My sophomore year was the typical cluster of AP classes, extracurriculars, and band practice — basically everything one would need to polish their college applications. Needless to say, it sucked.
Most people had hobbies to get them through the day, and while I had plenty of after-school activities, none of them were things I purely enjoyed. From yearbook meetings to history class to calculus problem sets, nothing ever changed. The most exciting thing that could happen would be my mom letting me pick where we would go out to eat that weekend.
One November night, I was flipping through channels, trying to find something to watch and take my mind off of the drab weather that plagues Buffalo right before the holidays. I stumbled upon a Buffalo Sabres game. It had been a while since I had last watched hockey, partly because of the 2004-2005 lockout and mostly because my brother, who was the die-hard fan in the family, was off at college. I grew up watching hockey because Sean’s life was (and still is) consumed by all things hockey. With him out of the house, it wasn’t constantly surrounding me, and hockey just slipped off my radar. But on this November night, bored with everything else on television, I settled in to watch the game.
As the game went on, I found myself surprised at how sucked in I became. The hockey I saw was drastically different from the hockey I remembered from before the lockout. The game was fast — really fast. Hard-hitting and adept, the new style of hockey emphasized skill and speed, and was irresistibly captivating.
After that night, I continued to watch hockey games, and loved watching Danny Briere, Chris Drury and the rest of the Sabres skate circles around their opponents, all while scoring beautiful goals and winning impossible games. Briere was by far my favorite Sabre, if only for his adorable French-Canadian accent, his goatee and his ability to score some of the grittiest and prettiest goals I’ve ever seen.
The more I watched and read about the team, the more I related to them. Much like the city of Buffalo itself, the Sabres were a scrappy underdog, always undervalued because they were an under-sized small-market franchise. Similar to the blue-collar city, they were hard workers and fiercely loyal to each other. If an opponent tried messing with one of the smaller players, the rest of the Sabres would immediately seek justice, whether it’s calling for a penalty or taking matters into their own hands, despite the five-minute consequence.
I fell in love with the team. They epitomized everything my life was lacking. Excitement. Intensity. Passion. It didn’t hurt that, despite what several of my friends think, hockey players are hot.
Fast-forward to the 2006 playoffs. The Sabres, with a 52-24-6 record, earned the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference and qualified for a trip to the playoffs. They battled through a six-game series against the Philadelphia Flyers, one of the meanest teams in hockey (and that’s mainly because of their fanbase). The Ottawa Senators, the division leader and a bitter rival, also put up a tough fight, but the Sabres conquered them as well. Then, tragedy struck.
During the Eastern Conference finals series against the Carolina Hurricanes, the Sabres started dropping like flies. Defenseman after defenseman got injured, and a key center was out with a concussion. Still, the Sabres battled through to make it to the pivotal Game 7. I figured as long as we had our key defenseman and best shot blocker, Jay McKee, we’d be okay.
The day before the deciding game, McKee was no longer in playing condition. A freak staph infection assaulted his shin, and he was declared out for Game 7 against the Hurricanes. In all, the Sabres were without four defenseman and a star center. Basically, they were screwed.
My ultimate sports memory occurred during Game 7 in the ninth minute of the third period. The Sabres were keeping up with the ‘Canes; it was tied at 2 with a little more than 11 minutes to go. The Sabres were scrambling to get the puck out of the defensive zone, only no one could find it. Around the 11:26 mark, the puck was sitting in between the skates of Rory Fitzpatrick, one of the weakest players on the team. Not even he knew where it was. But Rod Brind’Amour, the Carolina captain and unarguably the ugliest man in hockey, did. He skated up behind Fitzpatrick, poked the puck out and scored what ended up being the winning goal of the game as well as the series.
In those four seconds, my heart broke. I could feel the disappointment weighing down on my shoulders and a sharp pain filled my chest. I still can’t imagine how it must have felt to be Fitzpatrick.
All the work and effort the Sabres put into the season, wasted. All those hours I spent watching games, making signs, reading articles — it inevitably led to the same thing Buffalo fans have been feeling for years, failure.
Something changed that night. Yes, Buffalo teams were still championship-less (neither the Sabres nor the Buffalo Bills have ever won the big game), but something was definitely different. From that night on, the Buffalo Sabres went from a “they” to a “we.” That was the night I became a die-hard Sabres fan and, despite the continuing lack of a Stanley Cup and the constant disappointment, I couldn’t be happier.
It’s hard being a displaced fan, especially for a sport as unpopular as hockey. Luckily, Center Ice and my frequent trips to Buffalo Wild Wings keep me connected to my boys. After Game 7, I made a promise to myself that I would always be there for my team, just like they were there for me.