I walked over to Bada Bing sports bar on Chippewa from my home last night to watch the third period of the Sabres v Blue Jackets game, to enjoy a couple beers and appetizers, for sure. But mostly to commune with fellow fans as our team was (once again) playing out of their minds in a game they had no business being in.
As time was ticking down, my mind was racing. Mostly I was thinking how ugly the scene might be at First Niagara Center come Saturday if the Sabres don’t finish this. I also thought of the unthinkable: what if two years of tanking, or blueprint, or suffering, or whatever you want to call it, falls apart on the final day. Our family are long time season ticket holders, 8 tickets split up amongst 15 or so participants. Who will want to buy those tickets next year?
Not helping the mood? The news coming out of Erie that Connor McDavid had scored 5 goals in their OHL playoff game; the news coming out of Boston that Jack Eichel had won the Hobey Baker award as the best of the best in college hockey, this one night after he amazed and dazzled in the Frozen Four semifinal. Two generational players; so tantalizingly close to calling one of them a Buffalo Sabre.
So I will admit it now; when Cam Atkinson scored to give Columbus a 3-2 lead with 9 minutes to go, I let it all out. I cheered. I high fived. I joined in the jubilant celebration at Bada Bing, complete with the goal horn they set off in the place. Up to that point, I had refused to give in to cheering against my own team, a team I had fallen in love with as a little boy when my brother Taras and I attended our first game ever in February of 1971 and watched our heroes beat the California Golden Seals 3-0.
These emotions are not unique to me. We’ve all gone through a lot these last few weeks in the race to the bottom. It has pitted fan against fan, media members are carping at each other, the players are trying to mask their antagonism towards the fans, the front office is putting on a brave face. It’s been awful.
And it’s over.
Tonight at First Niagara Center, Buffalo fans have the opportunity to wash away the stink. To raise the spirit of the community. To set the tone now for the better days ahead that are sure to come upon us, and come fast. And the way to do that is to fill that arena with a playoff game calibre energy that will ignite and inspire the team, show the hockey world what it means to be a Buffalo fan, and send us into the night looking to the off season with boundless enthusiasm – next week’s draft lottery, the NHL combine, draft day, free agent day, the opening of training camp.
The opponent will be the Pittsburgh Penguins, whose entire season might be on the line depending on what Ottawa and Boston do in their games. Hey, I like the roadie to PNC Park and a Buccos game and a Primanti’s sandwich just as much as the next guy, but would it not be just desserts and an exclamation point to this final week to knock the Penguins out of the playoffs? We all have visions of Sidney Crosby always besting Ryan Miller (ref: Winter Classic). We all remember a Steelers team playing their scrubs and knocking the Bills out of the playoffs on the final day of the season a few years back.
The outcome of tonight’s game really isn’t at all important. If the Penguins win.. well, good for them. Buffalo will have its day real soon. But if the Sabres win, and even if they don’t, won’t it be great to cheer? To genuinely cheer?
I’m not cheering for any individual player. A year from now some of these guys will be on a bus to Wheeling or Utica, plying their trade via their two way contracts. I just hope they banked their riches when they had a chance, for the truth is some of these people who wore a Buffalo uniform had no business being here, and were only here because the Sabres plan deemed them necessary to be here.
But for the guys who will remain, who will be part of the core of the 2015-2016 Buffalo Sabres, it is time to reignite their love affair with the fan base and the city. And it’s time to get some good press and vibe for us. The national headlines following the Sabres/Coyotes game didn’t help our cause. Players see what’s going on. Will quality free agents take a chance on Buffalo seeing how fans reacted towards their own team? Mind you, the best of the best will receive obscene amounts of money wherever they play; selling them on Buffalo means selling them on our great city and its passionate fan base.
I will be in my season ticket seats in section 113 at the game, dressed in Sabres gear and attending with my brother, my niece and her husband. Peter Farrell’s got the Artvoice press box chair. I will be in full throated support of my Buffalo Sabres. With any luck, me and a lot of other fans will be hoarse come Sunday morning. Let’s Go Buffalo!
Graphic credit: Chris Ostrander, Two In The Box, @2ITB_Buffalo