One of the great things about growing up in Toronto is that you develop a kinship with the good people of Buffalo.
Some of us were raised on broadcast legend Irv Weinstein, and kids’ entertainer Commander Tom, and whenever the opportunity came to visit Buffalo, we jumped at chance, because Buffalonians were unfailingly kind and generous. And we also were stoked to go to Bills or Sabres games; quite often, they were better than Toronto’s teams, and it was terrific to see a blue-collar town’s love affair with its teams.
Unfortunately, in recent memory, Buffalo’s teams have always had a fatal flaw. The Bills could make the NFL’s Super Bowl Final, but never could close out a series win at that level. The Sabres clawed and scratched their way to the Stanley Cup Final in 1999, but they lost to the Dallas Stars on a play that still pains and anger Sabres fans. And now, more than 22 years later, the Bills have been on the rise - although their extra-time loss to the Kansas City Chiefs last weekend was an all-time heartbreaker.
So, who does Buffalo turn to now? Waiting for the NFL to return gives Buffalo citizens more than enough time to discuss a sports curse that has some fairly convincing material. But they certainly can’t look to the Sabres for inspiration just yet. Because, though the rebuilding Sabres began the season by shocking the NHL with a 5-1-1 record, they have quickly fallen back to reality, going 8-21-6. That has put them in sixth place in the Atlantic Division, ahead of the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens. But there is no pride for a sixth-place finish. This team has many holes, and they’re not going to be easily filled.
Some good news is on the horizon – the Jack Eichel saga has come to an end, and the Sabres have young elite talents including defensemen Rasmus Dahlin and No. 1 overall draft pick Owen Power, as well as forwards Jack Quinn, Dylan Cozens and Tage Thompson. But their goaltending is a sinkhole, and it has driven current goalie Aaron Dell to lash out at Ottawa forward Drake Batherson and injure him, a decision that almost certainly is going to result in a suspension for Dell. When your goalies are starting to lose it, and there’s still half of the regular season yet to play, you know things are not going well.
Once again, the Sabres will not make the playoffs this year. That will make it 11 consecutive seasons without a playoff game for them. That is brutal. That weighs heavy on their devoted fan base. That takes a psychic toll very few NHL cities ever experience.
There may be light at the tunnel’s end for Buffalo, but at the moment, you can barely make it out. And you want there to be a revival for the Sabres, if only to reward their fans for sticking by such an inept operation. But it won’t come easy, and it won’t come soon. Riding out this lost season seems so familiar because it is. Buffalo needs time and space to evolve, and that process is going to take a couple more years. Patience is a virtue, and Sabres fans have to have had a ton of it to get to this point. They need a little more now, in the hope their favorite team finally turns the corner and becomes a Cup threat.
Is it possible they can contend for a playoff spot next season? but ask yourself - which of the top four Atlantic teams are going to drop off and open up a playoff spot. The Tampa Bay Lightning? Nope. The Florida Panthers? They’re just coming into their own. The Toronto Maple Leafs? They’re stacked with phenomenal young talents. The Boston Bruins? They may be old, but they still know how to win.
See what we’re getting at here? The Sabres have to unseat some excellent teams if they’re to get a chance at the Cup. If you examine their roster, they simply don’t have enough depth of true talent to contend for a championship.
In the end, we should all be a little nicer to Sabres fans, and Buffalonians in general. Losing hurts, but the spectacular way Buffalo’s teams fall apart puts them in a class of their own. Cosmically, Buffalo sports fans deserve a break. And if and when it comes, all the people who have grown to love the spirit of the city will celebrate.