In a discussion with a GM recently, this is how he described Connor McDavid: “When you draft a guy, you hope that maybe someday he’s going to be an all-star. You look at this guy and you’re thinking Hall of Fame.”
This is not some crazed fan or a yahoo who calls into sports talk radio. This is a person who makes player personnel decisions for a living and has seen thousands of prospects over the years. And he’s bang-on in his assessment.
That’s why fans of the Buffalo Sabres were cheering Thursday night every time the Arizona Coyotes scored a goal. It’s why the First Niagara Center went into a frenzy when Sam Gagner scored in overtime to move the Coyotes six points ahead of the Sabres in the race for last place. The only thing louder than the cheer was the clucking of tongues and the admonishments of the Buffalo fans for their despicable behavior. Sabres defenseman Mike Weber almost got emotional after the game, talking about how “frustrating” it is to have the fans root-root-root for the road team in their building.
You want frustrating? Try being a Sabres fan this season. They were not the ones who engineered this debacle. They’re not the ones who made all the player personnel mistakes that led them to this. They’re not the ones who systematically dismantled this team and broke it down to one that resembles an American League outfit. These are the same fans who have never taken part in a Stanley Cup parade, haven’t seen their team win a playoff round in almost eight years, saw their hopes of a Stanley Cup thwarted by an overtime goal that should not have counted, once watched their owner taken away in handcuffs, endured having the team go into bankruptcy and sat helplessly by as management allowed stars such as Dany Briere and Chris Drury walk away at the apex of their talents.
Perhaps the Sabres players would be happier if all those people who cheered the result against Arizona stayed home instead. By my estimation, that would have left the rink about half empty. This is a fan base that has stood by this team through every trial and tribulation. Although a couple thousand people didn’t bother to come to last night’s game, the attendance was listed as 19,070, which means every ticket in the building was bought and paid for. Perhaps the Sabres should be thankful their fans are astute enough to what’s at stake here and for caring about it so much. You can bet there are a good number of Arizona Coyotes fans who don’t even know or care who McDavid or Jack Eichel are.
And those fans have the right to express themselves as long as it remains within the bounds of good taste. Hey, here’s a thought. If you don’t want your fans to cheer for your demise, perhaps you shouldn’t feed them the garbage the Sabres have fed their fans for the past three seasons. Perhaps if the team had given these people, something, anything to cheer about from a positive standpoint, they wouldn’t be excited about them losing to the 29th place team late in the season.
And the bottom line is these fans are not cheering against the Sabres. They’re cheering for them. Most of them with two eyes in their heads can see that the Sabres, on the ice at least, are giving nothing short of maximum effort and have no interest in tanking the season. They’re just a very bad hockey team, even when they try their best. Or as Sabres coach Ted Nolan put it: “If you’re not good enough to win hockey games, you’re not good enough to win hockey games.”
And then, of course, there are the extenuating circumstances. Having watched both players play, I’m not sure there’s all that much to choose between McDavid and Eichel and we already know of one GM who’s predicting a Hall of Fame career. You finish 29th in the NHL, you might not get either of them. You finish 30th and you have a 100 percent chance of getting one of them. And the NHL could have prevented this by imposing the lottery rules they’ll follow next season for this season, but it didn’t. The Sabres could have prevented this by not manipulating their roster for this very result. This is none of the fans’ doing.
Ask any of those fans who are cheering for the Sabres to lose and they’ll tell you they’d much rather be pounding the glass for a playoff run. But this season is an unmitigated disaster, a tire fire of biblical proportion. Nobody is pretending to frame this as any kind of achievement. They are simply making the best of what has become a terrible situation and the blame for that falls squarely on the management and players. The fans want the same thing the team wants, a better future. And if losing games down the stretch gives the Sabres the best chance at achieving that objective, cheer away, Buffalo. You’ve earned the right to do it.