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.
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.
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.
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.