That’s precisely the reaction you’ll see from people who hear about a career minor-league hockey player making NHL headlines in the preseason. There are plenty of guys who spend their entire career in the minors, making fifty grand a year, maybe twice that if they’re more than a grinder.
What makes Scott Sabourin different from the overwhelming majority of these guys was the unique opportunity he was given by an NHL team, as well as the roller coaster ride he found himself on during the 2019-20 season.
The Ottawa native spent the entirety of his junior career with the OHL’s Oshawa Generals, the fourth year of which he played under head coach D.J. Smith. Although he was never drafted, he put up 30 goals and 50 points in 60 games during his final season, which was enough to pique the interest of the Los Angeles Kings, who signed Sabourin to a three-year entry-level deal beginning in the 2013-14 season.
From there, Sabourin would spend the next six seasons playing in the AHL, in the Kings, Wild, Ducks and Flames organizations. In 308 AHL games, he tallied 37 goals, 40 assists and 77 points, along with 50 fights. This production would be enough to maintain a steady paycheque in the minors, but it didn’t seem like NHL games were a possibility for Sabourin.
Until it appeared out of nowhere; the opportunity of a lifetime.
In the 2019 offseason, D.J. Smith had been hired as the thirteenth head coach of the Ottawa Senators, and quickly made his mark on the team, advocating for the additions of several members of his former team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. When training camp started up in September, the Senators brought in a few players on tryouts to introduce competition for roster spots with the team’s prospects, one of which was Sabourin, who also was a former player of Smith’s.
In his first preseason game against Toronto, Sabourin made his mission clear: make the blue team hate his guts by the end of it. Much “goonery” ensued, highlighted by a slew foot on defenseman Morgan Rielly. It wasn’t long before Leafs superstar Auston Matthews got fed up with Sabourin’s antics and took matters into his own moustache.
Auston Matthews trying to figure out who this guy is pic.twitter.com/CyMZWhowja— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) September 19, 2019
This was something that people would say “ended this man’s whole career”. For Sabourin, it seemed to have the opposite effect. By virtue of being chirped by Matthews, Scott Sabourin didn’t just become known. He had become a meme.
Meanwhile, for the most part, the Senators’ forward prospects didn’t make as big of an impact in the preseason as the organization had expected. Furthermore, Rudolfs Balcers, who to my eye was having the strongest camp out of our prospects by far, suffered a lower-body injury, thus opening a spot in the Senators’ bottom six.
And in the midst of what seemed like a perfect storm for Sabourin, the 27-year-old minor-league fourth-line grinder, made the NHL.
News Release: #Sens sign forward Scott Sabourin to a one-year, two-way contract: https://t.co/miysUsWK17— Sens Communications (@Media_Sens) September 27, 2019
Communiqué : Les #Sens accordent un contrat d’un an à deux volets à l’attaquant Scott Sabourin : https://t.co/w2kFuYxD7h pic.twitter.com/9y23MppoXw
Sabourin would get his first taste of NHL action on opening night against, fittingly, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Everyone knew that Sabourin would fight hard to stay in the show, and that his main role as a fourth-liner would be to throw hits on every forecheck, get under the opponents’ skin and occasionally take a better player with him to the penalty box for five minutes. Nobody expected him to do this, however:
37 goals in 308 AHL games. And in his first NHL game, he scores a goal. That isn’t a common occurrence. He became the oldest player in franchise history to score a goal in his NHL debut. He had taken his glorious opportunity and smacked it out of the park.
After a convincing 5-2 victory against Erik Karlsson’s San Jose Sharks, Sabourin successfully climbed another major obstacle, as he was informed by Smith that he’d be on the Senators’ roster for the entire season.
A roller coaster, however, has its drops as well its climbs. And this particular drop was brutal.
On November 2nd, in the first period of a game against the Boston Bruins, Sabourin attempted to throw a hit on Bruins’ forward David Backes, however he ended up in an awkward head-on-head collision. He was already out cold when he fell forward and hit the ice, resulting in multiple concussions and a broken nose. He remained down for several minutes, and Backes, who also suffered a concussion from the incident, was visibly shaken and in tears.
Everyone in the building was fearing for Sabourin’s well-being, and fortunately, he was eventually carried off on a stretcher while giving a thumbs-up to the crowd. As this was happening, we bore witness to something unexpected and beautiful. The Bruins’ bench cleared out and joined the Senators in seeing Sabourin off.
I like to think that this happened because everyone knows who Scott Sabourin is. He’s a player unlike many in the league. He spent his whole career on the fourth line of AHL teams and was hungry and fortunate enough to earn an NHL opportunity. On that day, both teams chose to acknowledge the efforts of not only Sabourin, but every other player in his shoes, going about his business in a thankless role, fighting for a shot at the big league.
By the end of December, Sabourin had made a full recovery, and finished the season with two goals and six points in 35 games. Notably, he banked a sweet $700k, ten times more than his usual AHL salary. Whichever organization he’s with next season, you know he’s going to be gunning for a second NHL paycheque.
Before this season, Scott Sabourin was an ordinary AHL player. Now, while he’s not too different from before, he’s got an absolutely wild story he can tell his children, the first of which he and his fiancée are expecting in September.
A story about perseverance and seizing an opportunity.