Finding the “Why” in Buffalo Sabres
Finding the “Why” in Buffalo Sabres
I live just north of Edmonton, Alberta. And right about now...with hockey starting up again, and fans getting excited...I find myself questioning why I cheer for the team I do? Why do I put myself through this misery? In fact I get asked all the time...why the Sabres?
No championships to boast of. Not even a sniff of the playoffs in the last nine years. So why stick with a team that resides over 3500 km away when I live in the backyard of a team with two of the most exciting players in hockey?
Well...for what it’s worth...here it is.
August 9, 1988. June 1, 1992. August 7, 1992.
I can trace my Sabres fandom back to events that took place on those three dates..
I grew up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Right in the heart of the Canadian prairies. A place where two things dominate the conversation. Saskatchewan Roughriders football. And hockey.
Hockey is everywhere...all the time. Every single elementary school has an outdoor rink. Iced in the winter, with lights that turned on at dusk, and shut off at 11 pm. Most are paved and so the games continue into the summer with a ball instead of a puck. We played hockey on the street. On the grass. On the trampoline. On our knees in the basement with mini-sticks. On our video game systems. On sheets of plywood divided into three zones with two by fours that had rectangular holes cut out big enough for the wooden puck to pass through when pushed by our broomstick handle “hockey sticks”.
Hockey was everywhere.
The difference in a place like Saskatchewan, where there was no professional team for the province to get behind, was when you went to...say...an outdoor rink...you were met by a kaleidoscope of colors.
On any given night you could see 10-20 different teams represented. And the reason for those teams being chosen varied. Many were original six teams...whose allegiances were passed down from father to son or daughter. A lot chose to jump on board with recent Stanley Cup winners. The Oilers, Jets and Flames were heavily favored due to their close proximity. You could also be sure to spot a few fresh new expansion team jerseys amongst the mix.
The Buffalo Sabres...they were nowhere to be found. In fact, I knew but one Sabres fan my entire life of living in Saskatoon. A guy from my school’s dad. And I remember thinking at the time that this was an incredibly weird choice. They were a middling team at the time, led by Dave Andreychuk. Not exactly must see tv for a kid used to seeing the high-flying Oilers and Flames dominate the weekly Hockey Night in Canada feeds.
August 9, 1988
Myself, from as early as I can remember, I was an Oilers fan. Or so I thought. That all changed in the summer of ‘88, when I turned my tv on to see number 99 crying in front of a mass of microphones. My nine-year old eyes couldn’t believe what I was seeing. My nine-year old brain couldn’t comprehend. I remember telling my mom that this couldn’t actually be happening. You can’t trade the greatest player hockey has ever known.
But...turns out there were 15 million reasons why you could.
When I returned to school that fall I was still donning my Oilers cap. But inside I was reeling. I didn’t particularly like Mark Messier, and I was still very bitter about Wayne’s departure. But I wasn’t a quitter. I wanted to remain loyal.
Not even two weeks into the season I exchanged the orange and blue cap for a slick black and silver corduroy LA Kings hat. The Oilers weren’t the same without Gretzky. I was a Gretzky fan. Screw loyalty.
But the damage had been done. I had been exposed to the business side of hockey. I now realized that fans are the ONLY part of the equation in which it’s ALL about winning the Stanley Cup. For everyone else, there’s the money side.
I cheered for the Kings...but it wasn’t the same. I wasn’t sold on being a Kings fan. I was there by default, having been surprised by the trade of my favorite player. But I wasn’t “all in”. Let’s just say I was keeping my options open.
June 1, 1992
It was the spring of ‘92. Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Chicago Blackhawks. Ed Belfour started in goal for the ‘Hawks but was yanked barely 6 minutes in after surrendering two relatively soft goals. The man who replaced him...I had never seen or heard of. He had this funny-looking mask...but I remember thinking it was actually kinda cool. Different. He definitely stood out.
The series was all but over.. The Penguins had a strangle-hold on the Cup, up 3-0. Although all three previous games had been close...no one comes back from down three games to none, especially against a team that could roll out the firepower that the Pens could.
But this strange looking goalie...he didn’t seem to care. And even though he ended up surrendering 4 goals on just 25 shots and losing 6-5...his performance that night left me in awe. He played in a way I had never witnessed before. He stood up to those hockey giants, the Lemiuex’s, the Jagrs, the Francis’ and at times left them dumbfounded…
On one play, Mario “the magnificent”, came barrelling down the center of the ice on a breakaway. Hasek started to lean to his right...appearing to leave the center of the net wide open. As he fell, Lemieux bit, firing a wrist shot in the seemingly vacated portion of the net...only to have Hasek’s trailing glove hand snatch away the goal.
Another play, yet again, saw Lemieux get in alone. His forehand-backhand move, that normally, with his incredible reach, all but guaranteed a goal...was stymied by Hasek’s patented reaching back pad-to-post toe save.
We were also introduced to another Hasek gem...the diving pokecheck on an unsuspecting forward...at the blueline. Victim? 54-goal scorer, Keven Stevens.
I fell in love with Dominik Hasek that night. But at the time, it was a forbidden love...I could not cheer for the ‘Hawks. One of my friends at the time was a ‘Hawks fan and he would never let me live that one down.
August 7, 1992
But thankfully, I wouldn’t have to. Because in August of that year, in what has to now be considered one of the most lopsided trades in NHL history, the Blackhawks shipped Hasek off to Buffalo for goaltender Stephane Beauregard and future considerations.
That next year, I hate to admit, I was living two lives. I still held on to my West Coast relationship. But things were heating up out east with the Sabres. It didn’t help that Gretzky was out of the Kings’ lineup for an extended period of time. Or that the Sabres hadn’t committed to Hasek yet, as he was part of a three-headed tandem with Grant Fuhr and Darren Puppa. I was in a “wait and see” holding pattern.
The playoffs added even more confusion. The Kings managed to make it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals before bowing out in 5 to the Habs. Gretzky was amazing.
Over in Buffalo, Hasek manned the bench behind Fuhr for all but 45 minutes. His chance finally came when, up three games to none versus the Bruins in the opening round, the Sabres found themselves trailing 4-2 heading into the first intermission. With Fuhr turning aside just 8 shots on 12 attempts, it was time to see what Dom could do.
It didn’t look good early. Just 2:13 into the second, Dave Poulin buried a shorthanded marker, extending the Bruins lead to 5-2. But that was all they would get. Hasek shut the door from there on out, making 23 of 24 saves enroute to a 6-5 overtime series-clinching victory.
Hasek wouldn’t see the net again that spring, as the Sabres dropped four straight 4-3 decisions (including three in overtime) in round two to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Montreal Canadiens.
But, I could feel my allegiances shifting. While the momentum shift over a few centimeters (illegal curve call on Marty McSorley) may have been the difference between the Kings winning or losing the Stanley Cup...it had the feel of a team who gave it all, had a lot of things fall their way, but ultimately came up short. I didn’t think they’d be able to pull off a Cinderella season like that again. Which turned out to be true. They would miss the playoffs for the next four seasons.
The Sabres on the other hand, were frustrating me with how slow they were clueing into Hasek’s greatness.
But that was about to change.
And so to...did my allegiances.
In November of 1993, at the bottom of the stairs in the back of my high school English hallway, with Hasek firmly entrenched as the Sabres starting goalie, I announced to my two closest friends that I was now a Buffalo Sabres fan...for life.
Hasek had won me over. The fact that this was a team no one else I knew was rooting for. The fact they had never won a cup. The fact his mask was funny and he was labelled “unorthodox”. I was a sucker for underdogs. I was a sucker for an against-the-odds story.
In the 27 years since, there have been a lot of ups and downs. The Hasek years were amazing. The mid-2000’s were thrilling. Years of mediocrity followed, eventually giving way to despair. But I would not trade it for anything...well maybe $15 million.
I am so glad I tuned in that Monday night in June of 1992. And if it takes a lifetime to finally see them hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup...or even if they never do. I don’t care. I chose them.
‘Til death do us part...