Sabres fans are being severely tested by the Hockey Gods.
As the days and weeks of the 2011-12 season pass, the team identity has gone amiss, injuries continue to mount, and games are being lost. Our once boastful, or hopeful predictions for what might be accomplished by this Sabres team are being truly tempered.
And boy, a lot of us are losing our temper.
Calls to fire Ruff (as we’ve touched on a couple times recently here on BSN) and/or Regier are prevalent throughout the media, blogosphere, and Twitter chatter. Calls to shake up the roster by trading away our best names are being trumpeted just as loudly. Indeed, these calls are a far cry from the “clarion call” that Ted Black asserted Pegula was making to the NHL when he took over ownership from Tom Golisano – that Buffalo was to be the destination for NHLers, and for Stanley Cups.
A current of collective doubt is growing around this team now. There have been grumblings over what has become a lifeless arena. There’s been complaints about folks leaving games early. Oddly enough, there are even fans who describe feeling terribly out of line when trying to start up a simple “Let’s Go, Buffalo!” chant.
But take heart, Sabres fans. All is not lost. Not the season. And certainly, not “Hockey Heaven.”
There has never been a sense of entitlement in this town. But when Terry Pegula arrived on February 22nd, 2011 (forever hereafter to be known as “Pegula Day” to Sabres Nation), there was a new sense of confidence.
There was a birth of belief. And it felt beautiful.
For perhaps the first time in the storied history of the Buffalo Sabres franchise, the fan base was compelled to a certitude that the Stanley Cup would be won. It might take years, but it would be won. This was what was promised to us, and this promise still stands.
For a moment though, let’s put the Quest for the Cup aside. Sure, hockey’s ultimate prize is our ultimate goal as Sabres fans, but even as the team struggles, our “Hockey Heaven” endures and grows.
“Hockey Heaven” is not a destination, after all. 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 FN’ Center. It’s a 25 hour long hockey game, played for charity on the wondrous ice surface that once showcased the NHL’s first (and best, in my humble opinion) Winter Classic.
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 almost a dumbfounded thankfulness, 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 did in basically just three calendar months after taking over the team. 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 these new emissaries brought with them 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.
- 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 his first 24 games.
Since then, Pegula’s done more, and more.
- It’s impossible to forget Pegula 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.
- He reunited the Sabres and Rochester Americans.
- He added an ECHL affiliation with the Gwinnett Gladiators.
- He donated $12 million to Houghton College, for a new multi-sport complex.
- He has been in “serious discussions” with Canisius College to help build an on-campus events center. As Bucky Gleason of the Buffalo News reported, “It would serve as a home for Canisius and the Buffalo Junior Sabres, a practice rink for the Sabres and be available to youth teams. There’s talk it could also become a basketball venue and a place for graduation ceremonies that are now held at UB.”
For all of our problems here in the Queen City, we have a lot to cherish. And for much of the bullet points stated above, it’s not only about the Sabres winning a hockey game (or three).
Even with all of his largesses, Pegula did not create “Hockey Heaven.” It was here all along. He sure has made us feel it a heckuva lot more, but even now, despite all the injuries and the losses to his team, despite the frustration, “Hockey Heaven” continues to flourish:
Amazing are our hockey fans.
In Buffalo, that video sums up our feelings right now. Our experience with this team, this game, and this culture, is something to celebrate. Something to love. No slump can ever make that go away. Even in the worst of times, it’s too good to let go. Our arguments over what to do about – or what to do to the Sabres to get them back on track simply translate to a “clarion call” of our own: we are extraordinarily passionate about our Sabres, and about the game and culture of all things hockey.
As losses mount, we’ll still put up our Christmas lights, lace up our skates, and pray for freezing temperatures so that our backyard rinks are ready for a game.
I’ll still put up my Sabres GIFs and BINGO posts.
One of Pegula’s mantras is to never get too high after a win, and never get too low after a loss. Right now, we’re all feeling more than a little low over what is happening to the boys in Blue and Gold. There’s been a lot of vitriol, a lot of venom, a lot of hate.
But hate is just love disappointed.
Take heart, folks.
And of course, Go Sabres.