“We were cheated, not defeated!
“Thou shalt not steal!”
Those were a couple of the signs held aloft by Sabres fans on June 22nd, 1999 – 12 years ago today. Two days previous, the Dallas Stars had finished off the Sabres in the Stanley Cup Final in the third overtime of Game Six.
Brett Hull, from Lehtinen and Modano.
We all know the story, but if you’d like a refresher, click here.
Fans were crushed, but it didn’t stop 20,000 of them from attending a rally to support their team that just lost a professional sports championship in one of the most frustrating and controversial ways of all time.
Fast forward to 2011: a few days ago, fans in Vancouver rioted – again – after losing out in the Stanley Cup Final. (They had also taken to the streets in a stupor of violence in 1994, when their team was defeated in the Final.)
Not to take anything away from the city of Vancouver – it’s boasts a wonderful, year-round embracing climate, plenty of great stuff on the waterfront, and the people are as friendly as they come. Still, after that same friendly population there suffers a gutting defeat, there is a scary pattern of violence.
In Buffalo, that pattern could not be any different.
Back on January 29, 1991, Barbara O’brien of the Buffalo News wrote a sentimental piece about how 30,000 Bills fans gathered downtown for a rally in support of the Buffalo Bills. The Bills had just lost Superbowl XXV in a horrific way, as Scott Norwood failed to convert a 47-yard field goal at the end of the game. Fans in Buffalo would take to the streets, but not to riot. Instead, they came out to hold their heads high.
From the O’Brien article:
Dwight Bonk of the Town of Tonawanda and Matt Goulet of Buffalo said they wouldn’t want to be any place but Niagara Square on Monday afternoon.
“I thought the Bills had a great season. They definitely deserve an ovation like this, and I know they’ll be back next year,” Bonk said.
“The Bills are where it’s at. They’re the team of the future. They’re the team of today, they deserve the respect of every fan who’s here,” Goulet added.
“They’re still No. 1. I don’t care what anybody says,” said Yvonne Scott of Cheektowaga.
The players felt the same sentiment of hope.
“We don’t have the most talented players,” wide receiver James Lofton said. “Every player on our team is not All-Pro, but what they are is what Mark Kelso said — they’re family. We bond together. We’re Buffalo’s team. We’re going to be No. 1 when we get back next year.”
Eight years later, the quotes from fans at the ’99 rally were virtually interchangeable. Again, fans held their heads high – and the media covering the Dallas Stars even took notice. From an article posted by the Amarillo Globe-News:
“Even though they were defeated, we still have to show them support,” said Jennifer Feher of Kenmore. “They represented Buffalo throughout the world.”
While she remained disappointed over how the series ended, she said the fans would eventually put it behind them.
“In Buffalo, we’re tough people. We’ll come back next year,” she said.
This time, Rob Ray took over where James Lofton left off, to say what the players believed.
“This team is going to be unbelievable in years to come. You can almost guarantee there are going to be many more days like this in the future. The bright young stars that we have are not to be denied.”
Lofton, Ray, and those fans were right. The Bills would go on to the Superbowl for the next three seasons – an incredible feat for the ages, even bearing the fact they lost all of them. The Sabres’ young talent took a little more time. When they did emerge in the 2005-2007 seasons, they were better than Ray could have imagined – and likely would have won a cup in 2006 if not for a defensive squad entirely decimated by injury in the Conference Final.
At the end of every season, we’re lucky to have each other, in this “City of Good Neighbors.” Hope and hard-nosed determination really can’t help fans get to a championship, but in the times in-between deep playoff runs, it sure beats the heck out of smashing each other’s windows and looting what is left of our city and our pride.
Sure, there are plenty of rust-belted folks out there that would understandably quip that “Fans would try to riot, but as soon as they hit Main Street, they’d remember there isn’t anything left there to steal.” Funny, yes, but wholly untrue: you can’t steal hope, and you can’t loot pride.
We have those two things really figured out here in Buffalo. The folks in Vancouver might have a lot of “stuff” that we wish we had on our waterfront, but they sure don’t have what we have in our chests – (which is why it feels so great when we thump those chests, even in losing seasons).
12 years to the day since that rally in ’99, and we’re still ready and waiting to claim that Big Game. Someday, hopefully sooner rather than later, all of that stubborn Western New York grit will be rewarded, and we will have a rally of champions.
Go Sabres, go Bills, and, “Let’s go Buff-a-lo!”