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.