I don’t remember my first Sabres game very well. I was three or four and my uncle, a Buffalo firefighter, had been offered four or five tickets from his neighbor for a game. Like most people when recalling memories of such a young age, it’s just a snapshot; first row right behind the net on the glass at the Aud. I remember the awe I felt at the speed, the brightness of the ice, the size of the players, the noise- especially the noise- the excitement of sharing something not just with my family but with so many strangers of all ages.
As I got older and attended more games, my grandfather went from having to briskly pull me along with him by the hand to just waiting for me to catch up to walking side by side to waiting for me to stop and let him catch up to having to taking my hand as we headed down the stairs. By the end, when he couldn’t go to games anymore, our conversations about the team were abstract, about how yes, they did have one fantastic player but that someday soon they would be back to the team we knew, the team I grew up with.
It’s 2018. My grandfather is gone and the uncle’s been estranged from the family for a decade. It only makes sense that my relationship with the Sabres has deteriorated to a point I’m unsure I can get back from.
There really is no other way to coin the 2017-2018 Buffalo Sabres except for the worst team in franchise history. Points-wise, it may only be the third worst of the 82-game era, but you don’t need to masturbate over @ineffectivemath to fully understand the scope of what just happened here. There may be those who did not expect them to challenge for a playoff spot this year- I would have said those people weren’t expecting enough from their no longer inexperienced roster. This is a league where teams go from the lottery to the playoffs on an annual basis, where Edmonton is an aberration not an excuse. Eichel was healthy, Okposo was back, the defense had been shored up, there was a slew of prospects ready to take the next step and they even brought back someone who’d actually won a bunch of playoff series’ in this city. The coach blamed for the late season car crash was gone as was the GM who’d whiffed on most of his drafts. The tank was over, it was time to demand- and frankly, expect- wins.
Five games into the season, they had one point. I’d traveled out to New York for the second game of the year against the Islanders and left my seat after the first period. I drank beer in the concourse for a period then left, embarrassed. They were 3-7-2 at Halloween and by Thanksgiving, at 5-13-4 the season was already over. The Bills played competitive games a month and a half longer than the Sabres did this season; whereas the Sabres were always what rescued us from caring about the Bills after November, the Bills rescued us from the Sabres.
The entire season from that point on was a miserable slog that only a sadist or an asshole could enjoy. During 2014-15 I purchased gamecenter and watched nearly every game, asking for it on at bars, still rooting for wins well into March before “okay, time to lock it down” took over for the last couple weeks. The two seasons after were the same thing, despite the growing pains and long stretches of uninspired mediocrity, I couldn’t not watch, it was a routine I’d been in since high school. As I said before the season started, the Sabres were to be a reprieve from the mundane slog of adulthood, through the anxieties and fear that today’s world brings on a daily basis. They were to be something to kick back with over a beer and to get excited about and perhaps, to once again enjoy watching once it became shorts and t-shirt weather again. There were rivalries that were going to reignite, rivalries to be born and this was to be a time of resurgence, to remember why we’d stuck with them so long.
Instead they exacerbated the daily horrors around us, showed us that they too would not bring solace, that our lives are indeed better without them playing such a role in it. Before this season, the longest I’d gone without watching them was studying abroad in 2004, pre-smartphone and without internet in our apartment and even then, every morning when I got to campus I’d scour the TBN website for stories of the previous night’s game, chat with my friends from home on AIM about what was going on. This year I canceled gamecenter before December, caught them when I was home visiting and sat through two periods of another blowout, this one in Washington. On February 10th I was at Cole’s and had to actually ask for the game to be put on the television; when it was, we were the only ones watching it.
The team itself is toxic. Shifts, periods, games, weeks on end of uninspired, defeated play. The coach has effectively ruined his legacy as one of the best defensemen in franchise history, doomed to be remembered as one of the most ineffective, timid and befuddled coaches in franchise history. The GM that was supposed to add the final pieces to a playoff contender is now woefully out of his depth and tasked for a rebuild, and for no other reason than “idk, it seems rash,” they’re both going to be back next year. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, there is no cause for hope, there is no silver lining.
The problem is larger and runs deeper than I think anyone at Seymour Knox Plaza comprehends. The tank, which was really nothing more than step one of a rebuild, cutting dead weight and attempting to replenish the farm, was the correct move and that cannot be reasonably refuted, no matter how hard Bucky Gleason thinks Lee Stempniak was the missing piece. The problem was…everything else. The guys brought in were the wrong guys, the leaders were too weak the lead, the goalies were trash and 80% of the draft picks were useless. The roster ended up being a bunch of replacement-value or worse cannon fodder. The players brought in to fill holes ended up not being big enough to fill the hole, creating an even larger hole. The amount of dead cap space as well as the amount of cap space wasted on garbage players skyrocketed.
This isn’t even to speak of the collateral damage, which may be reach farther than even the pending rebuild. Why would anyone subject themselves to this product moving forward? The ancillary things Sabres Twitter complained about over the years are largely still there except now the product on the ice is even shittier. I’m willing to guarantee everyone reading this turned down tickets this season, perhaps even free tickets. It goes far beyond noise and puck stoppage gimmicks, it’s a matter the Sabres being a poor use of anyone’s time. This season I was happy to knock out a slew of shows with my fiancé, socialize more with friends when not feeling compelled to constantly check my phone. I was able to see more people when we were home because no longer was gathering tickets and taking up an evening at the arena an appealing option. Fellow lifelong fans have checked out, at the very least saying “call me when you’re good,” a call that frankly might never come.
At this point the only feeling I can muster towards the Sabres is resentment. I’ve been asked by multiple people recently if I still care about the team and the answer is grudgingly, yes. I will probably purchase gamecenter again next year, though like this year, their games will not play a factor into any other plans that may come up. I resent them wasting my time, I resent them sullying fond memories with their incompetence, I resent players who say the fans should be behind them more, players who martyr themselves because golly-gee, playing hockey just ain’t fun anymore. I resent the lip service to “the best fans in the league,” I resent Harrington articles telling me to like a shitty player like Josh Gorges and I resent fans telling me to be more of a friend than a fan over Ryan O’Reilly’s crippling case of the sadz. I resent them for acting like it’s understandable that this should be so fucking hard with Vegas, Colorado, and New Jersey hosting playoff games.
I’ve defended ownership for a while thanks to creating Penn State’s hockey program, keeping the teams in town, the canalside development, and TBN’s reckless and immediate attacks. As Harrington has always said, access is a privilege and ultimately it is up to the subject to provide that access. Demands for him to speak about the Penn State Sandusky/Paterno scandal was in remarkably bad faith given his lack of affiliation with the football program. Demands for him to speak about the tank were also in bad faith; whether the vendetta was an eagerness to tear down someone who had saved the franchise in 2011, animosity towards the existence of a female owner, or a general campaign to prove that TBN is not as impotent as they seem in local sports, I don’t know.
However, that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have to speak now. What he strove to convey upon the purchase in 2011 was that he was also a lifelong fan of the team, that he was determined to bring a cup to Buffalo, that he understood the pain of losing in the playoffs and the joys the team can bring. If this is true, the performance has to not only be infuriating as an owner but embarrassing and humiliating as a fan. Millions of fans are looking to him to fix this and now not once but twice, it has been completely destroyed on his watch. He may be just as lost as I am as to the next steps but what he needs to show is that he understands that this is rock bottom; that the franchise has never been as much as a collection of incompetents and as embarrassing to the fans as it is right now. And also, what the fuck is Russ Brandon doing there?
For years I’ve written previews and postmortems here; the previews were always generally too optimistic but that’s how I’ve gone into every season, excited, hopeful. The postmortems have generally been filled with disappointment but there was always the general thought that improvement was both inevitable and reasonable to see. The kids would be older, the locker room would gel, the befuddled coach would be gone, the dead weight would get lopped off. This time? I have absolutely no idea where they go from here and no idea how they fix this. All I know is I want a lot of people gone that probably won’t be gone with the puck is dropped in October. There are exciting prospects sure but when was the last time one of those panned out as more than a third liner? This team is FILLED with bottom six scrubs. There isn’t a goalie on the roster that elicits confidence for carrying the load for a full NHL season. The backline is an Ypres field hospital. No one can design a special teams gameplan to save their life. The KBC is going to be less traveled than a wake for someone nobody particularly liked very much. The roster is immensely unlikeable and they don’t seem to care about their jobs or each other. Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll ever again care about the Sabres as I did the first thirty years since I sat between my uncle and grandfather at the Aud or if like those two men, that’s just gone forever.
Enjoy the offseason. It’ll only get worse from there.