hockey heaven:

From Hockey Hell to Hockey Heaven: an Odyssey

Our Odyssey begins in the 2002-03 season.

Back in 2002, Sabres’ owner John Rigas was indicted on fraud charges. The team was seized by the NHL, as it slid into bankruptcy. For Rigas, he would began serving a 15 year sentence in 2007  for concealing $2.3 billion in corporate loans, and using them as his personal “piggy bank.” He’s in “Canes’ Country” now, in a federal corrections facility in Raleigh, NC.

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In a single day, Rigas used funds for a $17,000 monthly mortgage payment, $3,000 in beauty treatments, and 100 pairs of slippers. Well, we won't fault him for trying the beauty treatments.

Meanwhile, in Sabreland, no one – not even the players – knew who might buy the team, or where the team would play. From the Buffalo News:

“You couldn’t get away from the speculation about which group was buying the team,” said assistant coach James Patrick, who was a defenseman on the 2002-03 club. “You were reading this owner was going to do this, or this owner was going to come in and clean house. Different names were being thrown about. That was certainly a bit of a soap opera.”

As new owners were sought the Sabres’ struggles in the locker room spilled out onto the ice. They were sitting in last place almost from the start of the season until the end posting a horrible record of 27-37-10-8. As the season wound down, Tom Golisano purchased the team for $92 Million, ending the anxiety amid rumors the Sabres would relocate, or fold up operations entirely.

The 2003-04 season was a season of recovery for the team. The team had a dismal 18-25-5-1 start, but the addition of Chris Drury helped to turn things around. The Sabres had a 37-34-7-4 record in the second half, and would miss the playoffs by 6 points. Things were finally starting to look up.

…then the lockout happened.

NHL lockout From Hockey Hell to Hockey Heaven: an Odyssey

Because things can always get worse.

The entire 2004-05 season was cancelled.

There weren’t many fans eager to fill the seats at the HSBC at the beginning of the 2005-06 season, but who could blame them? They had been brained by the jailing of an owner, bankruptcy, possible relocation/folding, a terrible product on the ice, and then no hockey at all for an entire year.

Then, something magical started to happen. The team started to outperform anyone’s wildest predictions, and raced into the Eastern Conference Finals. Most would argue that the Sabres would have won that series, heck, they would argue that team would have won the Cup – if not for a rash of injuries that took almost every starting defenseman off the ice.

2006-07 was another wild ride, as the Sabres went an astounding 53-22-7 to win the President’s Trophy. Fans were a bit besmirched by Golisano’s introduction of the team’s new “slug” logo, but cheered for the team that just had to win that Cup this time. (They had to, because as every fan knew, the man that saved the franchise was not willing to pay to keep it competitive. Fans knew that either Danny Briere or Chris Drury would be lost to free agency after the season was over.)

After the Sabres bowed out of the Eastern Conferece Finals again, this time to the Ottawa Senators, fans held tightly to their Briere and Drury “slug” jerseys that they had bought in good faith and team spirit. We knew we couldn’t afford to keep both Drury and Briere, but at least we might hold onto one of them.

On Sunday, July 1st, 2007, we lost them both.

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It felt like all the blue and gold drained from our hockey hearts that day.

So, a quick recap on our nightmarish Odyssey:

  • Owner jailed
  • Team Bankruptcy
  • Relocation/folding rumors abound as NHL sells team
  • The Lockout
  • A sudden rush to the edge of the Finals, and the Stanley Cup
  • Black Sunday

The Golisano Era was now in full stride, as the seasons wound on. Yea, we had a team – a team that nobody wanted to play for. Players like Mike Grier and Brian Campbell bolted in free agency as the team floundered under its miserly savior, missing the playoffs in 2007-08 and 2008-09.

The Sabres of 2009-10 made the playoffs, but failed to capture much of the fans’ passion, (or whatever was left of it after the ceaseless shell-shocks that started in 2002).

Well, we all know the story from thereon out. The 2010-11 team was one of the worst in the league, but began a slow comeback that became an epic surge when new owner Terry Pegula came virtually out of nowhere (actually, somewhere in Pennsylvania) and improbably made the playoffs.

Since then, it’s been all about Hockey Heaven. Players are actually choosing to come to Buffalo now, as Pegula fulfills on his early promises to build a fantastic experience and a Stanley Cup Champion.

The Cup can’t be guaranteed by anyone, but deliverance from this nightmare is finally at hand. Fans that survived of this horrid stretch of trauma deserve a medal, but they’re happy just to be a part of something real again – no more nightmares, anymore.

A new Odyssey has begun.

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This is going to be fun.

Go Sabres.

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So What, Exactly, is Hockey Heaven?

We’re not elitists.

There is no sense of entitlement in this town. But since Terry Pegula arrived on February 22nd, 2011 (forever hereafter to be known as “Pegula Day” to Sabres Nation), there is a sense of confidence.

There is a belief.

For perhaps the first time in the storied history of the Buffalo Sabres franchise, the fan base is compelled to a certitude that the Stanley Cup will be won. It may take years, but it will be won.

HockeyHeavenTee So What, Exactly, is Hockey Heaven?

And inherit Lord Stanley.

(Photo from “Hockey Heaven’s” online “716” store.)

It’s not just about that Cup though, folks. “Hockey Heaven” is not a destination, it’s a way of life. It’s the kids that block traffic playing street hockey in front of your house. It’s the Labatt Pond Hockey tournament. It’s the midnight broomball games at Leisure Rinks. It’s the pride we feel when we lead the national ratings for a playoff game rounds after our own team has been eliminated. It’s the backyard rinks in winter. It’s teaching our kids to skate at the good ol’ Nike Base, like our parents taught us. It’s the open practices at the HSBC Arena.

Sometimes, it is as simple as the smell of the hockey rink when you first walk through the door to watch a varsity match between St. Francis and Orchard Park.

We breathe it deeply here.

Hockey Heaven has always been here, but what Terry Pegula has done cannot be overlooked. Heck, how do you overlook over 75 Sabres alumni signing autographs at Fan Appreciation Night? The anticipation felt by fans about Pegula on February 22nd has been replaced with a feeling of marvel, as Terry adds perk upon perk to the fan and player experience.  A challenge: try to name all the changes and improvements that Pegula and Ted Black have put into place since their arrival. Just try it.

It’s amazing what they’ve done in basically just three calendar months. Here’s a quick list (which I am sure is incomplete, feel free to add more in the comments section below):

  • He decided not to dismantle the team he bought, instead, he bought into his team. Trading only to bring Brad Boyes in, his men responded by going 16-4-4 to improbably make the playoffs.
  • He made the Sabres family whole again, when he invited all Sabres alumni back into the fold. Every one of those guys who spent time here have since gone back to their homes, and around the world, the message that they brought back was “Buffalo is the new destination.”
  • He brought free programs.
  • He fixed the plumbing at HSBC.
  • He made the decision to remove a ill-attended museum, to utilize the space in the arena as it should be – for hockey.
  • He allowed fans to choose game day tunes.
  • He reunited the French Connection for one final time.
  • He put Ted Black on a fan internet chat for a NHL record 3 hours and 18 minutes.
  • He followed his new team on the road, sitting in the cheap seats, so he could keep the magic run alive.
  • He invested, and is investing, every penny towards a Cup, and nothing else.
  • He challenged the Buffalo News for being unfairly and detrimentally negative.
  • He brought a second screen in for the Party in the Plaza.
  • He purchased a $20,000 carpet for the locker room.
  • He provided fans with an amazing service for their beloved #7.
  • He planted a flag at HSBC that read “Hockey Heaven.”
  • He met fans in the lobby before games.
  • He instilled a sense of hope in a franchise and a city that had been drowning under the heavy ice of Lake Erie for a decade.

And he did all of these things in 24 games.

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For those who witnessed it, none will ever forget Corey Martin eulogizing his father.

By the way, thanks Corey.

Since then, Pegula’s done more, and more – the latest gem being him and Lindy Ruff leaving the draft to fly to Calgary and visit Robyn Regehr at his home to meet and welcome him and his family to Buffalo.

For all of our problems here in the Queen City, we have a lot to cherish.

Pegula didn’t create “Hockey Heaven.” It was here all along. But, boy, he sure has made us feel it a heckuva lot more.

Thanks again, Terry.

Go Sabres.

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