Last time I wrote here, it was regarding the depressing, soul-sucking death march to 30th place and the hand-wringing, moral crusading, negative nancies and militant pragmatists that came with it. It was by far the least amount of fun I’ve had following this franchise for the last twenty-five years or so, and that’s selling it short; it was not fun at all. There was zero fun outside of the occasional gallows humor that comes with some of the worst hockey players in franchise history hockeying together at once.
Yet I’ll remember April 10th. I went to Orioles opening day with my girlfriend and her friends, a miserable 50 degree day where the Blue Jays crushed the home team - much like they would to clinch the division title less than six months later - before we started barhopping. Shortly before some hardcore browning and blacking out between the two of us respectively, in the last final seconds before my phone died, I refreshed my score app continuously to see the Sabres lose to Columbus. It was glorious. Aside from the guarantee of McEichel, it was such a relief to just be proven right after doubling down on the certainty of 30th the entire season. As any borderline narcissist knows, things like that are victories in themselves.
The Sabres, regardless of the reasons for excitement that I assure you I’ll get to, are in a peculiar position they haven’t found themselves in for some fifteen years: that of afterthought. This is Bills time, and it will continue to be Bills time until that team’s season has either run its course or stomped on our hearts (nice start Sunday btw), forcing us to return in November or December to the team that has been our salve, our dependable solace for more consecutive football seasons than we’d care to address. It is that dependability, that wins help numb the pain of a previous Sunday’s disappointment and even losses (it’s a long season and what do you want, they were dead last two years in a row) help get us through the time in between those Sundays that for now just seem like such an insufferably long time.
I feel for many of us born in a certain window, who came of age in Western New York at a certain time, have felt more connected to the Sabres than the Bills mostly due to results. On my 15th birthday I watched from my Grandparents house as the Sabres took a 3-1 series lead over the Leafs in the Conference Finals. Two nights later my Mom dropped a friend and I off at the old Tops on Young in Tonawanda (now a Big Lots/Subway) just as Game Five started. The store played the game on the PA system and we got to hear RJ’s voice call the comeback victory and trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. To pass the time throughout the night, a large group of fans taught us Euchre, a game I’d play pretty much every lunch period for the rest of high school.
Despite being numbers three and four in line, the antiquated system at Tops was too slow when the tickets went on sale. Didn’t help that the two middle aged guys in front of us bought four tickets to each home game but when it came our turn, my friend got one ticket to Game Three, me one ticket to Game Four. I was dropped off at the foot of Washington Street while my Mom and Grandfather went to Coca Cola Field to watch the game on the scoreboard. I’ve been to many games afterwards and maybe seen better teams, but the noise when Sanderson scored on a breakaway in that game (the only home Cup Final win in forty years) was the loudest I’ve ever heard that arena.
I was hooked. Seven years later I was on the precipice of graduating college and was #blessed enough to have some of the best weeks of my life tied into the most exhilarating run a Buffalo team has given us in a generation. I got to watch Game 1 against Philly in the last row of the arena, where my first hug was not my girlfriend but the stranger who shared his nachos with me (and brought HIS girlfriend). I got to watch the Sabres murder that finesse team day drinking before a house party, I got to watch Game 1 against Ottawa at a Quad Party at Canisius, Game 3 from the Bonaventure Golf Course Clubhouse with over a hundred folks jammed four rows deep behind the bar to squint at the one small TV in the corner. Game 5 was the night before graduation, slip n’ sliding down a hill in the rain afterwards, warming up that chill at a bonfire until 5am with fifty friends who just didn’t want morning to come before my girlfriend told me “Matt you graduate in four hours.”
I listened to the Drury game in a tiny townhouse bedroom at Penn State, Property book open but used only to rest my elbows as I leaned as close to my speakers as I could, hoping for a miracle that, for once, came. I watched the mad rush to the postseason in 2011 in a dive bar in Barre, Vermont and welled up when the Flyers inexplicably played for a tie. And April 10th this year I high-fived people in Baltimore over a loss, the meaning of which they couldn’t understand. But it started long before all this.
As an only child I was socially stunted, more so because my interests at 5, 6, 7 were the state capitals, presidents, planets; in fourth grade we had to dress up as a historical figure and have the parents guess who we were and I picked Millard Fillmore, which no one could guess until I told them a hospital was named after me (shockingly, my hints about Perry’s trip to Japan weren’t a dead giveaway). I’d go to my Grandparents after school and wait in the window for him to come home from Spaulding Fibre; most weekends we’d go to their cabin in Strykersville, play catch, watch whatever came in on the antenna TV (in the later years of the cabin this was The Practice, which pretty much led me to decide on law school at age 12). He nailed a basketball hoop to the tree in their yard; in 11th grade when I was ejected after grabbing a kid by the back of the jersey as he ran by me and slammed him to the ground, it was him who calmed my mother down by saying that I “shouldn’t take any crap.” He moved me into my dorm junior year at Bonas when my Mom was near death from a burst appendix and he came to my law school graduation in State College, even the BBQ party my friends and I held afterwards.
During my time in Vermont, Maryland and now Pennsylvania, I’d call but not nearly as much as I should. He suffered a near fatal heart attack in 2012 and the doctors said he wouldn’t make it but he did. He went into cardiac arrest at Tops last year and was revived in the Tim Horton’s seating area. But a couple months ago, after another hospital visit no one really thought he’d return home from, he went to pull the garage door down, lost his balance and broke his hip. As it often the case in these instances, from there it’s been a steady and precipitous decline. He can’t speak much, won’t eat or drink and has lost so much weight he’s nearly unrecognizable. My mother, his medical proxy, is in the midst of discussions regarding hospice.
Sports can be corrupt, morally repulsive, bland, whitewashed gibberish about god, Gatorade, the troops and draft kings. It demands investments of time and money yet gives little back and even less in Buffalo. But it gave me those memories with my grandfather and if that means I buy some swag every year and drop money on streaming packages, I come out so far ahead it’s not even close. For all of it, sports can bring great things and I say this because, well, this season marks the start of some great things.
Time to Sports
I’m excited. Not in the 2012 “WE CAN BUILD ON THIS” excitement or even the 2007 “this better be the year because if not…” way. We no longer live in a world where we have to hope a couple above average guys play great and a couple average guys play above average and the goalie is a Vezina candidate just to crack the playoffs. We just have to wait for the great players to gel with each other and the Superstar to continue growing and hope the average players are average and the goalie is good. This is where it gets fun again, where you don’t need ten beers to convince yourself that they “might not be that bad.” It’s logic and past performances of players that tell us they might not be that bad.
The more I think about it the more I like Bylsma for these guys. The Bills have their coach who looks like he’s enjoying himself pretty much all the time, maybe the Sabres should have that. I was watching the Ottawa game and one of the TSN announcers remarked “he looks happy all the time,” and I thought “that’s perfect.” Babcock is already screaming himself hoarse and sniping at players in the media and it’s just the preseason. Do we really need him doing the same to kids who are going to need some time to anticipate and adapt to each others tendencies? Do we really want another demanding hardass yammering on about toughness and desire and effort? Because we’ve had twenty years of that with two dudes who won exactly one conference title and I don’t know, man, I’m a little tired of it. Plus the dude’s watch game is spectacular; the amount of swagger in this area between Rex’s truck, Tyrod’s suits, Kane’s unbuttoned dress shirts and Bylsma’s accessories makes all of us weaned on cargo shorts, sports jerseys and north face just a little cooler by proximity.
At its most basic level, the reason for excitement now is simply because it's time. We knew this would be the time since before the mid-point of the 2013-14 season, when I bought tickets for 12 bucks, let them go to waste and was happy about that decision. We knew during the fire sale of Spring 2014 that the 14-15 season would be a lost year unless the organization decided to chase something that would give it purpose. With two superstars up for grabs, it was up to the team to decide if they wanted to go the meathead route, blabber about the integrity of the game, blue-collar efforts, hustle and grit, the ethics of tanking and all the other shit people say when the only things on their bookshelf are Lombardi biographies and the screenplay from "The Junction Boys," OR they could be smarter than that, look at the big picture, the future, and strive for that.
It was brilliant. Hire a well-loved, affable guy from the past whose style has long since been passed by, let him prattle on about effort and compete while all the while ensuring the roster was such a garbage heap they’d never have a chance. If Tim Murray ever had the voice of pride fucking with him, he never let it show for a second. The ranting and ravings of insecure, lesser men who took it upon themselves to turn a brilliant long-term strategy into a referendum on moral fiber was always a joke and to know the Sabres are led by someone that dedicated to improving the team, no matter how silly they look short term, is frankly heartwarming.
So where are we at? It’s a weird time - albeit much, much, much better than what we just escaped from. They probably won’t make the playoffs so diving back into the full fan experience - wins good, losses bad - seems like a poor way to take in this season, assuming one is trying to enjoy themselves, but at least we're not rooting for losses anymore. I suppose the best option, unless we are shown otherwise from the team themselves, is that we’ll just have to add some objectivity into our viewing and assessing. I know personally that’s difficult; I still hate that Penn State couldn’t close out their double OT loss to Ohio State last year, subjecting all of America to that repulsive team and I also know I dismissed anyone who said they were “proud” of the effort or offered kind words. It was a loss, losses are shitty and even more so when you’re one stop away from a win. But whatever, in hockey this is easier (though fuck the Hurricanes, Lightning and Kings forever and always), there’s 82 games and I surmise that by Christmas we will have a decent idea that the playoffs aren’t in the cards.
This isn't because I don't think the forwards won't do their job, by the way. I think even as they get acclimated their talent alone will allow them to find each other and put the puck in the net; we've seen that in the preseason, with stretches of mind-numbing tedium punctuated by moments of pure elation. The defense scares me and the goaltending might not even be average, let alone at a level our spoiled asses spent two decades not being grateful for. Risto makes poor decisions only occasionally but it seems when he does there's an odd-man rush coming the other way. Weber is still here, and so the rotting corpse of Colaiacovo who is only 16 months older than me but whatever. As for the goaltending, concussions are an absolute motherfucker and I know I never want another one so hopefully Lehner 1) avoids any knees to the head and 2) gets right and confident in the net. For a big dude he's left spots exposed on numerous occasions and not to be a Wawrow but the Leafs are garbage so we can't just look to that shutout as a predicate of what's to come. But his mask is straight *fire emoji* so I hope only the best from him. As for whatever a Chad Johnson is, I might have watched him play against the Sabres but he might as well be fictional. Like compassionate conservatism.
So let’s enjoy the many fruits of our labors of suffering. Let’s watch what Ennis can do with true top-line players alongside him. Let’s see that power play when Kane and Eichel are both out there, let’s see Eichel all the time, no matter what he’s doing - learning the tendencies of his teammates, springing a breakout, going into that fourth gear to get around a guy toward the net. Let’s see if O’Reilly can anchor the top line to let Eichel grow and eat on the second line for a while. Let’s watch some abominable goaltending and look back wistfully at jokes about “Ryan Miller Shutouts” and say things like “that’s too bad because I really like his mask.” Let’s get drunk at Liberty Hound before and Iron Works after. These aren’t moral victories, they’re growth. We’ll get to have the excitement of watching the team - the men and boys that will put an end to the region’s title drought someday - start to come into their own. We’ll get to hear the arena be loud again and games against rivals feel like rivalries again. Mike Weber’s shittiness will be back to its rightful place as a detriment to what the team is trying to do. Unlike the many years where we drifted back to the Sabres only as the Bills descended into the abyss, the Sabres will be here to jerk you back to attention.
For the record, I'm picking 10th place in the East, 5th in the Atlantic but whatever, the darkest days are behind us.
Let the fun begin.