Even before the Buffalo Sabres were awarded an NHL franchise in 1970, Rip was there. When the Sabres battled the Philadelphia Flyers in the Stanley Cup Final in 1975, and then again the Dallas Stars in 1999, there was Rip. Chances are, if you took in a Sabres game anytime over the past five decades, Rip was there.
A fixture in Western New York since joining the Buffalo Bisons of the American Hockey League as a stick boy in 1964, Robert “Rip” Simonick has been a staple in the locker room and on the road for the Sabres for the past 46 years. As the NHL’s longest-tenured equipment manager — and the only one in Sabres history — Simonick has taken on a myriad of responsibilities over the years. He’s been an errand boy, a rink guard, a stick boy, a skate-sharpener, a friend, a mentor, a father-figure, someone to vent to and someone to confide in. If a player had beans to spill, Rip was there to lend an ear.
Hired by the first team’s coach and future Hockey Hall of Famer Punch Imlach in 1970, Simonick is the last remaining original employee in the Sabres organization, and on Tuesday, Oct. 18, the 2014 Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame inductee was honored before his 3,500th career game in Calgary.
— Mike Harrington (@BNHarrington) October 19, 2016
“Before games in the Montreal Forum in the early ’70s I used to go get a pack of cigarettes for Guy Lafleur and Gilbert Perreault, who were junior buddies and friends since they were kids,” Simonick told Canada’s SportsNet before the milestone game. “I’d go get them six cups of coffee, a pack of cigarettes, two ashtrays and they used to smoke ten ciggies each, drink six cups of coffee and they were the two fastest guys on the ice. That went on for years. Every player had their own ashtray with their number on it and they used to count on me for smokes.”
“Keep Your Eyes Open and Your Mouth Shut”
Growing up as so many starry-eyed adolescents do in Western New York and Southern Ontario, Simonick and his brother, Paul, could often be found playing street hockey after school. They took to the ice joining the local youth hockey Buffalo Regals organization as kids. While attending Buffalo State College in the ’60s, Simonick picked up a part-time job as a rink guard at Front Park. Little did he know it would be the start of a hockey career that would shape the rest of his life.
It was there he became friends, and later colleagues, with the late Seymour and Northrup Knox — the original Sabres owners who brought professional hockey to Buffalo in 1970.
After a five-year stint as a stick boy for the AHL Buffalo Bisons, which included a Calder Cup in 1969, the Knox family brought Simonick aboard, joining him with the club’s equipment team under legendary trainer and fellow Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame inductee, Frank Christie.
“There were a lot of chores,” Simonick told The Buffalo News before his induction into the City’s Hall of Fame in 2014. “The laundry was done once a week on Fridays. We said it was the changing of the guard. We’d hang the uniforms on wire hangers, mop the floor, get things ready for road trips. It was a lot of fun. Hockey was obviously a passion, and my dream of working in it came true.
“I used to walk to the White Tower on Main Street to get 30 cups of coffee. Rain or shine, snow or no snow, I delivered them to the locker room,” Simonick said. “That kept me going. Everybody liked me because I brought the coffee.”
But perhaps the greatest piece of advice ever bestowed upon him came from his father: “Keep Your Eyes Open and Your Mouth Shut.” Words of wisdom to be sure as Simonick enters his 46th season with the franchise.
Rip Van Winkle
What’s in a name? A nickname is often bestowed in substitution of your given name or your name of record, often in jest or affection between those in a close emotional bond.
If you walk into the Sabres’ locker room looking for Robert, most likely you will come up empty. That’s because no one refers to Simonick by his Christian name. Accepted nomenclatures include: “Rip” or “Ripper” if you feel so inclined.
“I grew up in the Old First Ward of Buffalo, where it seemed everyone had a nickname,” Simonick recalled. “My father said I liked to sleep, so it started as Rip Van Winkle.”
And so it began. Simonick is even listed as “Rip” in the Sabres’ media guide. Even opposing equipment managers and others around the league refer to him as “Rip.” He has taken it to heart and the nickname has become commonplace in the Queen City, almost as profound as “King Kong,” “Rayzor,” “LaLa” or “The Dominator.”
Simonick is fine just being “Rip.”
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) October 28, 2016
As apprentice to the late Frank Christie for over two decades, Simonick fine-tuned his profession with on-the-job training and experience from one of the best in the business.
From his early beginnings with the New York Americans in 1933 to his service in World War II, Christie followed a path which saw him join the Buffalo Bisons as team trainer in 1946. After Simonick came aboard in 1964, together they became part of the new Sabres organization in its inaugural season in 1970. For 16 more seasons spanning “The French Connection” to “The Best is Yet to Come,” Simonick and Christie formed a tandem until Christie’s passing in 1986.
Succeeding Christie, Simonick took on many of the responsibilities instilled in him, learning the habits and preferences of each player under his care. Little nuances like how loose-fitting Rob Ray liked his shoulder pads or how Dominik Hasek preferred his skates sharpened. In 1989, it was Simonick along with trainer Jim Pizzutelli who came to Clint Malarchuk’s aid when his jugular was inadvertently slashed by Steve Tuttle in a game against the St. Louis Blues. During the 1991-92 season when Flames’ defenseman Jamie Macoun broke Pat LaFontaine’s jaw, it was Simonick who designed a special protective shield which allowed him to return to the ice.
Whatever it took, whatever was called upon, when the situation arose Rip was there.
All told, Simonick has been there for 3,507 regular season games — an NHL record that will not be broken anytime soon. If you factor in his time with the Bisons, playoff games, and exhibition games, he’s eclipsed well over 4,000 games over the course of 52 years. He’s withstood 17 coaching changes and 464 players during his tenure. He has also worked three NHL All-Star games in 1974, 1989 and 2005.
“I would imagine it’s an NHL record but I’m not a record follower,” Simonick said. “It’s about the game – we’re just here to win a game. 3,500 is just a number and I’m just proud to be a Buffalo Sabre.”
1st professional hockey equipment manager to ever reach this milestone.
Congrats, Rip Simonick! pic.twitter.com/CMyzupok8P
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) October 19, 2016
The last original Sabres employee, Rip Simonick’s value to the team is arguably as important as any coach or scout in the organization. He was on hand when Mike Foligno graced the blue and gold from 1981-1991 and he’s still here for the next generation as Mike’s son, Marcus, laces ’em up 15 years later.
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) October 16, 2014
It was on that note, the jovial 66-year old Simonick announced his retirement: “When Marcus’ son plays in the National Hockey League, that’s when I’m going to retire,” Simonick said with a grin.