A former member of NBC’s ‘The Office,’ Mary Wall had an idea for a documentary born out of her experience as a Sabres fan, the team’s 2006 playoff run and the fanbase’s belief in a team that has never won a championship. ‘The Fan Connection’ is told through the eyes of 16 fans, and hopes to show a different side of fandom if it can achieve it’s crowdfunding goal.
As the 2006 post-season approached, Mary Wall went on a nine-week hiatus from her position on the monster NBC sitcom The Office. Wall, who worked as an assistant to the executive producer on the show, grew up outside Buffalo, N.Y. and decided to head back home for the nine-week break. It just so happened that her trip back to Buffalo would coincide with one of the most memorable Sabres playoff runs in memory. “It was sort of the magical Cup run that came out of nowhere for the Sabres,” Wall said. “It was so unifying. Everywhere we went, everyone was talking about it. Everyone was best friends because of the Sabres run. You felt like you knew everyone in the city. In the grocery store line, in the parking lots, people were just nice and they’d let you in. It was fantastic.” The Sabres would fall short in the Eastern Conference final, losing a crushing seven-game series to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes, but the run by her hometown team planted a seed in Wall’s mind. The unification of Buffalonians was special, something she hadn’t witnessed while in Pittsburgh after a Steelers Super Bowl victory or in Los Angeles following a Lakers NBA title. The idea sat with Wall, though, and didn’t sprout into something bigger until 2011.
Billionaire businessman Terry Pegula bought the Sabres in February 2011, and he stated the
Sabres’ new “reason for existence” would be to bring the Stanley Cup to a championship-starved city. That’s when Wall knew her idea was a film — a documentary about people who remained hopeful in a city that had always seemed hopeless. Wall realized that in order for the documentary to work, it had to be about more than just the Sabres. It had to be about the fans who had endured so much in the way of heartbreaking defeat. And it had to be about the fans in Buffalo, who had watched that defeat claim victories on the grandest stage, a history few other cities can share. “(Buffalo has) had really spectacular losses when you think about four-straight Super Bowls and the wide right that kicked it off and the Sabres in the 1999 playoffs with (Brett Hull’s) ‘No Goal,’ ” Wall said. “Buffalo has a history of losing spectacularly.” The idea wasn’t to tell the story of the team and the city, though. It was to show how it felt to be a Buffalonian and a Sabres fan during these difficult times. It was to show what fandom can mean and what fandom means through the eyes of the fans who feel the wins and losses most. So Wall went out and sifted through roughly 170 potential cast members before finding her 16 subjects, who ranged from a mother and daughter cheering on the Sabres to a recently graduated opera singer chasing his dream. Through the casting process she also scored a right-hand man, Eric Wojtanik, who spent the first two years as an intern before coming on as the documentary’s producer.
Wall went on to shoot weddings, watched as subjects fell in love or even learned how to drive for the first time in their lives all while cheering on the Sabres. She even got the unexpected, like casting an 89-year-old woman whose husband and granddaughter added something special to the documentary. “Frances, once you get to her and her husband, I really loved getting to show a love story of over 70 years,” Wall said. “To really get to show a couple who has been through an entire lifetime together is special — the way they treat each other and how deeply they love each other and how tied for them it is to the Sabres, really.” But Frances’ story was one of many. Wall and Wojtanik said they spent time with emotional fans, statistical fans and, best of all, the superstitious fans, such as Dan, who gathered with four generations of his family to watch all 82 games at his grandmother’s house. “They warned us when we were filming there that if the Sabres were doing well for a period we would not be able to leave where we were filming,” Wall said. “Like, we couldn’t change our angle. They had made people stay in the bathroom for the entire game if the Sabres scored while someone was in there.” And even with Pegula’s promise to bring the Stanley Cup to Buffalo falling flat more than four years since he took the reins, fans have stayed true to the Sabres. They haven’t been let down, at least not yet. “I think it’s Buffalo,” Wall said. “People just took it in stride. ‘Eh. It was a big promise, we’re OK, we’ll still get there. We’re making these moves and we’ve got Jack Eichel and we made all these trades.’ It’s kind of the whole onus of the story. People who, no matter how much you get battered down, there’s a new day around the corner and you can always have hope for that.” Maybe no one put it better than Jim, the opera singer, who said that this time the fans have a real reason to be hopeful, “not like regular Buffalo hope.” Now Wall and Wojtanik their own hope:
meeting the $96,500 Kickstarter goal that will help the duo finish the project and get it released. But with five days remaining they’re less than half way to reaching the fundraising goal. Combined, the duo said more than 10,000 hours have gone into the film, and that’s not to mention more than $70,000 of their own hard-earned money behind the project. Wall and Wojtanik are confident, though, and in true Buffalonian spirit aren’t going to give up no matter if the funding falls through or what hardship hits them. “One way or another the movie is going to get done,” Wojtanik said. “We’re not going to give up on it, we’re not going to quit. Whether it’s one year of five-plus years, one day this movie will get done and we look forward to sharing it with people when it is.”