For Sean Malone, it took weeks for the events of February 9 to sink in. “Just looking back on it now, I guess I’m a little more emotional than I was then,” says Malone, a West Seneca native. At the time, Malone was simply living in the moment. When he arrived at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena that morning and learned that a few hours later, he’d be playing for the Predators, Malone slipped into his normal game routine.
xMalone hadn’t played a game at any level in eleven months, since his final appearance for the Rochester Americans in the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season. There was no time to think about the long odds he beat to play his second NHL game; he had to prepare for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
That night, Malone recorded his first NHL point, an assist on Rocco Grimaldi’s early goal in Nashville’s 6-1 loss to Tampa. “I was a little nervous just because I hadn’t played a game in so long,” says Malone, who returned to the Wolves, the Predators’ temporary AHL affiliate, in late February. “I ran on adrenaline. I sort of embraced every moment of it.”
Malone also ran on adrenaline in his first NHL appearance, way back on April 8, 2017. Two days after Harvard’s loss in the NCAA semifinal ended his college career, the Buffalo Sabres signed him to an entry-level contract. The center made his big-league debut that night against the Florida Panthers.
Teams often reward college prospects or entice them to sign by starting them in the NHL, and the Sabres decided Malone, a sixth-round draft pick in 2013, deserved a look.
Then he wound up parked in the minors for three years. Malone enjoyed a strong rookie season with the Amerks, the Sabres’ American Hockey League affiliate. He was competing to earn a roster spot in Buffalo when he hurt his knee in the Sabres’ first exhibition game in 2018.
That kicked off a frustrating, injury-plagued campaign that nearly derailed his career. Malone played just thirty-eight games with the Amerks in 2018-19. When he managed to play, he often appeared to be struggling.
Following the season, the Sabres passed on giving him a qualifying offer as a restricted free agent, so Malone accepted an AHL contract to play for the Amerks in 2019-20; Buffalo wasn’t a possibility.
But Malone embraced the challenge. His body healed during the long offseason. He developed a new mindset. He enjoyed a terrific comeback season, registering a career-high thirty points. He seemed to be back on the Sabres’ radar.
Then the Sabres cleaned house in June 2020, firing most of their front office and the entire Amerks coaching staff. Thankfully for Malone, the pandemic created fresh opportunities. The NHL implemented a four- to six-man taxi squad so each team can keep extra players, and Malone was able to get a fresh start with the Predators.
“It’s definitely different,” says Malone, who joined the taxi squad early in the season. “Some days, you’re practicing with the team and then other days you’re on the ice with a couple guys and working on what you need to work on to have success at the NHL level. I guess the hardest part is staying ready, staying in game shape. You just have to approach your day like a day you can better yourself and get better at the game.
“I’ve definitely learned some lessons that I’ll carry with me probably the rest of my life, just perseverance and sticking with it through some tough times,” Malone continues. “The way I’ve been for my whole life is to just put my head down and work hard and hopefully good things will happen. I’m twenty-five and able to keep playing hockey for a living; it’s something special. So I enjoy every day of it.”