Sabres Lacking Dahlin’s Desire to Win

“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

The well-known phrase, often attributed to football coach Vince Lombardi, was actually first uttered by UCLA Bruins football coach Henry Russell “Red” Sanders in 1950. Over time, the quotation has taken on a life of its own.

Regardless of who said it, the quote crystalizes the notion that winning is of primary importance in sports. For elite athletes, there is no greater motivational force than love of winning.

Rasmus Dahlin, the consensus No. 1 overall pick at the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, is driven to win. And he flat-out hates losing. “He has that edge, he wants to win at everything he participates in,” said his current coach, Roger Rönnberg. “He controls the rhythm of the game. He’s so skilled with the puck, and he can be the difference maker in the game.”

Rasmus Dahlin
(Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

“Winning” Silver, Losing Gold

Dahlin played for Team Sweden at the World Junior Hockey Championship in Buffalo this past winter. After Sweden lost 3-1 in dramatic fashion to Team Canada, several players and coaches wanted nothing to do with the silver medals that were draped around their necks. They took them off, one going so far as toss it into the stands. They felt they didn’t win silver, instead, they lost the gold.

As a result, months later, they’re being punished.

Dahlin Suspended by the IIHF

Dahlin was one of the Swedish players suspended by the International Ice Hockey Federation Disciplinary Board for his conduct.

The then 17-year-old took his silver medal off during the medal ceremony and held it in his hand. By doing that, he violated Championship Regulations and has been suspended for the first two games of the World Championships in Denmark.

The IIHF Press Release

“Taking off the silver medals presented to the players shows not only the disrespect against the spectators and the organizers of the championship, but also the disrespect against their opponents and winners of the championship. The fact that the players afterwards have apologized for their behavior and have assured that they had no intentions to be disrespectful to anyone, does not excuse the actions.”

“The players have by their actions shown a lack of self-control, which cannot be accepted for a player playing at that level in an important championship. It indicates that they have developed wrong ambitions where only the first place counts, which is absolutely in contradiction to the ideas and values of sport. The actions of the players have to be considered as unsportsmanlike and as a breach of conduct that brings the sport of ice hockey into disrepute; they are not compatible with the idea of sport as a fair competition between the teams involved in order to determine the best team of the tournament. The actions in question cannot be excused by disappointment or even frustration not to have won the championship. Losing a game is part of any competition and of the sport of ice hockey, and does not excuse any unfair and unsportsmanlike behavior; to be ‘frustrated’ by the loss of a game is not the right attitude, even at the player’s age.”

The entire IIHF press release can be read here.

Lias Andersson Suspended Four Games

Several other players and coaches were also suspended, including Team Sweden’s captain Lias Andersson. The New York Rangers prospect was suspended four games for throwing his silver medal into the stands. Former NHLer and current broadcaster Ray Ferraro summed it up perfectly, “I know he’s disappointed, but that’s not right.”

Lias Andersson, New York Rangers, NHL Draft
Lias Andersson was the only player to toss his medal into the stands. (Mikael Fritzon / courtesy HV71)

The governing body noted the fact that Andersson wears the ‘C’ for Sweden. “Considering his position as captain of the team who should be an example in his behavior for his teammates and the fact that he not only took the medal off his neck, though he had been warned not to do so, but also tossed it into the stands, demonstrating unsportsmanlike contempt for the award to everybody in the arena and on TV.”

The Sabres Need a Winning Attitude

It’s widely expected the Buffalo Sabres will be selecting Dahlin as the first overall pick in the draft. Aside from a weak defensive corps, they desperately need to add skill and speed to their lineup. They also need players who will not accept losing as an option.

Buffalo Sabres bench
The Sabres need to start winning. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

At the World Juniors, Dahlin wanted gold. The kid wanted to win and fans in Western New York should welcome that passion with open arms. Players driven with that much ambition are tough to find.

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The Sabres need this killer instinct. They need players with the drive to win more than anything, but not because they haven’t sniffed the playoffs in seven years. They need it because losing and mediocrity and inconsistency has become the norm. And that norm is why the culture sucks. And that is why they haven’t made the playoffs.

Pegula’s Must Haves

After failing to make the playoffs in 2017, Sabres owner Terry Pegula, axed general manager Tim Murray and head coach Dan Bylsma. He then addressed the media with a new mantra for the team. He spoke of four words–character, discipline, structure and communication–repeating them like an over-rehearsed defendant on a witness stand.

In addition to bringing the Stanley Cup to Buffalo, he was determined to bring respectability and honor as well. Dahlin’s actions after the medal ceremony weren’t indicative of either.

Terry Pegula
Pegula’s had success in the oil industry, but very little as an owner of a sports team. (Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)

Dahlin’s behavior was not laudable, just as it wasn’t when Canada’s Jocelyne Larocque took off her silver medal immediately after receiving it in Pyeongchang. It showed disrespect and dishonor for his team, his country, fans and tournament officials. That said, the passion behind both Dahlin’s and Larocque’s actions were commendable.

Wanting to win a gold medal so badly, yet losing and having a silver medal hanging around their necks was so crushingly disheartening and bitterly unfulfilling that they couldn’t bear to wear it. It showed a glimpse into their desire to be the best.

While Dahlin’s action was unbecoming, it’d be absurd to use it as a reason not to select him with the No. 1 overall pick and bypass his massive talent.

‘Wild’ Buffalo Comments

This team needs to shake their current mentality. While many players and fans alike have clung to loser points and moral victories in recent years, the only thing that matters is winning. And the Sabres don’t do enough of it.

Last year, Marcus Foligno and Tyler Ennis were traded to the Minnesota Wild. They both noticed an immediately different vibe than in Buffalo.

“It’s great to be a part of a culture that’s determined to win a Stanley Cup,” said Ennis. “You know, Buffalo has been in kind of a rebuild process, and everyone knows they’ve had quite a few losses over the last few seasons, and that’s tough on everybody. … Everyone that plays competitive sports wants to win. It’s definitely nice to be here, where losing is not an option.”

Foligno said it hasn’t been easy jumping into a winning culture. “It’s been challenging for us,” said the winger who still goes by the nickname Moose. “You have to develop better habits, and that takes a while to learn. That was the biggest difference. It’s been great to be in this winning culture, where losing is not acceptable and a lot is expected out of us.”

Marcus Foligno
Foligno played six seasons for the Sabres and never saw the playoffs. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Players are held accountable by one another in the locker room, too. “It’s not like we have guys yelling at each other or anything like that,” he said. “You just have guys letting other guys know that they have to make a better play next time. … It goes all the way from the leadership down to the rookies. That makes the team better.”

“You can’t make positives out of losing. The only way to have fun is to win. Nothing else matters,” said Minnesota Wild coach Bruce Boudreau. “The sacrifices guys have to make, whether it’s in practice or the game, are probably something that Marcus and Tyler haven’t been used to.”

Winning is Everything

The National Hockey League is a results-based business. Executives, coaches and players should be driven to win. Only one team each year finishes the playoffs with a win: the Stanley Cup champions. There are no participation trophies or ribbons for second place. Winning is all that matters.

There is a difference between a recreation league—or even a top junior tourney—and the NHL. Still, there’s a place for sportsmanship at every level. Every playoff team shakes one their opponent’s hand at the end of a round to show respect for the effort, the drive and the shared passion in both directions, for both teams.

San Jose Barracuda
Only hockey has the age-old tradition of the handshake line. (Scott Dinn/San Jose Barracuda)

Players usually offer congratulations for success to the victor. Instances that go against the grain, such as Milan Lucic being caught on TV saying distasteful things during the handshake line a few years ago was so absolutely wrong and inappropriate.

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Players should have the drive to win, giving everything they have to that end, but also have a healthy respect for their opponents who also are doing the same. This is why sports are a tool to teach life values to kids. This is what the Olympics is about. In fact, this is what all of sport is about. Actually, in an ideal world, this is what life is about—all of us striving to be the best that we can be and celebrating each other’s efforts, even as some have better results than others.

Competitive Fire

Integrity and decency are critical elements that define a player. The actions of the Swedish players and coaches that were disciplined were not justified. They went against written rules as well as unwritten rules of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct.

At the end of the day, these people not only have to look in the mirror and live with their decisions. They also need to answer to tournament organizers, media, teammates, fans, family and countrymen.

Gold was their goal. They didn’t want second place. Much like Ricky Bobby said in Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”

It’s ironic that the setting for Dahlin to show his disdain for losing was, of all places, Buffalo. And it’s reassuring and exciting to know the only silver Dahlin ever wants to win is the Stanley Cup.