I didn’t think I’d write about this simply because I’ve talked about it so much, written so many words about it while only scratching the surface. I am acutely aware that all of this, the emotional connection I feel to it still today, the memories it elicits comes off both heavy handed and corny. I’m a cynic, antagonistic, dismissive about many things these days (off the top of my head: The election, fake jersey wearers, Rex Ryan, Pennsylvania drivers, my retirement prospects), but this, this was a time where everything- on the surface- seemed perfect. There will be greater moments ahead both in sports and in life but never have they both met in such a beautiful collision for me as what happened in spring 2006. This is that run as I experienced it, as much as I can remember and write without going down the many various tangential rabbit holes that would easily quadruple the size of this piece. If you wanna hear about any of the spinoffs sometime, @ me.
I usually find myself thinking about that playoff run around this time of year and I suppose since you took the time to click this, you do too. However, the ten year anniversary of the 05-06 team has come abruptly, quietly, though I suppose that’s what happens with a team that can’t even claim the most basic banner. They didn’t win their league, their conference, or even their division. Any and all metrics tell us that we should have a greater affinity for teams that came after- in 2007 and 2010 for instance- or before, in the case of 1999 or 1997. Still, The Buffalo News has practically made it a daily feature and even the Sabres twitter account has gotten on board despite the fact everyone in the marketing department thinks the organization was founded in 2010.
This summer is also my ten year college reunion. In what I am sure will shock all of you, none of my friends from Tonawanda High went away to college, and as an only child and the first one in the family to go to college, I felt rather overwhelmed, even at a tiny liberal arts school in Olean. I found some friends but felt awkward, out of place; I loved to drink so that alone got me through a year and a half until I studied abroad. When I returned my junior year, however, it was like a light bulb went off. The day I drove onto campus (drove! Finally!) I went to a party and met the girl that would dominate my memories of that Sabres run and years beyond. I made better and closer friends on campus, established a usual crew, house, bar, a place for the first time as a Bonnie.
Subsequently, after being one of dominant interests through high school, the Sabres found themselves relegated to the back of my mind in college. I’m not even sure we got MSG the first couple years I dormed there (to put it in perspective, I had an actual phone in my room freshman year because there weren’t any cell phone towers); abroad I could only follow the results from checking the TBN website each morning on campus. By junior year and the lockout, I just didn’t care. I was coming into my stride socially, getting acquainted with some of the lovely women on campus, basking in the Red Sox first World Series title in 86 years and for a month in there the Bills actually mattered! Come 2005 and the start of my Senior Year my biggest concerns were, in no particular order:
- Breakup with the Long Island girl I’d started dating spring semester for some inexplicable reason
- Get into law school at Penn State
- Eschew responsibility for fun at every opportunity
I attended one regular season game that year and it came during the longest losing streak of the season. Bonas had acquired a block of tickets and a bus to and from a Wednesday night game against Carolina. So I asked my girlfriend to come along and packed a decent amount of road beers (Fun fact, Mike from over at Buffalo Wins was a row away from me a couple years before mutual friends in Tonawanda and Williamsville brought us together as close friends through much of our twenties. He told me some years back that I was ragging on a Penguins fan on the drive up which is just hilarious to read now- a Sabres fan ripping on a Pens fan- not ironically).
The Sabres fell behind 4-0 in that game yet roared back before eventually falling 4-3. I was bummed but for my first game at HSBC in three years it wasn’t bad. I remember how nice it was just to hear the crowd back into it after a couple brutal seasons and a lockout. It seemed different, like they knew something that I did not.
My first inclination at this memory is to ask why we didn’t come up the Friday night before but the answer is quickly obvious. It was 2006. There was nothing to do! Notwithstanding accompanying a couple underage kids, what the hell would we even have done? Liz had already seen the two dive bars we went to in Tonawanda, why would we sacrifice a Friday night at Bonas with our friends with a couple hours of quiet beer sipping with townies? There was no “resurgence” on the horizon, and looking back, the extent of said resurgence can still be debated but the existence of one certainly cannot be.
I remember taking some of his nachos.
I remember you could still smoke outside the arena during the game and running down for one in between the overtimes. I remember screaming in a state of bloodlust at RJ Umberger, imploring that I hoped he would be unable to get up (21 year olds aren’t good people).
I remember when my favorite player scored to win the game, I raised my arms in relief (seriously man, it was the first game, why so serious) and hugged the guy who gave me his nachos. We beeped our way home.
The rest of the Flyers series is peculiar. Two of the Sabres wins were absolute curbstompings, one each in Buffalo and Philadelphia but I don’t remember much of what I was doing for those games. I was back at Bonas, and the middle of the series coincided with Spring Weekend, a drunken blur of softball, drinking during class, eating fried food and basking in the sun so no wonder I remember little. I do remember the clinching blowout with my roommates at the townhouse but with it as background noise once the result was in the bag. Perhaps if they had lost to Ottawa, if that series had gone the way I was certain it would go, I’d remember where I was for those six games the way I remember where I was for the following 12, but that’s a good thing- there was more.
Game one of the Ottawa series was on CBC, no problem in the greater Buffalo area but our cable on campus didn’t come with the Canadian channels (I’ve been told this was false but it was what I believed so it’s not false). So I headed home, bolstered by the fact I’d been invited to tag along to Canisius’ Quad Party weekend the day of Game 1. It was a warm, sunny day, a perfect day to sit on one of those second floor porches with a railing far too precarious to lean on- even though you would anyways, clutching a red solo cup with the other hand. We wandered from a house where we knew people to a house where we knew no one. We watched a couple drug deals take place down the street and eventually headed over to a friend’s place for the pregame show and game; he had a skinny quarter keg of blue that poured extra foamy and hadn’t been sufficiently cooled.
In hindsight it was a laughable game. Ottawa scored right away and every time Buffalo tied it Ottawa would come right back. They scored at the beginning of the game, at the beginning of the third period. When Roy tied it shorthanded, I ran out of the room to call my girlfriend, screaming over the noise that they tied it and giving her a brief summary- brief because Smolinski scored on the next possession and I tersely got off the phone. Of course I called back a minute later, screaming louder over more noise that Connolly had tied it with ten seconds left.
We went outside to catch our breath; I don’t recall if myself or my friend was the one who said “here’s to them scoring 17 seconds in,” but we were off my a second and I can still hear the roar of the house, the houses around us, the drunk college bros pouring onto the streets while Volchenkov’s lifeless body drifted into the corner. We screamed, we hugged strangers, we got our ride home to another cacophony of horns.
It was a sit-down dinner but many of us finished quickly to gather at the small bar and watch the game on the tiny, boxy screen in the corner. While game one may have been the best game and game five may have been the most iconic for the franchise, game three gave me the best moment: a hundred or so fans and classmates, crammed against each other to peer at a tiny television, screaming, hugging, high fiving after this team- a team we thought could at best go out with a fight- was suddenly on the brink of a sweep. The dance floor opened up, the DJ finally felt clear to turn on the music and like the Sabres, we had one more party ahead. Perhaps it was this excitement that led one of my closest friends to make the worst hookup mistake of his college career just a few hours later.
We did dinner with everyone at Applebee’s, pretty much the third best dining options in the Olean-Allegany area in 2006 that wasn’t a dive bar. I conversed about the upcoming fall in State College, about our summer plans, about the schedule of the next morning, only looking at the TV in the corner briefly whenever I could. My girlfriend agreed to be my DD for the night so with the rain startin, we bid goodbye to my family (promising that we would stay in town), picked up beer at the Tops nearby and headed up to Ellicottville. By the time we got to Great Valley the rain was coming down enough that it was difficult to see out the windshield of her VW Beatle (bc girls) and find our way to the cabin- the only directions we had had been posted to my Facebook wall a couple days earlier because again, phones didn’t work out there.
By the time we got there, it was already 2-2 and some ten or fifteen friends were already camped out in the living room watching, relegating Liz and me to a small antique bench which was likely meant only for children. Perhaps to cut down on the tension and ensure we would have a good evening regardless, we started up a game of kings (4th king funnels- no “kings cup” nonsense we’re all friends here), keeping one eye or ear cocked to the screen.
The storm, coupled with our location on some hill miles outside of town resulted in what any who had DirecTV then and now knows quite well; the feed would intermittently cut out, emitting anguished cries from the card game until the person sitting closest to the television pounded on the box enough times for the picture to return, then sighs of relief. When overtime started a couple friends headed over to the guest house to watch- even the distractions of drinking games were too much.
Like everyone else, I can still see Pominville take the puck out of the corner of my eye, RJ’s voice elevating ever so slightly, in the way that is only noticed after years, decades of listening to him announcing games. At the moment it’s just winning possession on the penalty kill, a good enough feat to eventually get back to full strength. But he doesn’t flip the puck in. He doesn’t rip a shot from just inside the blue line like Plante. He doesn’t cut to the middle and leave a drop pass for a streaking Stu Barnes. He goes around, so far toward the end boards that for a second you think he’s just going to get pinched there.
But it doesn’t happen; he comes back up in front of the goalie and scores.
“In” we yelled in response. It was cold that night and while the rain had let up, it was still raining, the ground soaked and mud everywhere. The slip n’ slide got set up on a small hill next to the guest house, close enough to where you had to react quick lest you tumble into the pile of rocks and the house itself. None of it mattered, we headed out in basketball shorts, bras and underwear, boxers if you were unlucky enough to not be staying the night.
Several of the sane and rational didn’t participate, opting to watch with on the balcony as we tumbled down the hill screaming, celebrating, coming up shivering, covered in mud. After the madness we showered off, threw back some more beers and shots, taking in the exaltation of the fact that this team, coming out of nowhere could somehow do it.
After an hour or two we hopped back in the bug and drove back to Allegany, the rain now over (after doing the slip n’ slide in my boxers I’m curious as to whether I went commando for the rest of the night). We headed to the party where nearly a hundred people had gathered in the backyard around a bonfire, a couple sitting, most standing. Some final games of beer pong were taking place in the kitchen but for perhaps the first time there I had no interest in signing up on the list. I just wanted to stand there with my half empty case of Keystone Light, my college sweetheart, rifling through Seneca Lights, appreciating those people that made those years so special while dreaming of how special that team- one we had all just watched do the impossible- could be.
My final memory of that night came late, nearing five am. So few people had left that I had long lost track of time when she tugged on my shirt. “Matt, we have to go. You graduate in four hours.”
It was all too perfect. I had long since lost any belief in a higher power or some benevolent force handing out awards to those who deserved them, but I couldn’t help but feel that this was the time. I had seen the storybook playoff run from the Red Sox merely a year and a half earlier and as I moved home for the summer, the town awash in goathead car flags, messages on every storefront and sign in the region, I couldn’t help but think that this was what Boston was like, only better.
My roommate’s grad party was during game one; we rigged an extension cord to a box TV and watched the victory under a tent as some light rain fell. As the series descended into a quagmire of injuries and missed opportunities, I felt the same disbelief that it might not happen while feeling the rage that that team, the team that couldn’t sell out game five, the team whose fans took to message boards to piss and moan about the visiting Sabres fans treating the occasion as if it was one worth ENJOYING, that they could come out on top. We sold out tickets to three games in ten minutes; their tickets were readily available if you simply walked up the box office ten minutes before puck drop.
We watched game six at the dive bar in Tonawanda that pretty much sponsored my 20’s, the Eldredge Club. When Briere scored the friend next to me punched through the low ceiling and sent the tile flying. We had one final celebratory combustion of joy, but even as he said “Fuck! If only we’d won game five!” I was certain there would be more.
Despite being a Red Sox fan since childhood, I’d never been to a Red Sox game, home or away. My grandparents were getting too old to take trips and my mom was far too stressed out over the costs of my continued legal education to spring for some treat to Cleveland or Toronto. But as luck would have it, for my 22nd birthday my girlfriend had without my knowledge booked us a stay in the Rogers Center Hotel along with two tickets to a Jays-Sox game the night in between games six and seven. We spent the night at dinner watching BP, then watching Ortiz and Manny homer while in the back of my head knowing that there was no reason this spring, which had so far been so perfect, had so many amazing moments, had to end.
We drove back the next day, speeding down the QEW in the sun. Despite being slightly disappointed that my Sabres car flag and flown out on the LaSalle Expressway the day before, I was confident. As a matter of fact I don’t think I have ever been so sure of a Sabres victory before or since. I knew they were going to pull it off, fuck the decimated blue line, fuck the staph infection, and fuck Carolina. I knew they were going to win game seven, get a couple defensemen back for the Cup Finals and blow away whatever pitiful excuse for a western conference champion was going to limp in as our opponent.
I was madly in love, would be attending the school I’d dreamed of one day attending since I was a child. I was on the path toward the career I wanted since before I entered my teens. On top of all that, Buffalo was going to have its first major sports title in its history. It was too perfect. Kiss played that silly All-American Rejects mash-up with RJ calls and fuck if I wasn’t getting the chills on the Rainbow Bridge, eager to get home, get my gear on and hit the bar. We were going to experience a goddamn moment.
And we did.
I feel like every half generation or so has their defining moment of Buffalo sports pain. Sometimes it’s the obvious, like 1975 or Wide Right or No Goal. To others it’s more obscure. It’s the 1980 Bills, Brad Park or the Bills finale against Pittsburgh. For many of us millennials, with a Bills team wandering the abyss for half our lives or more, this Sabres team was that defining moment. We were sure it was our time, but like everyone else before us learned, it wasn’t to be.
I cried on the sidewalk that night- it was a couple weeks before the cloud lifted. Several days later I had friends over at my grandparents as I did most weeks, and my best friend and I couldn’t even hang out with everyone doing the usual beer pong, music and laughter thing. We sat on the front porch, sipping beers, incredulously wondering how our other friends could even enjoy themselves. Part of growing up is invariably learning that the world, its inhabitants and its workings do not operate on a moral plane. There is no “fair” and “unfair,” there is only what happens and what doesn’t.
What role that loss played on the next ten years of my life can’t be known but the jarring shock of such a perfectly laid out plan being derailed in a matter of minutes was a valuable lesson. Soon after I discovered that the legal profession was neither the meal ticket I had imagined nor the rewarding career I dreamed of. A few years later that love fell apart, a few years after that those friends I outgrew. I moved to rural Vermont to escape changes happening too quickly, dreamt of a solitary and fresh existence only to return to Tonawanda a year later.
I left again three years later, to a new state where I knew no one. I fell in love and moved again, here to Pennsylvania. If the Sabres win that night, if they win the cup, perhaps I would have seen it as confirmation that all my other foolishly laid plans were predetermined and true. Perhaps the Sabres start a dynasty and we’re instead lamenting the last veterans of that team crumbling and the organization drifting listlessly. Maybe Pegula isn’t the savior but the one who pushed the ship off course.
That season’s attachment to that age, that year of school, has acted as both a blessing and curse. I close my eyes and I am back at quad party, the Eldredge Club, or on a tiny bench in Ellicottville, with those people. At the same time I am acutely aware that due to the natural progression of life, of chasing jobs and experiences, I only speak to one person I watched any of those games with, and I haven’t seen her in nearly seven years. When I see the YouTube clips, or the TBN recaps, it is not just the Sabres and that run I confront, but the Bonas memories, the melancholy of being so far away from those times and how I felt with those friends during my all too brief time there. Sometimes I wish they didn’t go so hand in hand but could be dealt with separately at their own times.
It was easy to reminisce about that run at first because we were sure that while the disappointment ran deep and raw, they were close, it wouldn’t last long, the reward for our years of sinking money, time and emotion into these silly sports would have its payoff. Ten years on we’re still waiting, having watched nearly everyone from that roster age and exit the league while we’ve graduated, married, had children, career changes, moves across states and countries. For the first time since maaaaaaybe 2011- perhaps not since 2006- we can finally confidently say that the direction is the right and true one.
The reward is coming, and it will be glorious. It will be wild, euphoric, it will mean far too much to far too many people and cost millions of dollars in both property damage and lost labor. It will be the greatest sports moment Western New York and generations of fans have ever experienced. But 2006 will not be forgotten.
It was too perfect.