. “What they’ve done for St. Louis hockey is unbelievable. You see all these guys coming up from St. Louis that are playing in the National Hockey League now and I think it really goes to show how St. Louis is growing.”
He added: “My dad, he was awesome always being there. He never pushed me into anything. He was just kind of helping.”
Defenseman Tyler Myers returned from his three-game boarding suspension, so the Sabres scratched Mike Weber, a team-worst minus-19.
With a full fleet of defenders again, Ruff has said he’d like “to keep all seven going.” Weber’s trip to the press box could be brief.
For the time being at least, defenseman Alexander Sulzer, a throw-in to the Cody Hodgson trade, still has a spot. The German’s played nine games with the Sabres in three weeks, three less than he played with Vancouver in almost five months.
Myers, who hit Montreal’s Scott Gomez from behind into the boards March 12, skated beside Jordan Leopold.
The hit concussed Gomez, who’s likely done for the season.
The Sabres also scratched forward Matt Ellis (knee), winger Nathan Gerbe (muscle pull) and center Jochen Hecht (concussion).